Character dynamics: What I learned from The Walking Dead and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Walking deadMy son has finally managed to get me to watch The Walking Dead.  I’m not quite ready to admit that I’m hooked but if I ever make that claim, I’ll say it is for the writing.  I know that different people write different episodes but at least one of them has done their homework on how groups of people under stress interact.

At one point, the main party is trying to decide what to do with a captive.  They rescued him from zombies but only after he had taken a shot at several of them.

Logically, there should have been several choices and, as with any big choice, there are pluses and minuses with each.

  • Make him part of the group.  Pluses:  Survival means having people who can fight.  Minuses:  Not sure how trustworthy he is.
  • Toss him out.  Pluses:  Not sure how trustworthy he is.  Minuses:  He was part of a huge hostile group that he could always lead back to the main characters.
  • Execute him.  Pluses:  No more worries.  Minuses:  Ethics.

This kind of decision is huge and huge decisions take time.  Not surprisingly, the first character who argued for execution also pushed for a quick decision.  As other characters tried to bring up the other choices, he would shout them down and bring it back to his choice.  Again and again.  Soon other characters were doing the same thing, again and again bringing it back to this choice.  Those wanting to show him mercy quickly figure out that there only hope is to draw this out.

This is exactly how it works in a group facing a big, awful choice.  I’m writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis.   When Kennedy and his advisors were debating how to respond to the presence of missiles in Cuba, the military men all wanted war.  Nuke ’em and nuke ’em now!   The politicians were way on the other end.  Let’s give ’em a stern warning.  Kennedy was in the middle.  He knew a warning wasn’t enough but also knew how hard it would be to avoid war.  Yet, it got to the point that ideas other than war were rapidly silenced as the group circled back to that time and time again.  The need to make a decision, pressed them forward.  If you want to read more about this, look for David Gibson’s “Decisions at the Brink” in Nature, July 5, 2012.

What big decisions are the characters in your book facing?  If you have a group, do they spend equal time mulling over each option?  If so, you might want to create a tenser, more psychologically accurate situation.


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