How watching Survivor can make your writing better…

Posted on Dec 30, 2011 in #writing | 2 comments

If you’re looking for character motivation, it doesn’t get any better than Survivor, whether it’s for villains or heroes writ large or small..
Just watch.
Case in point, this last season.
If you ever want to know how cult leaders, Adolph Hitler or even the kids in the high school clique operate, just watch Coach.
Talk about a cult of personality. For forty days the charismatic sonofagun successfully managed to get his people to do anything he wanted even as he convinced them that Ozzie (another character) was the enemy.
Not one of them seemed to realize that the biggest obstacle to winning a million dollars was… Coach.
It went right down to the wire. Top three. The only thing Coach forgot was the people he was loading onto the jury.
It’s basic human nature on a small, intimate scale. Want to know why the good guys don’t win? Watch Survivor where the ‘good’ guys have only won once or twice – and usually by default. Although Ozzie played a cleaner, more honest game – actually sacrificing himself at one point in a very dramatic, and silly, move – it was Coach’s personal portrayal of himself as a ‘Christian man’ that kept him alive, no matter how many principles and people he sacrificed to accomplish it.
Want a petty character who’ll do anything to win/succeed/triumph, then watch Jon a few seasons back – who told everyone his grandmother had died just to gain votes. (His grandmother was very much alive.)
I remember one season where all the attention was on the two ‘big guys’, the muscle men, one of whom everyone liked and rightfully so. It came down to a contest of strength and endurance, loading bags of sand onto the contestants. Everyone expected it to come down to those two.
But it didn’t.
With quiet dignity and true courage, it was an attorney from Chicago who won, bearing up beneath the ever increasing bags of sand as both the big men fell by the wayside. Although he stood up for his team, no one noticed.
Even afterward the focus was on the two big guys failing, especially the  popular one, and not the one who’d won the contest. He was voted off shortly later for being an ineffective leader, which he wasn’t. He just couldn’t overcome the cult of personality, the focus the network and the host had on another character. It’s one of the realities of life, the unsung hero.
BTW, he became the love interest in one of my novels. No, I’m not telling which one, you’ll have to read them and guess. The one that gets the answer right gets the series of their choice, free. (It’s an easy bet that most of you won’t get it right.)
Seriously, though, if you want to understand motivation, character and how people can justify even the most heinous actions, just watch Survivor. After a while, you’ll get it.
Even watching host Jeff Probst in action as he asks the questions at each tribal council is an education in and of itself. In a few moments he skillfully picks apart the fragile bonds between the tribe members, or exposes one person’s machinations against the others.
Or not.
Although I understood the basic motivation of the characters in my current work in progress, especially the villain, a part of me that struggled with it. I’m not a follower by nature so I had trouble understanding how even basically good people could follow someone like him. Until I watched one of the people in the current Survivor.
Then I got it.
There’s an intrinsic human need to be liked that could be easily perverted, and was.
Survivor is a fascinating study in human nature. I can’t wait until next season.

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