I’m a catastrophe tracker. For most of my adult life people I love and care about very deeply have been right in the middle of some of the worst, as victims and as rescue workers. In several cases, I’ve been right there with them, filling sand bags, working the field hospitals, and getting food to the needy. That’s part of my job, part of my friends’ jobs. The stories of heroes and villains become grayed during this kind of event. Human beings are dropped to their most vulnerable, their most basic instincts. It’s brutal, difficult to overcome, and (for some) unbearable to remember.
In the most horrific circumstances even the most despicable human being can be heroic. On the other side, the most heroic person can become despicable. When I read a book in which someone has suffered through a highly traumatic experience, I expect to see some scar from the event. It could be little. It might be amazing. It could have been life-altering. But it had better be there. Why else would this traumatic event have happened in the story in the first place?
For the hero turned despicable, how many times does he/she look in the mirror and remember how absolutely terrible they can be? For the despicable turned hero, how many times does he/she look in the mirror and remember what they could have been, what they’d become…
Makes for some interesting character development.
I tend to do terrible and horrible things to my characters. Tragedy tempers them so much and I just can’t seem to help myself.
A catastrophe in your story needs to be there for a reason. If the end of the world as you know it happened, but the characters continued on without any change in the way they lived, how they felt, or anything else…why did the world change in the first place?
Danielle Mietiv of the blog Brave Blue Words has a blog post on the top 10 extreme weather and climate events of 2010. A search of any one of those events will show you heroics and villainy. It will show how one village had to band together to fend off starvation while another group had to be transplanted to a safe zone…where they may never get to return. What would that do to your characters?
Map out the emotional and physical roller coaster of your catastrophic event. Did she lose her grandmother in a flood and now keeps her necklace on at all times in memory? Did he see and suffer under the reign of a city’s civil war and those who would take from victims under the fog of confusion. Is that why he chose to become the law or the vigilante? To keep it from happening again?
You might just find some little quirk about your character you didn’t even know.