Quick! What does he do?

So . . .

I’m writing a new character in the Familiars world, one who appears in a previous book but who gets fleshed out in a sequel. He’s, well, not to have any spoilers, but by the time he appears on his own, his issues have subscriptions. He’s not a happy camper. And then he’s tossed into trouble.

What does he do?

Ah. Flee, fight, freeze, or yes?

 Julie Glover at Writers in the Storm has a good, short piece about character responses, real-life, and how to combine them.

“A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are walking down a dark alley — no, this is not a joke, but hang with me here — when an eight-foot, three-headed monster jumps out, roars, and bares his sharp teeth and claws.

The minister throws a punch.
The priest runs.
The rabbi can’t seem to move.

See? I told you it wasn’t a joke. It’s acute stress response; that is, the way our bodies and minds handle the presence of an immediate threat.

One fights.
One flees.
One freezes.”

Will Your Character Fight, Flee, or Freeze?

So, what will my poor character do? As I wrote earlier, he’s got problems. He’s trying to avoid trouble. But he’s also got something watching him, weighing him, considering his heart. . .

In my case, I throw in an additional motivator, an outside character who may or may not be able to influence the person with problems.

In real life, you often get a combination – the guy who freezes, hears a woman scream, and then fights. Or the woman who starts to fight, realizes that there’s a second monster, and runs like the blazes. A different character might flee until he gets cover, then he pulls out his pistol and starts firing, while speed-dialing his hunting buddy and saying, “Bubba, you gotta come to 8th and Vine, because whatever it is, there ain’t no season or limit! And bring friends. And your big guns.”

In some ways, fight is the easiest choice, especially if you need action to keep the reader happy and to move the plot. But here’s the kicker – is it the best fit for your character? And is it the best fit for the character at that moment. My character Auriga “Rigi” Bernardi-Prananda might choose any of the three options in combination, depending on several variables. Is she armed well enough to deal with the creature? Is it threatening her? Is it threatening her children or dependents? In the latter case, Katy bar the door, because she’ll do whatever, however, to protect her children. But her assistants might stop her and force her to flee, because of her position in their culture.

Another character might default to “attack it,” until he realizes that he lacks the firepower needed, or that it is different from what he anticipated. Then flight (until he can get reinforcements) or hiding until it goes away. A third character might freeze in concealment, because her job is to report back to her superiors that a teleport has gone horribly wrong. Even though other people are in danger, delivering information is more important than charging to the rescue. Or perhaps the character will flee, because he knows very well that he can’t fight, and he’ll just get in the way of people who can. He also knows that freezing won’t help when he us upwind of a monster that hunts by smell, not sight or sound.

It’s getting messy, isn’t it? So is real life. I can say from personal experience that I’ve done all three, depending on the situation and what else was going on. Although I was avoiding two-footed or four-footed predators, not alien monsters. Thus far.

* * * * * *

Speaking of Rigi and Co.

Art, adventure, ambushes, dances, diplomacy, and wild accusations of stuffed-animal theft. Just a normal year for Rigi and her family. Perhaps.


  1. Don’t forget context and training and circumstances. The only man in a group of women might charge the monster to buy the women time to get away, especially if he’s got a first responder mentality or military training.

    1. Good point. A lot of training goes into breaking the “freeze and stare” or “run in circles while waving hands” reflexes. I know I mentally game out lots and lots of scenarios about “what if X happens here? Or when I’m there, or attending [thing]?” But I’m Odd. Normal people don’t obsess about that sort of thing.

  2. Ah, but “easiest” (or perhaps ‘simplest’) is not necessarily ‘best’.
    Is $CHARACTER Supremely Competent/Lucky (choosing ‘best’ even seemingly by accident)?
    Hapless (choosing ‘worst’ even when Reason dictates….)?
    Or ‘Joe Average’ (could range anywhere… will likely get it wrong, but will get it right once in a while.. AND can see ‘wrong’ and [unless REALLY wrong] at least try to fix it?

