I’ve been thinking about how different characters can react when under attack, or when they are threatened in some way. The attack doesn’t need to be physical, just something that provokes that fight or flight response.

The reactions I’ve thought of so far are:

Flight:

  • Run because if they can’t catch them, they can’t hurt them.
  • Hide because if they can’t find them, they can’t get them. This could be physically hiding, or withdrawing into themselves and shutting down communication.

Fight:

  • Instinctive fighting back, in other words going out guns blazing.
  • Fighting back, but using strategy. Following orders of some kind, or following training that provided to deal with the situation.

Other ways characters react to attacks:

  • Defending themselves, or their stance, but not attacking the other person.
  • Some characters may decide to create a diversion while they decide what to do next.
  • Gathering allies – any defence or attack is stronger with friends to help. This could be having someone to offload their daily stress to, or having a group of people who have their backs during a physical fight.
  • Denial – these people just cannot understand how they came to be in the situation they are facing. How could anyone say such things about them? If this person knew what a great person they really were, they wouldn’t be being so mean.
  • Self-doubt – some people do none of the above. Paralysed by fear and the inability to know what the best response is, they allow the attack to continue. For verbal attacks, this can lead the person to question how they reacted and attack themselves for not doing better in the situation. For physical attacks, a moment of self-doubt can be the difference between life and death.

Of course, characters aren’t restricted to one reaction for every attack. My male main character starts out being able to choose from any reaction not under the fight heading, and gradually changes through the story.

It may suit the plot to say, “Andy will hide in the bathroom when his date turns out to be a terrifying harridan”, but it won’t work if Andy is the kind of guy who likes to be terrified. The situation has to be something that would alarm the character, and it has to be believable.

It they react in a way completely out of character for them, there has to be a reason for it. Maybe the legendary bar fighter doesn’t rise to the bait because he’s heartbroken, and doesn’t see the point of anything. Perhaps the nightmare boss who screams at her staff when she’s stressed, is now withdrawing because someone has confronted her about her behaviour, and she’s now questioning herself.

I love planning character psychology, but it can be a trap. My first draft has parts where I get a bit exposition happy and start to describe the thought process of a character, or why he or she did what they just did. It comes down to the whole show don’t tell thing again. If the writer is confident in the plot and characters – and their own skill in interpreting them – the reader should be trusted to work out motivation and reaction for themselves.

Featured image credit: Laurent Lavì Lazzeresky via photopin cc