At the first blast of the sawed-off shotgun…

Is he an idiot? How old is he? Does he talk like a farmhand or an Oxford grad? Where did he grow up? What does he do now?

Characterisation is the sum of all observable qualities of a human being” says Robert McKee in Story. It is “all aspects of humanity we could know by taking notes on someone day in and day out.”

This is not character.

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure—the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.”

“Character is fate” said Heraclitus. Choice reveals character.

This distinction is important in storytelling. The contradiction between someone’s characterisation and the character they exhibit by the choices they make is one of the key tools of narrative disciplines. It is also important in reality.

One of the many things that stood out for me in Marable’s book about Malcolm X was his security detail. When Malcolm broke from the Nation of Islam, he was hounded. He was intimidated. The Nation operated like a gang. They assaulted his associates. They tried to run him off the road. They called his home every five minutes and offered unerring silence and death threats. They firebombed his house, whilst he, his wife Betty, and his kids were asleep.

Malcolm’s security staff had a tough job.

When Malcolm was assassinated, do you know what his guards did? Do you know how these people whose job it was to protect him reacted? At the first blast of the sawed-off shotgun they hit the deck. And stayed there.

I’m not condemning this. It takes an incredible amount of conditioning, training and courage to overcome this instinctive self-preservation. But it reminded me of the distinction between character and characterisation.

Here we have people charged with protecting someone from attack. Yet, when the pressure comes and the situation escalates, they hit the floor in exactly the same way as everyone else. “No matter what they say, no matter how they comport themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure” says McKee.

James Stockdale, in his Trial by Fire speech, explains what “a crisis leader” is.

“I’m not talking about our “nominal” leaders who may look the part, who say the right things, who indeed may be the right people in calm waters. I’m talking about the leaders who, to use Melville’s phrase, “in time of peril” come out of nowhere to control the flow of events: the businessman who rises to the top to keep a company afloat during a depression; the warrior who takes command of a decimated battalion, rallies its spirit, and makes it whole again; the mayor who gets the bankrupt city back on its feet.

Frequently, these are not the people the public was acclaiming before the fire started. These are the natural leaders to whom others instinctively turn in times of crisis, who become the leaders through trial by fire.”

Characterisation is not character. We can never know someone truly until we’ve seen them exposed to hurt, to harm, to misfortune, to challenge. We must ask, when under fire, do they show courage or cowardice?

By witnessing their response, we are given a chance to learn about them.