  3. Over on Rebeller media, I read a critical theory by ZODIAC MOTHERFUCKER that is about action cinema, but alleges that it is relevant to design of romance stories. (It talks about Romance cinema, but I think the design criteria is more about satisfying action viewers than Romance cookies.)

    So I started looking at my current mess, searching for a romantic couple that fits a strict description of what he suggests. (My main romantic plot might already fit a looser description.) The amount of male characters in my story who aren’t inclined to do that specific thing, feels related to fight, flee, freeze. Beyond fight, flee, freeze, there are kinds of fighting, kinds of fleeing, maybe even kinds of freezing.

    1. The one I hate the worst is the main character who reacts to emergency with confusion. I know that happens in real life, and I’ve seen it often enough, but OMG I -hate- reading about it.

      There’s a monster, and the nebbish Main Character boi is -confused?- Oh hell no. Makes me scream “GET YOUR ACT TOGETHER you &@#%!!!!” at the book and throw it against the wall.

      Charles Stross has managed to earn my undying wrath with this move, as did James P. Blaylock back in the day. The worst ever was that assinine story “The World Turned Upside Down” that was nominated for a Hugo that one year. There’s a woman about to fall to her death, and the MC is rescuing a goldfish.

      You’ve got an action scene, the bumbling hipster with his ironic tactical mellon-baller needs to die, not fail to save the day and be the last man standing by accident. That’s just not on.

      1. I’ve not quite seen that in Stross-mind you, almost everything I’ve read has been his Laundry series, up until the Martian Brain Fungus got him. Bob might have had a lot of sins and quite a bit of self-loathing, but he always seemed to be able to handle that rare 1% of the job in doing the right thing immediately.

        1. It was the Laundry series I was thinking of. Started off well, and then went horribly wrong about two books in, IMHO. The MC seems to become progressively less capable and more erratically dependent on sheer brainless luck as the thing rumbles on.

          Stross is one of those people that really -need- an editor to keep them from running off the rails into political propaganda land. He’d be fine if he’d just knock off the politics and stick to the story, but since about 2010 he never has.

          1. I think it went bad about The Apocalypse Codex, which is when Stross started to get the Martian Brain Fungus infection. It fully set in during The Rhesus Chart and he realized that he was supposed to be writing a Lovecraftian Horror Novel series, not a Stale Beer Spy Fiction series.

            (And, I can excuse Bob, mostly, after Fuller Memorandum. I dare anyone to have good mental equilibrium when you recursively summon yourself into your own body, become a necromancer, the next incarnation of the Eater Of Souls as many of your friends die, your wife having to leave the house as you realize the occult asset she has is a second-order vampire, as the rest of the world goes to Hell. Oh, and get roped in and deliberately stuck in a sand-boxed, air-gapped compartment when your organization has to organize a coup and hand the country over to Nyarlathotep to keep it safe. Because somebody needed to keep their hands clean in the whole mess.)

  4. IRL, people don’t get to chose their response if my (limited) experience is any guide. Mostly they freeze. Occasionally they scream and cry, while running aimlessly.

    Disaster videos of car crashes and things falling over these days, it seems that everybody just stands there for a while and then they pull out their phone. They don’t even run away.

    Occasionally you see a figure in the video doing something purposeful, either grabbing people and running away, or running toward the problem to give assistance. To date I’ve been one of those, but with advancing age that may change. My observation is mostly people seem to mill around uselessly for about five minutes before they get the bit in their teeth and move with a purpose.

    Just long enough for a person to bleed out. 😡

    1. But a person in purposeful motion, giving clear directives, can often stir them into action.
      Monkey see, monkey do.

      1. That’s why armies have sergeants. Somebody with a clue to scream the frozen monkeys into motion.

        I’ve never had much luck getting people to move. I generally do whatever needs done until the fire department shows up. Mostly grab the car keys out of the ignition and toss them on the dashboard. Turns out that’s one of the most important things to do when you’re first on scene, so I was instructed by a first-responder.

