A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Fight or Flight?

I’ve often wondered how I would act in the face of danger. For instance, if a mugger cornered me, would I be calm, cool, and collected? Would I freeze up? Would I kick him in the… um, shins, and run? I’d like to think I could make a wise decision based on a split-second analysis of available exit routes, strengths and weaknesses, and whether I’d had my Wheaties for breakfast.

I probably think about scenarios like these more than the average person, though likely not more than my dear fellow suspense writers. Because – spoiler alert! – there is DANGER in my books. And maybe even the occasional mugger. So I have to think about the myriad ways my various characters would respond in such a situation, and why. What’s more, I have to consider how their actions shape the way they act in the rest of the book.

Behavior is a combination of three factors: biology, psychology, and social environment. For a character to behave in a believable manner, writers must consider each of these factors when deciding on the appropriate sequence of events.

  • What is the character physically capable of (e.g., has she had her Wheaties)?
  • What is his/her mental state and thought process at the time of the event (e.g., is she thinking about her grocery list when she is surprised by her attacker or is she expecting an ambush)?
  • And what is going on in the character’s surroundings that promote or inhibit one reaction over another (e.g., is there a gun, or are there others present who could get hurt)?

There are so many combinations of factors a writer can put together. My characters probably hate me for what I put them through. But hey, they come out stronger in the end, right?

For example, my heroine in ONLY FEAR is being stalked. When she first finds out it’s Serious (yes, with a capital “S” AND italicized), her home has been invaded by the man, her sanctuary desecrated. Despite her experience as a psychiatrist, she crumbles. (Well, just a bit, anyway… I love my strong heroines, after all.) But her growth arc in the book shows her growing stronger as she faces each dangerous encounter. And when family members are threatened, her behavior changes. She’s willing to take on more risk for those she loves.

My hero, on the other hand, is an experienced ex-Secret Service agent. He already knows how to deal with danger on a daily basis, and welcomes the opportunity to face it head-on if it means defeating an evil force. But he’s also dealing with something from his past that hinders his confidence. His reaction to danger is quite different than the heroine’s.

And of course, when you get the hero and heroine together, they can do anything. Because love crosses into physical, psychological, and social realms. And love conquers all.

What about your characters? How would they act when faced with danger and why?


Wynter Daniels said...

Good post. I always like my heroes strong all the way through, but I like for the heroine's strength to grow as she's tested throughout the story.

MaureenAMiller said...

Amen to "Love conquers all," Anne Marie! Characters aside, I know that I would step up in the face of danger if someone I loved was threatened. To quote Mr. T., "I pity the fool." :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

@ Wynter - so true! I like the alpha males (and some non-alphas that are strong in so many other ways), but they grow in some way during the book. But the heroine's growth arc is usually central to the story.

@Maureen - Hah! I can picture the mohawk and gold chains now. ;)

Toni Anderson said...

I'm having a moment after seeing Maureen quote Mr T. :)
Okay--moment over. Great post, Anne Marie. I absolutely agree that the response to danger has to depend on a set of circumstances. I always assume I'd be useless in a crisis, but the only time I've been in really dangerous situations I've always been remarkably calm (to collapse later). I can't imagine what would happen if I met a mugger, but I did meet a flasher once. Alone. In a wide open park with no one else around.

Avery Flynn said...

You hit it right on the head, figuring out what the character's emotional reaction to Danger (capital D) morphs into what happens to them physically. Great post.

Rita said...

Nice post. Lately I’m finding books with cliché responses ignoring who the character is.
My H&H are trained to respond to physical danger and react accordingly. BUT… I have the physiological aspect play a huge part. At least I attempt to. Training says do this, but they do something different as their own feelings and values override everything.

Darynda Jones said...

Great post, Anne Marie!

The heroine of my grim reaper series is SO fun. Because she doesn't feel fear like the average joe, she can look at things, even in the face of utter peril, with an analytical and often sarcastic perspective. It's what makes her such a fun character and how I've managed to make even the most dire situations humorous. To me, at least. LOL.

Donnell said...

Anne Marie, I can't wait to read NO FEAR. The whole concept sounds intriguing! When can I get my hands on it?

My book, I have a title by the way, THE PAST CAME HUNTING, is all about a woman trying to live down her mistakes. So as the cruel and inhumane author, I throw all her mistakes at her. When danger hits her squarely in the face, her love of family supersedes all. Maureen said it well here. Your fear for someone you love can make you do and accomplish above average things. Great blog!!!!

JB Lynn said...

Hmmm, perhaps I should start feeding my heroines Wheaties....

My heroine in The First Victim tends to make all of her decisions (good and bad, brave and scared) based on an old traumatic event, so this post really resonated with me!

Anne Marie Becker said...

@ Toni - yikes (on the flasher)! I do great under pressure, but the post-adrenaline-rush crash is brutal!

@ Rita - I love the complication that feelings add to the mix. And values, too - great point!

@ Donnell - congrats on a title!! And such an interesting one - sounds apropos considering the premise. Sounds like a great story! And ONLY FEAR comes out September 5th thankyouverymuch. LOL

@ JB - glad you resonated. ;) I love stories where past events shape the character's behavior, because that's how real life is. And that's where the real growth is - especially when trauma was originally involved.

Anne Marie Becker said...

@ Avery - thanks!

@ Darynda - a character who feels no fear? What a platform for exploring the true nature of fear and how it powers other things! First Grave has been on my TBR list for sure.

Elise Warner said...

I like my heroines strong and feisty. I had an acquaintance who was accosted. Sang "Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life," in his loud tenor voice and the mugger ran.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Maureen as Mr. T... and singing... if that wouldn't make a bad guy quail, I don't what would.

Good post, Anne Marie. In On Her Trail, my heroine gets blindsided by the danger and reacts instinctively--which saves her life. In Shoeless Kid, my heroine is a seasoned cop who doesn't scare easily, unless she has to talk to a kid.

You're right: character, training and circumstance dictate reaction.

Anne Marie Becker said...

@ Elise - must have been the element of surprise, right? Certainly not your friend's singing voice. :)

@ Marcelle - I love the idea of a cop scared to talk with a kid... the chink in her armor. Love when we see the character's weak points and overcome them.

Wendy Soliman said...

I think we'd all react wisely in true life but that wouldn't make for much excitement in a novel. Perhaps that's why heroines often do things that make us wonder about their sanity but make for an exciting read. Personally I rely on my dog to protect me. No idea if he actually would and hope I never find out.

Clare London said...

My characters never let me down - they may be frightened but they always seem to manage to speak and act with *some* sense (which is lucky, or it wouldn't be a v entertaining book LOL).

Charles in Blinded by Our Eyes should be able to see he's walking slowly into danger as he seeks out the murderer of his protegee Paolo - but he keeps investigating, regardless! :)

I know I'd step up to protect those I love, too, but I have a horrible fear that faced with sudden danger on my own, I'd be frozen into uselessness :(.

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