Personal Tics – It’s the Little Things that Make a Character

Someone very kindly shared this picture with me. I admit, I hadn’t noticed the above similarity before, though I did notice Steve would hold his belt in an interesting manner on occasion. Having it pointed out that this is something Bucky would do and that Steve is imitating him, however, does make sense. Why?

It makes sense in two ways, both of them relating to writing. The first is that we imitate those people we know best to try and improve ourselves. You imitate your father or older brother when he cleans and lays out his tools because if it works for him, it must be a smart way to do such things. When your mother loads the washing machine, you follow her actions and repeat the process when she goes out and asks you to start a wash while she is gone.

Steve Rogers in the MCU never knew his father. If his father died in the trenches during World War I due to mustard gas, as is implied in his statement to the recruiter, then he did not come back in time for Steve’s birth and the two never met. This is very sad because neither father nor son ever touched.

What this means, from a character perspective, is that Steve lacked and desperately wanted a father-figure in his life. To some degree in The First Avenger*, he finds this in Dr. Abraham Erskine. It is one of the reasons he is angered by the older man’s murder. Apart from the sheer evil of the act, the doctor he has come to admire and consider a second father was killed before his eyes.

Of course, this leads to a question: with only his mother’s stories about his father and with Dr. Erskine entering his life when he was an adult, then during his childhood who did Steve model his behavior on? Even as a scrawny, ninety-pound weakling, no one could think Steve Rogers effeminate. He is very clearly a manly man – his body just cannot do what he wants it to do effectively. So where did he learn this? Who was his inspiration?

Bucky. Who else could it be? No one else, it is stated and implied, would give Steve the time of day. Only his best friend – who, in the MCU, is a year older (the actors are roughly the same age, though I think Evans is perhaps a few months older than Stan) – would stand beside him through thick and thin. “Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.”

Steve meant that literally and in more than one manner. When he had no friends, Bucky was there for him. He had no father, but he had a best friend close enough to be an adopted or “duct tape” older brother. Aside from his mother, he only had one person with a vested interest in his well-being, in who he was and could be.

That was always, always Bucky.

From this perspective, it makes perfect sense for Steve to imitate his big brother’s mannerisms when he wants to appear confident or put up a front of being more certain than he feels in a precarious situation. Although Steve never wavers when he stands by what he knows is right and wrong, acting on it is not easy, particularly if it is not clear where the traps which he might step on are placed. If he believes saying “That’s not right” will cost him a valued friend, such as Tony and the others in Civil War* when they are debating the Accords, he will indeed speak his mind. But he will also regret causing another person pain, particularly if it is someone whom he cares for in some manner.

Taking Bucky as his model means he relied on him as an example of not only confidence, but of masculine behavior and strength. Bucky’s gallantry, his sense of humor (where do you think Steve got that “Couldn’t call my ride” line despite never being on a successful date in his life and not knowing what fondue was?), his firm refusal to kowtow to a bully – it all rubbed off on Steve. While Rogers had plenty of virtue himself, the one whom he chose to imitate to show it to the rest of the world was Bucky Barnes.

None of this is to say that Steve doesn’t have his own way of doing things. As Bucky himself noted, Steve was “too dumb to run away from a fight.” That is, he was too stubborn to quit. Most others, when confronted, would have simply walked away to save their time and energy for more important things.

In that respect, Steve had a concurrent and opposite effect on Bucky. Where Rogers learned proper etiquette and gentlemanly behavior, not to mention the proper application of physical strength from Barnes, Bucky learned stubbornness and compassion from him. How else, after all, can we account for his surviving seventy years of hell at HYDRA’s hands? That kind of torture should have broken him if it didn’t kill him.

Furthermore, despite murdering on HYDRA’s behalf, one couldn’t call the Winter Soldier even in the comics a sadist. Cold and hard, certainly – cruel perhaps. At the very least, his actions appear cruel at first glance.

Yet when one considers the number of serial killers and assassins who take a disproportionate or downright erotic joy in committing their deeds, one can see even the Winter Soldier’s coldest actions as backhandedly compassionate. He can’t not kill for his handlers, but he can avoid drawing out his victims’ deaths and making them disgustingly painful. When he breaks Maria Stark’s neck, he does so quickly but without being rough or harsh. He also does the deed with his right hand; his human hand. The one he can feel through – and which he knows how to exert pressure through without snapping her head off or leaving her a bloody mess.

When he kills Howard Stark, he does use his metal fist. But Bucky holds his head up with his right hand. He looks him in the face. He pauses to hear his last words. Though he is brutal, he is not unkind. As Mary10000 noted in her Fullmetal Alchemist fanfic “Kindness”: “When you believe there is no hope and that all you have left to give is kindness, you can be very deadly.”

After decades of being held a prisoner with no hope of escape, the only thing the Winter Soldier had left to give his victims was a quick death. Mercy that HYDRA would never have given them, and the one part of his will that he could exert since he could not escape committing murder. At the very, very, very least, he could make his victim’s deaths quick and cause as little pain as possible while doing the deed.

