Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And that’s when things go wrong. Badly. Because most of us don’t cope with it well. Trust me on this, I have reason enough to know.

Now that applies in real life… but not, to my jaundiced and shall we say experienced eye, enough in fiction.

Lets’ put it this way… in younger days I was occasionally referred to as ‘rent-an-epic’ Freer, on account of various desperate situations I had managed to get myself into. In large part this was down to having a will stronger than either my mind or my body, and a bit more courage than common sense. Which is kinda normal for young men under twenty. * You don’t need to be involved in rock-climbing, or diving or in the army. An automobile, or a little packet bought from some dodgy guy on a street corner will do.

Think of it as evolution in action.

Think of it as where the tragedies are.

Think of it as where the stories are.

It’s where if you don’t die, you learn, and grow. It’s very character-building stuff, great for books.

It’s a bit grim, really. But it’s also reality. Of course fiction is full of unlikely heroes, dealing with disaster. Archaeologist academics who find themselves facing those desperate times. Young women who have a choice of being dragon dinner or dragon rider.

A vital part of the craft of writing fiction is to suspend disbelief. It’s kinda fun watching ol’ Disbelief’s feet twitch uncontrollably as his face turns blue, rotten little blighter that he is **. Which means one of two things – either the character (being, let us say a teen boy, eager to prove himself, confident of his own immortality, and about to entertainingly learn that that confidence is misplaced – but probably not quite die.) or the circumstance has to plausibly produce those desperate measures.

But here’s the thing most people miss. It’s recreating those desperate situations that carry the reader forward without doing the sensible thing (disbelieving the author). Look I have an advantage here in that my last ‘Oh shit I’m gonna die’ moment was about a week ago*** when my air hose kinked and I was about 30 feet down underwater, in a narrow fissure leading into a cave looking for spiny lobsters. And no one sings hymns of praise to breath, until there is no air to breathe. These are oddly dusty places, (not a lot of water movement) and panicky diver thrashing about, will find themselves in a confusing, gravity-free cloud of murk, trying to work out where out and up is. And, after that, a scared out of their wits person will try to hang onto that last bit of air, and not sensibly scream on his or her way to that very distant seeming surface… Which is what you need to do in an emergency ascent. That’s pressurized air in your lungs. It needs to come out on your way up. Of course, I’m at a disadvantage too, because you really don’t remember the details of these things very well. You’re too busy doing other stuff to take a lot of notes. Imagination works just as well for the guy who hasn’t been there… so long as he does his homework.

Most of the time — unless it’s happened to your character so many times that, honestly it is as boring to him as it is to the reader – the core thing that happens is panic. Of course, that is what kills – it does release some useful chemicals into the bloodstream, and do other little bits to help you survive – but panic is like trying to play chess while sitting in ice. For most of us this comes in a sure way to handicap your thinking. But the hero who doesn’t – or doesn’t without extensive training –is going to break the rope suspending disbelief. It’s also a very useful technique spot for the author to use. It’s the time your character WILL do things which are out of character. Your accountant will defenestrate the werewolf….

And once the character is in strife, and the reader has believed that response possible… well you can take them along for the ride.

Use the character, use the circumstances. Use the panic to drive them deeper into trouble.

It’s what we do.

And please, please… do not stop half way through a terrifying action scene to give me a ten page angst-ridden soliloquy on all the politically correct and currently fashionable and virtue-signaling thoughts in your character’s head. Not only will that smarmy fellow Disbelief get up and rub his neck, he’ll punch the author and his book out of the window. Afterwards, if you must. But never, never in the middle.


*Oh dearie me. How terribly un-PC. Look at the actual figures, sweeties. That’s why young men end up with traumatic injuries at rate far higher than women. It’s also why they end up in jail at that higher rate. Reality is a bitch, and not ready to be politically correct.

**Yes I do know, it’s terribly un-PC to mock the death penalty. I suppose ‘Disbelief deserved killin’ wouldn’t do as a reason? Most authors should feel that way, unless they don’t care for their readers.

***Sorry, Puppy Kickers. I might not have made the best decisions at the time, but I didn’t panic enough to be utterly stupid, and they were good enough. But I will keep trying. I’m doing it for your sake, I’m sure.


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42 responses to “Desperado…

  1. greyratt

    having been (quite some time ago), a young man that did some very stupid things.* imho you missed one important item that forms his actions. at 18
    I KNEW EVERYTHING!!!!! the older I get the more dumb I find myself to be.

    *the stupidest thing I ever did was piss off a senior chief machinist mate, I paid for that mistake for years.

    • Reality Observer

      Certainly a factor, there. But I think Dave was going after attributes that are primarily young males, and that most of them get over (unless they are extremely lucky).

      Knowing everything is gender-neutral – and from experience, most people never manage to get rid of it.

