Recently, several of the Focus on the Family interns have been watching an old season of Survivor. Before I started it, my perception of Survivor was some island where people ate bugs and did obstacle courses and stuff, which didn’t seem like my kind of show.
So imagine my surprise when I started to really get into it. Yes, shouting at the TV, making predictions, dreaming that night that the interns went on Survivor and someone put scorpions in my sleeping bag . . . it was pretty bad.
I finally figured out why I love the show so much. Once you look past all the drama and manipulation and backstabbing and lying, it’s really just a strategy game.
Well, actually, if you look past the drama, manipulation, backstabbing, and lying, you miss most of the strategy. That’s because it isn’t a clinical kind of strategy game where you objectively move pawns based on set rules. You’re dealing with people, and people have emotions and personalities and complexity that a black-and-white chessboard doesn’t.
In Survivor, you would think it’s all very clear-cut. There is one goal: outlasting the other competitors to win a million dollars.
But so many things complicate that goal. And the contestants themselves do most of the complicating. That’s why reality TV works—because people are interested in other people, and this gives them a chance to see a group of real-life characters as they really are, playing a game with high stakes when they’re tired, hungry, and stuck in the middle of nowhere.
I’m pretty sure that most people who watch Survivor think, “I wonder what I would do in their place?” Who would I make alliances with? How good would I be at the challenges? Would I eat termites or not?
I’m a writer, so I’m not most people. I asked myself, “I wonder what my fictional character would do on that show?”
Which leads me to this blog post. Since Survivor is such a great study in human nature, it can apply easily to writing.
Let me show you what I mean. Take you character. Mentally, put them on a desert island with one goal. Then think about how they would accomplish that goal given the skill set and personality you’ve given them.
And, once that’s done, throw a bunch of other people on that island too. Put their goals in direct competition with your main character’s. And just let conflict happen (if you create “real” characters, conflict will happen, just like it does in real life).
When I first wrote this, I wasn’t thinking of the desert island as a literal desert island. It was a metaphor, an “insert-your-own-setting-here” kind of thing. Your “Survivor contestant” could be a New York socialite, a runaway twelve-year-old, a bootlegger in the Smoky Mountains with a three-legged pet raccoon—whatever. It was a way to give focus to the traditional story arc of goal-conflict/obstacles-climax-resolution.
But then I thought about it a little bit more. And, you know, it might be fun to actually picture your character in a reality TV show. It works as an exercise to understand how they think and make decisions. (Observing motivation and interactions between competitors is my favorite part of the show.)
Here are some categories you could go through:
Relationships: Mentally pit your protagonist against other characters. Who would grate on him the most, and why? Who would she be most and least likely to trust? How would others perceive her, and would that change over time?
Thought Process: How often would this person complain, and about what? How would what he said to the cameras alone be different from the image she presents to the group? What would the mix of strategy and emotion be when he decided which person to vote off?
Teamwork: What would it take for your character to step up as a leader? What role would she default to on a team? Would other people see her as an asset or a liability, and why?
Challenges: Would this person last longer if he knew his entire team was depending on him? How would he react to a string of defeats? Is he competitive? What would cause your character to give up and drop out before it was physically necessary?
Can you get some serious information from this to use in a story? Sure. But mostly, it’s just a fun exercise to get to know your main character.
(Sidenote: Because I hate hypocrisy, here’s a rationale for any of you who have heard me mercilessly mocking The Bachelor. For me, here’s the difference: The Bachelor tries to show people at their best as they play a game disguised as true love. Survivor shows people at their worst as they play a game disguised as . . . a game. I’m cynical about human nature and love a good strategy game. So there you have it.)