Character credibility in Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton’s 1991 blockbuster novel Jurassic Park is a great adventure story as well as a warning against corporate greed and the corruption of science.

My first contact with the novel came through the fantastic Audible edition. More recently, I read the hard copy. There are differences between the two – the physical book includes graphs and tables.

While I like the book a lot, there are character credibility problems I’ve seen in a number of my client manuscripts. I’ve written about the issue in a previous blog post which I’ll link to at the end. However, in the case of Jurassic Park, it seemed a particular and earlier section of the book that was impacted more than the rest.

Alan Grant – the palaeontologist

When we meet Grant, one of the main characters, he’s excavating an infant velociraptor. The skeleton is millions of years old.

Pound for pound, a velociraptor was the most rapacious dinosaur that ever lived. Although relativity small – about two hundred pounds, the size of a leopard – velociraptors were quick, intelligent, and vicious, able to attack with sharp jaws, powerful clawed forearms, and the devastating single claw on the floor.

Not all the ‘facts’ about dinosaurs in the book are correct and science always moves on. However, these animals will be the most dangerous predators in the book, even worse than the Tyrannosaurus rex.

Shortly after this, Grant gets a visit from the Environmental Protection Agency rep who wants to know about John Hammond and his mysterious island off the coast of Costa Rica. Grant doesn’t know what Hammond is up to, even though he wrote a paper for him on juvenile dinosaur behaviour and took calls from a colleague of Hammond’s on what dinosaurs eat.

Shortly after this, he receives an X-ray of an animal that attacked a little girl in Costa Rica. Grant identifies it as a small dinosaur. He and his colleague Ellie are shocked at this development.

Next he gets a phone call from Hammond, asking him to come to his mysterious island.

Lured by money, Grant and his palaeobotanist colleague Ellie agree. They receive a map showing military-level fortifications there, including high electrified fences and wide moats. It’s very far from anything expected in a resort.

On the flight to Costa Rica, Grant and Ellie are still not asking what’s going on, even as Ian Malcolm, the mathematician, says the island is doomed to fail and it’s an accident waiting to happen.

This ought to trigger a reaction from Grant. It doesn’t. He lacks curiosity and seems strangely passive for an expert on a mysterious mission to an island. He also doesn’t reflect on the fact a small dinosaur, previously thought extinct, has turned up on Costa Rica. He and Ellie should still be obsessing over this development.

Landing on Isla Nublar

When they land on the island, they see their first brontosaurus. There’s a herd of them. Naturally, Grant and Ellie are shocked, but also excited. However, neither asks if there are other dinosaurs. There is a sign that reads ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’ and still no one asks if there are other prehistoric animals.

This lack of curiosity from specialists doesn’t seem credible. Even an ordinary member of the public would immediately wonder what else is roaming the island.

Ellie is more interested in prehistoric plants that could prove dangerous to humans.

When Grant is shown to his room, he sees a TV with a card listing channels. None of the live feeds work. But with names like Triceratops Territory, Sauropod Swamp, Carnivore Country and Velociraptor Valley, Grant ought to react immediately. Instead, he finds the names irritatingly cute. Not exactly a credible reaction from a man who has studied dinosaurs all his life, never expecting to meet any.

He’s been working on a velociraptor dig. The chance to see them in the park should blow his socks off. But knowing how dangerous they are likely to be, he should also show concern.

He should be wondering exactly what species Hammond has brought back to life. Especially given the heavy fortifications shown on the park plans.

The only thing he does is look at the skylight and the windows, noticing that they’re fortified in ways that weren’t included in the plans he and Ellie saw. When Ellie appears, she agrees that these bars on the windows must be a new addition.

Think about it – they’ve worked on dinosaur digs, yet neither of them are reacting to the listed species above the television or drawing any connections between them and the high security. They don’t speculate. They don’t join the dots. They’re passive characters, except when there’s an opportunity to show their expert subject.

The author might sneak some dinosaur names to the reader, but while it’s possible to sneak information past a viewpoint character at times, this wouldn’t be a situation where that would work. Grant knows too much about the subject. His heart should have leapt at the channel list. He should have been full of questions.

A growing sense of trepidation should have crept up on him too – as he linked the live cam channel list to the fortified visitor quarters.

Likewise, when they go to the visitor centre, where an animatronic T-rex is on display, Grant, Ellie and Ian Malcolm don’t ask if there are any real T-rexes in the park.

Most ordinary people would ask this, possibly partly in excitement, but also fear, given the reputation of the species.

The visitors are told they’re there to check the safety of the park which opens next year. You would think at this point someone would step up and ask about any other species in the park, especially more dangerous predators. But no one does.