  2. The aviation humorist (and flight instructor) Rod Machado describes students starting to panic in the cockpit as all blood flow cutting off at the brainstem (or lower) and the pre-mammalian Reptilian R complex kicking in. He can tell because the student stops moving, goes “Rrrrr, rrrrr” and either 1) stays frozen (not as exciting) or 2) starts trying to do SOMETHING to “fix” the situation. #2 is when flight instructors earn our pay.

    And then you get the rare, truly Odd folks who panic before anything bad happens, and then are icy and semi-prepared if/when TS finally does HTF.

    • Uncle Lar

      With the advent of flight data recorders we see that when the feces hits the rotary impeller a good pilot, particularly one with military training, will go dead calm and immediately start working his list of recovery options. He will continue to do so until the aircraft is back under control or he augers in still working that list. Holds equally true for female pilots of course. I just learned my grammar rules fifty years ago, stubborn of me I know.

      • Having been there, done that on more than a few occasions, you really don’t go dead calm. You fake it as hard as you can and convince yourself to be the calm you guy you really don’t want to be. It gets easier as you get more experience in it. But never real easy.

        • Yeah, dead calm prolly = dead :-). Which is why the hero (whose head you are in) has to be aware of this even if the external signs aren’t there

          • Uncle Lar

            My poor choice of words. Wrote dead calm when what I should have said was intensely focused on the situation and all possible solutions.

            • Sorry, I didn’t intend my reply as a rebuke. I was just talking. I used to use the term ‘poise’ with student pilots. That might be the wrong word too. But you have to get some control over your emotions, apply the trained framework of how to handle an emergency that is the result of literally decades of flying experience and learning from previous errors. Maybe confidence is the word for what happens when you apply the experience of everyone who went before you, survived the experience and passed it along.

              • otpu

                I am not Chuck Yeager, but if I pretend real real hard, maybe I can get this POS back on the ground in one piece.

      • Anonymous Coward

        I’ve got a fix for the whole Problematic Pronoun thing – I just use ‘sherm’. She, he & them combined into a Swiss Army pronoun. Of course, ‘yall’ has been perfectly serviceable for this, but now that I use ‘sherm’, people often mistake me for an Ivy League graduate. 😉

        • There was a cartoon a about a great white shark called sherm. Came up with my favorite visit to Australia statement ‘Chuck another Chimp on the Barbie’….

      • aacid14

        We were doing training for Fire and they played Sullenberger’s transmissions from the Hudson flight. Can always pick out the stress cuz terse but that’s all.

    • I was told by an aviation instructor (helo) that he had a surefire way to tell if the student’s brain was full. If he suggested to the trainee, in flight, that said trainee might want to take a walk for some fresh air and they gave him a look of horror, they were good for another half-hour at least. If they reached for the door handle…

  3. You’re especially right that in the middle of a panic scene there is time for a few keen observations, the PANIC itself, and the moral fiber and preparation of the character getting a chance to display themselves.

    Introspection at that point is laughable.

  4. Cat

    * young men certainly do end up dead and injured at higher rates. Perhaps writing stories about women characters calls for a different approach.

    ** “Hanging disbelief by the neck until dead” was, last I looked, more likely to be used for those plots that don’t work than those ones that do. Ideally I think disbelief should be suspended so deftly the reader doesn’t realize it is happening.

    *** Non-puppies don’t want you dead, Dave. You’re doing it for your own sake.

    • A different approach? Women are different than men. This is fact isn’t in dispute as far as most of us are concerned, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Both women and men do get into desperate situations from time to time, and we are both human, susceptible to panic. So, from a writer’s perspective, if you want to have the character do something out of the ordinary (for them)… Dave’s got some pretty good advice. Worth paying attention to.

      For the second, you do realize that it was something of a pun, don’t you? To suspend something is to hang it from a stable support, among other meanings. Sure the humor’s a bit grim, but if you don’t have occasion to laugh at death from time to time, you’ve probably lived a rather sheltered life. A whole world of magic living right alongside us, or far flung space opera with FTL, advanced and non-crazy AI, alien beings, and suchlike forEx, requires some pretty hefty suspension of belief. And that’s a *good* thing if the author pulls it off. It’s where you *can’t* get the chair old blighter off the chair no matter how hard you tug on the rope that’s bad.

      For the last, I’m not one to put a lower limit on what some folks might think of us since the last year’s hullabaloo. If we’re to take serious what some folk here and there have said, I’d not even be all that surprised.

      • Dan, well put. Yes, my humor is a bit bleak at times ;-/ But Cat is determined to find something to take offense at, so common sense is not part of it.

