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Crafting Characters: Stress Points Part 1

Deadlines and obstacles encourage some of your characters to push harder and some of them to fall apart. How your character reacts under stress is critical to any plot with tension.

Stress can be from a mild annoyance, such as delayed traffic. It can stem from a direct, perhaps mortal, threat.

Whether the stimulus is mild or monstrous, your characters react initially based on their natural tendency. Circumstances can force them to move past this innate response, but their initial reaction tends to be true to their nature.

SBB II introduced sixteen mannequins. Each character has a natural tendency to deal with things in a specific way. Natural tendencies can be shifted by life events from balanced to severely unbalanced.

Let's see how our character mannequins handle stress. Remember each mannequin has a male, female, androgynous, and transgender counterpart. I use he to avoid the plural they.

1. Wynn

Wynn is the responsible, practical type who thrives on order and plans. It doesn’t take much to upset his apple cart. His natural inclination is to withdraw and avoid conflict. He becomes rigid in the face of opposition or criticism. He shuts down and turns away. Getting him to face the threat will be a challenge. The motivation level needs to be high.

2. Francis

Francis is responsible, practical, and thrives on order and plans. He becomes controlling when anxious. He has no problem confronting other people and believes he is always right. He annoys some and infuriates others (ruining any chance he had of cooperation) when he takes over the efforts to solve the scene or overall story goal. However, less decisive characters might look up to Francis at a time of crisis, putting their faith in someone who at least has an idea.

3. Nevada

Nevada is responsible, practical, and thrives on order and plans. His natural inclination is to gather consensus and get people to cooperate. He becomes hypercritical and controlling when things don’t go his way and people refuse to work together. He irritates some of the people he attempts to corral while convincing them to do what he wants. The less they cooperate, the more livid Nevada grows. He’s trying to save you! Why won’t you listen? If the person doesn't want or need Nevada to save him, the conflict heats up.

4. Arden

Arden works hard and is a stand-up kind of guy. He likes being in control. He becomes hypercritical and controlling when stressed. The more he imposes his will, the harder others will resist him, which feeds the cycle. He will offer more criticism and impose more limitations. His method may be needed, but often is not appreciated.

5. Blair

Blair is responsible and practical, but highly emotional. His natural inclination is to become passive and withdrawn when anxious. Getting him out the door to take the necessary action requires a very seductive carrot, or a very large stick. He sneers and turns subversive in the face of opposition. His opponent may not know that Blair is actively working against him in the background.

6. Dallas

Dallas is fanciful and free-flowing. He hates being restricted and limited. His natural inclination is to become passive-aggressive when stressed. Rather than openly confront people, he hides in the shadows and conducts sneak attacks. He may present a very cooperative front while secretly undermining his foe.

7. Hadley 

Hadley is fun and freedom loving. He is practical but hates being limited in any way. He becomes excessively impulsive under pressure. His erratic nature makes him scatter when he needs to focus. He may get lucky and hit the target as he shoots up the room, or not.

8. Shelby 

Shelby is a live and let live kind of guy. He’s guarded. He becomes highly emotional and critical when stressed. He vents and rages. He finds it difficult to stay calm and work his way through the problem. He isn't looking for reassurance. He wants someone to agree with him. "Yes, it's awful. Now let's go do this." He may need someone to force him to focus on what needs to be done.

Next week, we will complete our exploration of how our mannequins react to stress.

For more about how to craft characters, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, available in paperback and E-book and Story Building Blocks: Build A Cast Workbook, available in paperback and E-book.