I remember all of them,” he tells Tony Stark in Civil War. That, too, is kindness. That, too, is compassion. He could easily let their faces and words all blur together, if not out of antipathy, then out of a sheer desire to make them all dissolve into a mass of sound and fury he wouldn’t have to scrutinize too closely.

That, however, would be cowardly and unkind in the extreme. It would mean he considered them a mass of nothing and not people. To HYDRA they were never anything other than obstacles to be removed so that the cultish agency could achieve power.

Bucky knows that is not true. He could easily let the memories blur together to make the pain less but he chooses not to do so. Despite what it costs him, he chooses to remember the people he killed precisely because they are PEOPLE. Not obstacles. Not things. People with lives and families that he was forced to take them from far too soon and brutally.

That kindness was something he learned from Steve. Steve, who won’t budge when he sees something wrong (“When I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it”). The man “too dumb to run from a fight” who knows that the next time he has to put up his hands to do battle, it might be someone he cares about on the opposite side of those hands. Who has to square himself up to enter combat with most people because he recognizes them as people doing what they believe is right, and Steve can sympathize and empathize with most of his enemies even as he refuses to give way and let them take what they want.

Bucky learned that compassion and kindness, such as he could afford to give while the Winter Soldier, from Steve Rogers. He possessed the virtue but being with his best friend for so long meant he learned how to exercise it better. “As iron sharpens iron/So one person sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) It can never make the murders Bucky committed as the Winter Soldier good or erase the guilt he feels for committing them, though because he was given no choice in the matter, his guilt is much less than he feels.

But it does show that, beneath the programming and the horrors, Bucky Barnes clung to the lessons he learned from Steve. He refused to die – and he refused to become a monster. No matter what HYDRA took from or did to him, there was one thing he never, ever let them have because someone had taught him its immortal and eternal value through example.

He kept his soul. And he kept it because he had seen a ninety-pound weakling fight with nothing but his soul from the moment he met him. “As iron sharpens iron….”

Through their friendship, Bucky and Steve not only formed one another, they grew to be stronger and better individuals in their own right. So, future authors – which characters sharpen your heroes? Which villains make your antagonists nastier and harder to like? How, in effect, do the people in your stories affect each other and teach one another how to behave? What “little things” do they do that ripple outward and have a stronger effect on others than are visible at first glance?

Go back and watch the Captain America films or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. You might see some “little things” there that you hadn’t noticed before – little things that can help you figure out what your heroes and heroines learned from their friends and relatives, and how they applied those lessons to their own lives.

Can’t hurt to look, at least. 😉

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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Vol. 1* and Vol. 2* of her series – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!

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5 thoughts on “Personal Tics – It’s the Little Things that Make a Character

  1. My current main character in a long (not yet released) series has an older cousin in a somewhat similar manner.

    The story starts when the protag is 15 and the orphan heir to an empty wizard guild. He’s not a local, and he’s very young, but he is also unexpectedly stubborn — won’t back down — and very clever.

    The cousin is 20, remotely connected to the guild as a distant competitive heir, and part of a decaying noble line. He’s frustrated by his own situation, the protag’s claim is little better than his own, and when the protag offers to include him (delighted to find a relative of any kind), he refuses. Then he tries to conspire with corrupt powers to win the claim for himself and escape his own depressing life.

    Bad things happen in the first book. Betrayal, assault. In the near final fight, when the protag defeats the conspirators that were partly sicced on him by his cousin, the cousin (appalled by the violence he naively helped to unleash) joins the protag and helps him survive. The protag offers him the place he’d offered before, and they begin a reconciliation.

    Throughout the series, we will see the moral improvement of the cousin, as the protag keeps giving him more formal responsibility and suggest better approaches to problems, and the cousin (being older) gives him a social role model (romantic pursuits, etiquette, the ways/expectations of the nobility). They become more like brothers as the reconciliation takes hold. The cousin will always remember the cracks in his own behavior, and it will leave him insecure and tentative, but he will be fortified against repeating them and begins to mature in his own character. The protag pays little attention to the history of the relationship — doesn’t allow it to poison the present.

    I’ve never tried doing something like this relationship before — it’s part of the long-planning (two prior 4-book series before beginning this indefinite length series) — to give me enough experience to be confident that I can pull complications like this out of my rough pantsing/planning story process.

    One comes to trust one’s own process after awhile. My rational brain creates a story architecture that I can work with for each book. But when it comes to the details and complications, when the subconscious says “try this” or “look what you could do with that”, I’m just grateful and obey.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stuff like this is why I get annoyed by “it’s just a superhero story” type excuses.

    It’s a superhero story.
    Super. Hero.

    Bigger than life, and about the best of us– how is that not great fodder?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It has great potential but it has, historically, been rather wasted on stupid stories churned out once a month

      Personally I like it in that you can put in philosophical issues a lot more directly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It definitely has a lot more chances to GET to that law about 90% of everything being crud.

        Fantasy, scifi, superheroes — you can bypass a lot of the irrelevant/emotionally charged details and get into the MEAT of the matter, it’s so satisfying!

        Liked by 1 person

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