In a terrible story I once read about the 2011 tsunami, a mother was forced to make a choice as she clung to a tree with her two children. She wasn’t strong enough to hold onto them both. She made her choice, and the elder was swept away before her eyes into the torrent of water. In those split seconds of life or death, we make our choices for survival. The elder was stronger, and would more likely survive on their own. As it turns out the child did survive. But at what cost?
That child, their sibling and their mother would have to deal with the choice that was made. The trauma of abandonment, survivor guilt, blame and anger that must go along with such a decision might be the consequence of what was ultimately the best survival tactic. Because survival is not just one tactic, it is the only tactic.
I’ve started studying the art of the murder-mystery for a new series of novels. In such books the plot is key. But although this might be true, the plot is driven by strong and compelling characters. What characteristics would prompt this person to commit murder? Rape? Kidnap? What circumstances would force this person to choose such a drastic path? Only because they believe it is the best path to their survival, or the survival of their loved ones (and their lineage).
My kids have been soaking up fairy tales – one of the latest is the disney retelling of Rapunzel where the lines of good and evil are strictly drawn.
Mother Gothel kidnaps Rapunzel, to access the magic rejuvenating power of her hair because the flower she originally used was taken to save the pregnant queen’s life, which meant Mother Gothel risked certain death (why the queen’s life was worth more than the life of an old woman in the forest, is a question that goes unanswered by Disney). The Queen gives birth to Rapunzel and the magic is transferred to the girl’s hair. Although Mother Gothel first tries to snip off the baby’s hair, she finds the cut hair is of no use to her. So she is forced to kidnap the baby, hair and all… or die. There is no room for ambiguity in the Disney tale. Mother Gothel is evil and deserves to die. But I wonder how strong our morality would be when faced with such a choice? If our youth and beauty was the thing we prized above all things and we found a way to get it. What lengths might we go to? News reports show us the truth every day.
My characters procreate, try to establish their superiority, try to dominate, try to protect themselves, their loved ones and the ways they believe are necessary… to survive. This theme is woven into every tale we tell.
Survival is our ultimate skill, our ultimate goal and our ultimate curse. It is the most powerful instinct we have. It can turn the meek into indiscriminate killers, acting out of fear. It can drive otherwise loving and rational folk to protect their religions at any cost. It can force those people who identify strongly with their social status, to corporate crime. To cover up crime with more crime. All you need to do is to pull the right triggers. So as I write my characters, I ask myself the ultimate questions; what is the most important thing in their lives? What would they kill to protect? And once I find that out, my characters tell their own story.