How your characters react to a crisis

Let’s say you and your friend both break your leg. It was a freak accident, you were hit by an ice cream truck. Anyway, that’s not the point. You and your best friend are both laid up.

I bet that you both have very different reactions to this.

Maybe one of you works outside the home and is in danger of losing their job. Maybe one of you has kids that need looking after, and it’s hard to do that. Maybe you were really active, and this hits you hard, but your buddy is cooler with hanging out on the couch for a couple days.

The point, of course, is that everyone reacts to bad situations differently. And if you’re writing for your characters, it’s important to keep this in mind.

How someone reacts to one of the many curveballs that life will throw at them depends on a thousand different factors. It’s important to remember that it has nothing to do with strength or weakness. Most of it has to do with perception.

Of course, if you’re writing about a cast of characters reacting to the same thing, it would be grossly unrealistic to have them react the exact same way. Here are some things to consider when crafting a character’s reaction to a crisis.

What was lost?

A crisis is rarely about the actual incident. It’s about the loses that it causes.

Let’s say, for example, that there’s a great fire in your story. Fires are a good example because they can happen anywhere. So, let’s say we have a fire wherever your characters are. What can your character lose?

Maybe one character is a tavern owner. She might lose everything. Maybe your character doesn’t live in town, but his lover does. Or maybe your character is a loner who hates everyone, but really needed to get new horseshoes from the blacksmith.

How important was that thing to your character?

Obviously, in the example above each thing lost had varying degrees of significance to the person who lost it.

Maybe the tavern owner inherited the place from a mother she hated, and she’s thrilled to be free of the place. Maybe the loner needed to get to a faraway kingdom to see his sick daughter, and now his horse is ill-equipped.

What else might they lose because of this accident?

One of the worst things about a crisis is that the effects ripple through our lives. It’s never just the crisis. A housefire means you’re homeless. It might mean for one person that they have to move in with a relative out of state. They have to leave behind their job and friends. It might mean for another that they have to get a crappy efficacy apartment. They’re forced to let go of their beloved pets. For even another, it might mean they’re sleeping under a bridge and they’ve lost everything. Every bad thing has ripples. Think about what those ripples might be for your characters.

How well can they recover?

As described in the example above, different people will have different abilities to cope with a crisis. Usually, that ability comes down to money, but that’s not the only factor. Family relations are important as well. But it might also come down to just how willing to adapt and change someone might be.

What can your character do, financially and emotionally, to recover from this crisis? Knowing that is going to go a long way toward understanding how they’ll react.

Someone with a decent fund stashed away and lots of mental flexibility, for instance, might bounce right back from losing their home in a fire. That’s because they have the means to make a new home somewhere else. Someone who was barely getting by as it was will be, of course, hit much harder.

How many times have they been hurt or lost something before?

No matter how strong someone is, we all have a breaking point. We can all only get up so many times before we just don’t have it in us anymore.

At the same time, if someone has never experienced a loss before, it can hit much harder. Understanding your character’s past, even if it’s not something that’s explicitly discussed in the book, is essential to crafting a realistic reaction to a crisis.

Do they have anyone depending on them?

Knowing that you’ve got someone depending on you makes a difference in a crisis. Not only are you dealing with your own losses, but you’ve got to take care of theirs as well.

Having someone else who depends on them might make your character stronger. It might make them freak out even more because they’re worried about this person who looks to them for support. It might also make them focus so much on this person they protect that they don’t care properly for themselves. Whatever their response, it’s not something to overlook.

Do they have someone else they can depend on?

Now, let’s flip that around, and look at the character who’s being looked after. The child, elderly parent, sick spouse. How do they feel, knowing that the person they depend on now has this burden on their shoulders? Do they trust the person whose care they’re under? Do they want to step up and take a more dominant role? If their caregiver has always been the strong one but is now breaking, is this the time that the dependent character is going to stand up?

It might be. Because that’s the thing about a crisis. It brings out the worst in people, sure. But it also brings out the best.

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