    2. My training as a cognitive behavioural therapist taught me the fight, flight, and freeze response. In my studies the biggest killer was freeze; aircraft crashes where people suffocated and burnt to death because they froze and didn’t get out of the plane quick enough before being overcome by fumes.

      However, for a novel, I’d always go for fight or flight, because anyone who froze would be dead, and if that’s the main character then the story is likely to suck; unless you do something tricksie (PS: my first novel kills the main character in the first chapter; she gets better, only to die again, repeatedly).

      I keep the reader guessing right up until the end how the day ends. 😉

      1. I agree. Side characters, ladies-in-waiting and spear-carriers are allowed to freeze. It can be useful to add danger to a scene.

        Also useful for the story arc if Character has to work to overcome the freezing. There’s a whole sub-arc of SAO, the Gun Gale Online arc in season 2, which is built on the Sinon character trying to beat her PTSD by playing GGO.

  5. There’s also perception of danger.
    Example: I thought my wife and my mother were having a polite disagreement.
    That was evidently not, in fact, the case.
    I react reflexively with respect to physical altercations, but tend to freeze in social ones–especially when I’m not even sure one is taking place.

    1. I recall an episode some time ago at Day Job when one of the teachers (F) was saying that it was a good thing that one of the coaches (M) happened to see what looked like horseplay. The (M) coach recognized it as a fight starting and broke it up. [The two culprits have been horseplaying or fighting since they were in grade school, or so I surmise.]

    1. Which in turn, validates the threat, and allows you to make more informed tactical choices.
      Also, moving targets are harder to hit.
      (Entirely too flip, I know. There are sound evolutionary reasons for keeping your head down, and hoping the unpleasantness passes you by. I just never want us to return to such a milieu.)

  6. I’ve done all three at different times, for different reasons, with different degrees of success.

    When I’ve been genuinely confused and totally clueless about what’s going on that is dangerous, my brain didn’t really register it as confusion. It went with dread. Everything seemed fine to me, but my gut was horribly afraid and wanted me somewhere safe. Which I did. It worked out fine for me, not so fine for others, but at least I may recognize that kind of dread next time.

    OTOH, when I really know what is going on and what I should do, either I’m more amused/manic or more angry at other people for not doing things fast enough. Possibly not thinking very clearly or completely, but definitely focused on what I think I should be doing. Later I get worried and emotional, but at the moment I am either growling or wheeeeee!

    And then, of course, there’s always the berzerker option. But I don’t want that option, particularly.

    1. Oh, and there’s also “Nothing I can do, personally safe, so I might as well sleep.”

      Apparently my body is convinced that very few things require waking me up, unless it involves the smell of smoke.

  7. The one time I recall completely freezing up was an evening I was hanging out at a party at some friends house. I turned around and, naked as the day she was born, was another friend of ours. My brain turned off. Turns out, the woman had always wanted to play host at a party — of clothed people — while naked (who knows where people get these ideas?), and our friends decided to make it happen for her. They also decided to not tell me what was going on because they knew I liked this woman and they wanted to see my reaction. Yep, stunned silence.

    Eventually I snapped out of it and we all had a relaxed nice time as only old friends can, all while being served drinks by a beautiful naked woman, and doing our best to ignore her unclothed state (in keeping with her odd request).

    I have no idea why I froze up. Really, I’m not a prude. I wasn’t even all that unaccustomed to nudity at parties, although in my defense, it was pretty out of character for that particular group of friends up until that point. Since then there have been a few similar incidents at other parties, including one party where there was a bout chocolate pudding wrestling between our previous naked hostess and another woman in the garden tub (not recommended, the pudding got into the water jets and the tub was never the same again).

    1. There really isn’t a polite response down that situation.

      And yeah, even in a fairly… relaxed… social circle, or one with clothing-optional customs, I think that was a pretty mean joke on you, and not particularly considerate on the hostess. I can see about 12 film noir outcomes.

      (Without even getting into the morality or social issues, I would have marched right out the door before the blackmail photos began, but I’m suspicious like that. It’s bad enough starring as the corpse on Forensic Files, but then there’s starring as the embarrassing corpse.)

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