Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hero On the Hudson

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Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, is an American hero. After his plane struck a flock of ducks, which flew into the left engine and shut it down, Sullenberger still managed to safely land and evacuate all 150 passengers on the Hudson River.

How did he pull off such a feat? From all accounts, almost his entire life was spent in preparation. At age 15, he already flew a crop duster. Before he became a commercial pilot, in his Air Force days he flew F-4 Phantom II fighter planes and led war game exercises. Two years before the miracle landing, he started up a consulting firm, Safety Reliability Methods, to help insure the safety of commercial aviation.

When disaster struck, Sully knew exactly what to do and he did it. Another pilot may not have been as prepared. We'll never know.

Now let's pretend Sullenberger is a fictional hero in your book. As such, you can't just play out the bird strike and show how he handled it. Readers would find it hard to believe he could have been so lucky to pull off such a feat.

On the other hand, if you wove bits and pieces of Sullenberger's backstory in strategic spots in your novel, when the bird strike occurs and the Hero on the Hudson rises to the occasion, your readers will get that "Aha" moment. They'll immediately understand how he could have done it and be satisfied with the result.

To recap, be sure to lay groundwork in your novel to make your hero or heroine's actions more believable. Can you think of instances or examples where authors have done a good or bad job at this? Please share.

Morgan Mandel



  1. As beginning writers, we are often taught to cut out the backstory, but you are right... it's such an integral part of of their personality that the characters are barren without it. It's finding that happy middle that's so darned hard.

  2. The first example that pops to mind is JD Robb. Her characters in the In Death series have such troubled pasts, but they formed the characters into something stronger...and in a lot of ways, more realistic. Even though they may be set into the future, you can relate on some level.

    I find it hard to do that without having an 'info' dump. It is a fine balancing act-one which I am still working on.


  3. It really is a balancing act. Small things, little bits of personality and actions, peppered into the story.

    You could also say that Sullenberger's story is an example of how a writer should develop -- learning new techniques, practicing the craft, exercising the writing muscles, constantly perfecting the skills.

  4. In "Angels and Demons" where the hero falls out of a helicopter and survives. That's one author off of my list.


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