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.