Character Survival

Character Survival

A Lesson by Gabriel Strange

Some notes on developing character you can get behind.


The one thing everyone wants to do is survive it’s built into our genes we want to procreate and spread our genetic code to ensure survival. We are even programmed to protect that genetic code we have let loose on the world. So your characters have exactly the same imperative to survive and spread their genetic code.

However some of us are wired slightly different and survival isn’t always about spreading their genetic code it’s about immortality. Not some magic potion or pill, but being remembered for something wonderful.

There are many keys to a prosperous survival and one key is continued happiness or at least comfort. This isn’t always having everything go right, sometimes being unhappy but comfortable is the only option because the alternative is so abhorrent and unknown. People get comfortable with their lives and change even to something happier is not what they want as they are afraid they cannot survive in the world alone.

This is quite prevalent in drama where the wife cannot leave the abusive husband as the alterative is unknown and the wife’s continued survival in uncertain, which is why then need a friend or someone to help them through. The thought of going it alone in the world is so scary to them they will take the path of least resistance and go for the lesser of two evils. A character will seek survival however they will not step into the unknown alone so may sacrifice happiness for comfort or vice-versa.

It is important in a characters journey that they seek the option that is best for their continued survival no matter how bad it may seem it is the best they can get. A happy person isn’t always comfortable and a comfortable person isn’t always happy, if you take someone away from their comfort or happiness and they are in unknown territory with an unknown future.

It is an imperative that your characters aim for survival in their journey even if it isn’t the goal of their story. They will seek a way to ensure continued survival through the best path that is known to them at the time. Remember we do fear the unknown it’s is scary to all of us we won’t step into the unknown unless there is no other option, or we are delusional about what is out there. In Disney’s ‘Up’ Carl is delusional about his adventure, he doesn’t know what is really out there, but he has a dream that something is there and it is a happier more comfortable place.


Survival and immortality are linked we want to be remembered either through tales of great deeds or by our families and the propagation of progeny.

Immortality comes in many forms, take the Armageddon (Dir. Michael Bay) Bruce Willis’ character achieves immortality and ensures his genetic code is continued in the future. This is a rare case where the character achieves the best possible option for survival, the other option is to be wiped out along with the entire human race; it really isn’t an option in a story or for a sane character.

The desire for continuation is vital or you would end up with nothing but nihilistic characters that have no reason to do anything, though this might make an interesting art movie. The fight for survival doesn’t have to be what the story is about, but it can make for some good stories. Some of the best stories are fights for survival mostly because everything is at stake, if the character fails they will lose everything and in some cases the world they know will come to an end. Its high stakes which make the best edge of the seat stories.

In ‘The Knowing’ (Dir. Alex Proyas), the world does end and all of the main characters die, however survival is what this film is about the main characters letting their children be taken so they can seed a new human race thus ensuring survival. It is inferred this isn’t the first time and those that went before were immortalised so the best option has been taken the other option offers no survival.

Even in stories such as ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (Dir. Frank Darabont) survival is the key. Andy knows he cannot survive in prison under the rule of the warden so he holds on to the dream of hope. If he cannot escape hope is lost to him and the world he world he knows will forever be out of reach, in essence that world is destroyed. His only option for long term survival is to escape from the harm that may come to him from being in prison and to cling on to hope for his mental well being. Andy has to keep hope a real possibility, without this be in an unknown land. The world won’t explode here but the world of the character will be destroyed if he cannot escape, so his continued survival relies on him holding on to the hope of getting back on to a path he knows offers him the best chance of survial. He doesn’t get immortality, he only survives but the story is left so he has the option for immortality through progeny or being the only person to escape the prison.

Even if your character is a risk taker such as a daredevil, all those risks are calculated ones, there is minimal chance of failure or death. A suicidal character isn’t a fun one, a person befriending and saving someone taking them and guiding them through the unknown to show them how to survive and be happy can work very well, but that option has to be offered early on in the story.

Happiness is the Key to Survival

The fight for survival is key to every characters journey and the core of the drama is when that survival is thrown in to doubt. Immortality is a nice cherry on the cake it’s not always needed but it’s good to allow that possibility in future stories. A character that survives but won’t be remembered and cannot have children is a very sad individual, we may feel sorry for them but can we be happy if that is there only resolution. Their future kind of makes all the fighting worth it or everything was just a hollow selfish act.

Examine your characters motives beyond the story look at their options and make them feel alive, but also give them reasons to survive. The path to survival has to be clear the the character, not necessarily the audience.


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Added on September 1, 2012
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Gabriel Strange
Gabriel Strange

Cardiff, South Glamorgan, United Kingdom

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away I found myself huddled up in a Grebo community in the Midlands, here I started working in Publishing, well not really working more running around panicking as ..