“The novel is the greatest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.”
~ D.H. LAWRENCE
There is a quality that those who serve, or have served, in the military know well. I’m sure that first responders and law enforcement professionals share it as well, but my experience is military, so that’s how I’ll approach it.
There are many, many days in military service on which you find yourself in a life-or-death situation. You don’t have to be under fire; violent weather, fires, and natural disasters all qualify. The unique feature of military service is that when you are eyeballs-deep in whatever catastrophe is breaking loose around you, if you take a second to look around, you’ll see a group of your closest friends, and they’re all still there, in the midst of the end of the world, and you know without question that they’ll risk their lives to save yours without a second thought, and that you’d do the same for them. When you work at Target or MacDonald’s, on the other hand, you may have friends among your coworkers, but how close are they?
Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of every stripe, whether they’re currently serving or have separated, even if they didn’t do well within the rigid structure of military life and got out at the earliest opportunity, know well this feeling of absolute loyalty, and miss it in their daily lives. Many people who work in retail, fast food, or Joe’s Tire Shop share this with their immediate family members, but if some jackass ran a stop sign, and you found yourself trapped in a burning car, how many of those on the sidewalk would risk their own safety to try to pull you out?
You can apply your own answer to that, and I assure you that those heroic individuals are out there, but you can’t identify them by the way they look, and you never know when they’re around. Probably best to stay out of accidents. But this web site is about writing, so let’s apply this to your novel.
You have to know, first and foremost, who your characters are. This was decided when you made your character sheets (you did make your character sheets didn’t you?) and now, in order for the character to have an impact with the reader, he or she must act appropriately when they see that burning car upside down in the middle of the intersection. Is he going to leap into action? Of course, you want him to; he’s your hero, after all, and you don’t want to present him as a milquetoast, standing idly by while others suffer in agony. But sometimes the appropriate action for him to take is no action at all. If you want to study the background of behavior, this will get you started and suggest further reading, but in terms of characters, I am putting a lot of my chips into a study I read about last year (and can’t find now) in which university students were called to a waiting room, and once the whole group was seated, flipping through magazines and whatnot, the researchers began to pump in smoke, barely a trace at first, then increasing to the point where the room was visibly smokey, and they were coughing from it. In none of the study groups did anyone rise to ask questions about it, or pull the clearly visible fire alarm. Everyone waited for someone else to get excited, to take action, or to at least indicate that there was a problem, but no one ever did!
When I find that study again, I’ll share it here as a footnote, but consider the ramifications. If your hero is an ordinary man or woman on the street, think twice before you have him leaping into heroic actions at the drop of a hat. It’s rarer than we might wish. Of course, if your character is a cop, soldier, firefighter, or something similar, as many are, and the story is about his or her heroism, then by all means, have at it. But what we’re all working to instill in our readers is a suspension of disbelief, and if you have a coming of age story, or a romance about a bean counter finding true love, you might want to think twice before you turn this guy into Batman every time the stress level rises. It may come across as unrealistic, and no author wants that!
I’ve been studying the Craft of writing for sixty solid years now, and I know what readers want, every single one of them. Pay close attention now, because I’m going to share that great cosmic secret: The one thing, the holy grail, that every reader is seeking is immersion. He wants to forget that he’s reading at all, wants to live the life of your hero for the minutes, days, or weeks that he spends with your story, but he can’t do that if he is constantly wading through a swamp of typos, rereading every other scene because your use of language functions as a barrier between him and what you’re trying to convey, or is constantly befuddled by the unrealistic actions embraced by your characters. I relentlessly harp on maintaining the high quality of your characters, and here is why: If you are a fiction writer, you don’t tell the story, your characters do, and if your characters are acting out of character, your story is doomed. Take your time, get them right, then sit back and enjoy the rewards!