Crichton controls the narrative to such a degree that he essentially favours pushing the plot on in a way that sacrifices character credibility at this point.

A missed opportunity with Tim

When Hammond’s grandchildren turn up, they know nothing about the dinosaurs. The boy, Tim, is a dinosaur nut and recognises Grant. They talk about a museum exhibit of a T-rex with the wrong number of vertebrae. Grant says the museum probably won’t do anything about it now because of what’s happening on the island. Tim doesn’t know what he means and Grant says he’ll explain as they walk.

The first time I heard this part of the novel, on the Audible version, I expected to see Tim’s reaction. He’s a dinosaur nut. His grandfather is responsible for Jurassic Park. Tim and his sister are now on an island with dinosaurs. This ought to spin his world upside down. In an instant, his perception of the world around him should have changed. There should also be shock, disbelief, excitement, fear, and so on.

Instead, we get no reaction at all. The novel skips over it and the next we see of Tim is when they’re exploring the labs. He’s excited by the biohazard signs, but he’s not thinking about dinosaurs. He has already accepted there are dinosaurs here. Soon, he’s bored with the science talk and wants to see the dinosaurs.

But how many people would adjust to this new reality so quickly? Tim’s reactions don’t match someone who has ‘dinosaurs on the brain’. He would also likely wonder what species were in the park. He’d surely wonder if a famous species like T-rex was around.

The lab and control room

When Grant and the others reach the lab and hatchery, specific species are mentioned but no one reacts. Stegosaurus and Triceratops first, but then Wu mentions that the T-rex, though female, tends to be referred to as a male. Neither Grant nor anyone else reacts to the mention of the legendary carnivore.

To say this is odd or even incredible is an understatement. The very presence of an animal of this type should not only result in excitement and anticipation, even disbelief that they are finally going to see one for real, but also concern for the park. This is a resort. There will be visitors. No one is reacting appropriately.

Before they all reach the control room, someone (Malcolm) finally asks how many species there are in the park.

Again, it seems incredible that Grant never asked this, or even Tim. No one asks for a list.

Later in the control room, a list shows up in the computer, complete with the number of expected animals in each category, the number found by the motion sensors, and a version number for each animal – for example, 4.1. Instead of reacting to the list of extinct animals brought back to life and assessing what this means, Grant only wants to know about the batch numbers.

There are also issues relating to the first face-to-face meeting with the adult velociraptors. However, the point has been made. The characters are not acting like real people with a background in palaeontology.

Likely obstacles to credible character reactions

There are a number of reasons why the characters often don’t react in a credible way to a situation. Part of it is down to where Crichton wants to direct reader attention and when he wants to delay something to be revealed later.

The problem though is that in the real world such characters would be falling over themselves to ask questions. There would be overwhelming curiosity, a sense of urgency to know the truth. They would lack patience and would be more assertive in asking questions. This in turn would raise stakes and tension.

Info dumping is another issue which gets in the way of credible character reactions. Crichton uses his characters to impart a lot of information to other characters and the reader. These dialogue sections allow characters to sometimes give extensive information without much interruption. In the real world, impatience and interruption and people talking over one another would be more realistic.

The information dumping and the questions that lead to these dumps are also a distraction technique. If Malcolm, the mathematician, asks a question about something, it means the dinosaur revelations are delayed a bit further. On re-reading, this seemed like a deliberate choice on the author’s part. He used ‘look squirrel’ conversation topics to delay revelation and information.

Meanwhile, the viewpoint characters can often become little more than a detached camera at times. Deeper perspective might have forced more credible reactions.

There are also times when some of the characters retreat so much into the background that it’s easy to forget they’re there. If Malcolm and someone else are talking, it prevents Grant from asking what ought to be the more realistic questions about a dinosaur park.

Conclusion

In spite of all that, Jurassic Park is still a very entertaining novel. I only watched the film after my first contact with the book, so I preferred the book to the Spielberg film, partly because the film went into less detail. I still prefer the book in spite of any flaws it has. There are many great and memorable scenes and flashes of humour.

I’ve written before on character credibility issues and how one event/experience should really act as a domino that hits the next. A character should be impacted by previous experience or knowledge. You can read the relevant post at the link below:

Character credibility and the domino effect.

Looking for feedback on your characters?

If you’re looking for feedback on your manuscript – characters, plot, structure, etc – feel free to contact me at karen@indiecateditorial.com. You can also check out my services pages. Only the Opening Chapters Developmental Edit has a flat rate. Any other prices are a general guide.