    • Birthday girl

      Humor … it is a difficult concept …

    • *Are you suggesting something sexist like there being differences? That all are not just women (the default) in different outfits? Be careful: They’ll turn on you for such apostasy. There are of course some young women who are indistinguishable in their behavior from young men — and vice versa. There ought to be different books and stories appealing to people on all points on that spectrum, in more-or-less representative proportions. Sadly this has stopped being even vaguely true in Traditional publishing. It may not be the only reason it is in decline. It its certainly one of them.
      ** Dead is dead. If the reader is immersed enough in the story to suspend disbelief it doesn’t matter if they got there a la Dick Francis (unsuccessful according to Cat’s definition) or gradually.
      ***(Dryly) – So you’re the leader and speak for them, are you? Good. We always get denials that such exist. We’ve been archiving quotes from Puppy Kickers (and yes, a couple have been quoted here) including those calling for putting us down, re-educating us and depriving us of livelihoods, along with those accusing us of racism, sexism, homophobia, being all Mormon men… and yet you were silent then. So were your friends. One person – Eric Flint – actually had the courage and decency to say so, and instead your little friends attacked him. You could have stepped up to the plate and – ‘You’re sounding like Stalin, I don’t support that’. But instead on facebook the ‘likes’ piled in, and elsewhere the kicking was enjoyed and joined. You could have said ‘actually I’ve read Sarah Hoyt and she’s not male, Mormon and her hero is gay.’ (or pick an example. Damian Walter tried desperately, even crowd-sourcing his efforts to find ‘dirt’ on Larry Correia. And failed.) So yes, I think it a fair comment: your ilk wish us the worst – including dead, not for any justifiable reason like abusing children, but because we’re disturbing your status quo. We are not human to you, or equal and worth allowing a voice or a place, even though we do not agree with you. No, we are lesser beings, Untermensch. If this is not the case, don’t tell me. Show me. Step up to that plate.

      But indeed, I am doing what I do for my own sake. It makes me love living, and, as an instructor of hundreds of young rock-climbers, and many divers, seems to have that effect on quite a lot of people. You should try it. Maybe you’d like it.

    • I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of you.

  5. In a panic, I think (From a thankfully small personal sample) that men are more likely to do something, even if it’s the wrong thing, and women are more likely to scream. I truly hate women who scream instead of helping themselves.

    Part of it is the lack of training about _what_ to do. Even in a panic, there’s a chance you’ll remember “Stop, drop, and roll.” But if you’ve never learned that, you run off with your clothes on fire.

    • To be fair, Pam, panic is EVERYBODY’S problem. The more experience you have at dealing with it (especially in a specific circumstance), the more likely you’re going to handle it adequately. I was in the army with female nurses who were not in the least inclined to scream when things went badly wrong. I know a couple of female climbers who are incredibly phlegmatic, and one female diver I happily buddy with. There are just more likely to be men with that sort of experience. That’s not something men can do much about.

    • Pam, to support your and Dave’s point, consider this. You’re driving down the highway, an hour or two into a six hour drive. About time enough for highway fatigue to set in, especially if you’ve already been up and working eight hours previously.

      You notice the car ahead of you getting closer. Then a lot closer, a lot quicker. If you’re driving a newer car, you might not notice until very late, because the engine noise is dampened so well.

      Most folks panic and slam on the brakes at this point. This can be *exactly* the wrong response. If the cruise control has failed and the throttle is now wide open, you can lose a lot of braking effectiveness (or shred the pads if they are already worn enough).

      I used to test vehicles for, among other things, properly working cruise control. Or brakes. Or any number of other things most people can’t imagine driving without, I’ve had to deal with in traffic or at highway speeds, with very little time to react. The panic reaction is non-gender specific. Just about everyone who reads this, drives. And just about *everybody* panics at that point. Hell, I still do. But I have an advantage in experience and training.

      There’s a list of procedures to reacquiring control, or at least halting the failure cascade (like Uncle Lar’s pilot above, only the list is a *lot* shorter and simpler), I was trained to start where the problem is and work from there. Also, I had to learn mechanics mostly by doing, and on my own often questionable (at first) repairs. *chuckle* I’d be lost in an operating room, in an aircraft, or on a dive. But if it rolls, I can probably drive it and might possibly be able to save it when control goes south.

      • B. Durbin

        “If the cruise control has failed and the throttle is now wide open, you can lose a lot of braking effectiveness (or shred the pads if they are already worn enough.)”

        I don’t like using cruise control, especially on long drives. I think this sentence just affirmed my decision in the scariest way possible. o.O

    • Screaming is beneficial to the species as an alarm call, which is why it is one of the basic responses. It does summon help, but it is also a sacrificial warning and a sort of attack. Obviously you are affected by the irritation of the attack. 😉

  6. Yeah, but…I wrote a brilliant, and I BRILLIANT!!! blog post on this, and it’s got SEX in the title!