Character development is essential in good story telling. As readers, we want to be drawn into characters’ lives and forget our own for a time. To understand and recognise why they might react differently to any given situation compared to another character, just as we do in our lives. We want to feel close to them. We want to feel strongly for them, be it loving or loathing, even powerful ambivalence. Characters need their history to be felt, even if it’s never outlined in the narrative. They need to share believable relationships. Put simply, characters need substance. Authors may spend days, weeks, or even years fully developing their characters – history, relationships, appearance, personality, goals, and so on – on paper, using specialised software, or in the trusty recesses of their minds before and as they write. Though I would never dispute the importance of this process, recently it has come to my attention that a vital question must be posed and answered for any character design to be complete. A whole and honest answer to this question, while it does not provide total understanding, should give quite a thorough idea of any character.
The question is as follows: Would this character ever step on a duckling, and if yes, in what situation would they do so?
The discovery of this simple, comprehensive test of character occurred last night in Dubbo, New South Wales, as my mother, father, and myself partook of dinner in our motel’s restaurant. Conversation turned to the vicious protectiveness of parent ducks, and I mentioned how a duck-related experience similar to one of my own occurs in chapter two of my novel. It was soon suggested that when cornered by an overly protective duck, an acceptable course of action would be to step on one of its ducklings. And I believe my response was, “Eva would never step on a duckling.”
But wouldn’t she? That got me to thinking, and I spent much of the remainder of the evening trying to imagine if any of my characters would ever step on a duckling. Some of the results of that intense pondering are as follows: no, she’d think it cruel and unnecessary; maybe if one wandered under his foot – he wouldn’t notice; she loves everything and everyone, so the thought wouldn’t even occur to her even should she be at the mercy of an army of quacking soldiers; if he could exert more pressure on the ground maybe, but he probably couldn’t be bothered wasting the energy on something so unimportant; if he was hungry and one crossed his path, he’d squash it quick smart; if the duckling (or its angry parent) stood between him and someone he loved and there was no other conceivable way to rescue them, fluffy little feathers and blood would be coating his soles in seconds.
I asked this question after the fact, though as well as being an interesting/funny way to help solidify and sum up already-existing characters, I believe this duckling assessment could lend greatly to the initial character development process, and I intend to implement it in all my future projects. If nothing else, it might elicit a few laughs at a time when laughs could be appreciated.
And now – because on top of being potentially useful it’s just plain fun to pit characters against ducklings – the duckling assessment shall be applied to a small assortment of fictional characters. I’ll put where they’re from in brackets … just in case it’s needed. Disagree with my analysis? Challenge it in the comments – do you think that character would step on a duckling? Tell me about more characters and how they would react when confronted with fluffy young waterfowl, be they beloved by many or your own characters yet to be embraced. Through this, I’m sure we will all acquire much duck-related pleasure.
Would they step on a duckling?
Harry Potter (the Harry Potter series): not under normal circumstances – such an act he would consider ignoble – but if he was in the middle of one of his angsty rages he might take it out on the duckling instead of his friends for a change.
Gollum (The Lord of the Rings): since he’s more of a swimmer he probably wouldn’t literally step on one, but if there were no fish nearby he’d settle for raw, struggling duckling for dinner. That probably counts as stepping on one.
Rei Ayanami (Neon Genesis Evangelion): if she was ordered to, of course.
Gale Hawthorne (The Hunger Games): he’d step on it to lure out and catch its parents.
Stuart Redman (The Stand): even if he had to kill a duckling for whatever reason, he’d think stepping on it was a cruel way to go about it, and would choose a more humane manner of death.
Alanna of Trebond (Song of the Lioness Quartet): stepping on ducklings is not how a true noble behaves – even should one insult her, though she might shout at it a bit, perhaps challenge it to single-combat, and even might think about doing so, she would never actually step on it.
Caboose (Red vs. Blue): if he was trying to help the duckling, he’d probably step on it. Or shoot it.