Welcome back to our Writing Great Characters series! Let’s dig into the masterful characters of Lost and see what we—as writers—can learn from them.
It’s no coincidence that an award-winning show billed in many lists as ‘the greatest’ or ‘one of the best’ television series ever created, boasts some of the most memorable, iconic TV characters ever created. I’ve always believed that, in any medium, it is the characters which determine its success or failure. And Lost (no matter its polarizing finale) has a lot to offer us writers, about foreshadowing, atmosphere, interweaving plotlines, and recurring elements and motifs, but especially about character introductions and character development.
In this post let’s explore these literary successes through my (and IGN’s) favorite character, John Locke.
When writing a main character, whether it is the main or one of an ensemble cast of mains, you will do him or her justice only by taking the time to introduce him properly, uniquely, and memorably. If you introduce your character with these boons in mind, you will instantly create in your readers’ mind a connection, a sympathetic or intriguing bridge between character and viewer. Introduction, like a hook in your query letter, is key.
In LOST, so far as I see it, because he doesn’t talk in his first two brief appearances, John Locke has 3 introductory scenes. Put together, they create an impactful, memorable character introduction with minimal back-story and dialogue.
3 Fantastic Character Introductions:
- We first see Locke in the opening scenes when Jack is pulling a hobbled man out from under some plane wreckage and he asks Locke to help. This is a fairly innocuous scene, but it establishes early on that, unlike Charlie or Hurley or Kate of Shannon, Locke is helpful to the other survivors right off the bat. The fact that he is helping a hobbled man with the wheelchair in the background is also a clever foreshadowing—of course, we don’t know this at the time
- The second time we see him is when Kate is filching shoes from a corpse. She checks the size and then notices Locke watching her from off to the side. He smiles. It’s not a creepy smile, but an innocent, ‘hello there’ smile. It’s made memorable because, instead of showing his teeth, the writers decided to have him chewing on an orange. (This character is often shown eating the fruit of the island, a beautiful metaphor of Locke’s character enjoying and embracing his new home.) So when he smiles his mouth is filled with an orange peel, making him appear slightly odd to Kate—which of course, he is.
- The third and official introduction of this brilliant character is when the other survivors are discussing what they might eat, and suddenly a knife is flung, impaling a seat cushion inches from Sawyers’ face. The camera pans over to John Locke, who provides the answer everyone is seeking. If I’m not mistaken this represents the first answer offered in the series, and also the first time a character other than Jack takes initiative–and that’s an important theme. Locke tells them they will hunt, and then describes their quarry in detail. This does two things. (1) It establishes him as a hunter, a man who knows how to survive and keep a level head while everyone else panics and is ‘lost’. And (2) it shows that he is part of the group while also being distinct from everyone else—an important motif throughout the series.
And that, my dear fellow writers, is a brilliant way to introduce a character. If you aren’t able to let him fully own a scene first thing in your novel (as when you have a large cast), it might not be a bad idea to employ the John Locke introduction method.
Now that the Lost writers have established their award-winning character, they need to infuse him with personality and sympathy. They go to great lengths to build sympathy; with every flashback we feel more and more of it for poor John. Of course, you always have the contrary group, those folk who just have to view things in a different slant of light. These—rare—people view his flashbacks and decide they mean John Locke is a ‘pathetic loser idiot’.
But detractors aside, the quickest and most effective method for building character sympathy is to put them through the ringer.
When you abuse or otherwise make your characters suffer, most readers or viewers understand to some extent how that character must feel in that terrible unfortunate situation, and this creates sympathy. And that is what makes characters relatable—it also partially contributes to character likability, another key to writing successful fictional people.
Two more points on the character of John Locke before we close.
One thing we can learn from him is the power and magic of what I call ‘small moments’. Throughout the series and especially in the first season, the writers of Lost give Locke time to shine as a character through several beautiful little scenes with other characters. One involves whittling a tiny wooden whistle so that he can summon Vincent, Walt’s dog. Now this could easily have been a selfish gesture to manipulate Walt into liking him. But instead he uses it to appease Walt’s father, Michael, who has taken issue with Locke (much to everyone’s annoyance). Because he finds the dog and let’s Michael pretend he found Vincent, Michael is able to start building a relationship with his son. This is a selfless act. Though small and unconnected to the main plot, it serves as character building. There are many small moments like this one, but I’m just going to describe one other to help solidify the kind side of Locke, as it features in the final point of his nature.
When Claire was very pregnant and feeling useless and alone Locke asked for her help building something. They spent the day working together on the project. This served both to make Claire feel useful, and to help her forget about her condition and the fear of having a baby on the island. This was a beautiful character moment, and it added depth to Locke. It also served to create a cozy platonic bond between these two characters, a bond that would prove consequential to future seasons.
The 2nd point concerns Locke’s diverse nature
As writershelpingwriters points out, the greatest characters are often those who display complex, even contrary natures. WARNING: don’t make the amateur mistake of thinking contrary is the same as characters who simply change who they are from page to page as it suits the writer. Those characters that save a little old lady on one page and then turn around and gleefully slaughter innocents on the next (here’s looking at you, Eragon of the Inheritance Cycle!) are not faithful to their own nature. There needs to be a strong core and a set of personality guidelines to which your character faithfully adheres throughout the text.
At times Locke is gentle and kind, like when he makes Claire’s cradle or swaddles Aaron. Other times he is dangerous, frighteningly serious. Like that time he rehabs Charlie, or goes on his let’s-blow-up-everything-that-can-get-us-off-the-island tour. But always he is faithful to his core personality, which is that of a man who is glad to be where he is, but who will do whatever it takes to keep that from being taken away from him.
Throughout, he remains faithful to himself. Locke is always fiercely devoted to his core principles, and it is this devotion to what he wants and what he loves and what he fears losing that keeps him interesting
1 final writerly point: An underlying aspect of character that makes Locke so compelling and likable is his gratitude. Unlike all the other castaways (with the exception of Walt briefly) Locke is grateful to be on the island. He feels like he belongs there, and rejoices in his newfound position.
I posit that gratitude is an underutilized aspect in character development these days. You might do well to make your character grateful for some aspect of her life, some situation or circumstance or even apparent shortcoming. A grateful character is very easy to like.
There is much more depth to John Locke. If you wish to further explore his nature, his fight with fate and the mistakes he made on his way to finding himself during his ‘walkabout’ you can follow the link here to brightwall/darkroom’s post on him.
Thank you for reading; I trust you picked up something to put towards your writing! Next time perhaps we will explore the dynamics of complex villains through Benjamin (Henry Gale) Linus. Until then, God bless!