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?