Your main character faces a life or death situation — he’s been grievously wounded and must find help or she needs to elude an assassin — how do you know what your character is thinking and feeling? Especially if you’ve never been in a life or death situation yourself. I’ve seen some very melodramatic answers to this question in literature and movies. In truth, when survival is threatened, certain things happen that affect how your character will think and feel.
Humans are wired to survive. It is a primal instinct that will focus the mind like a laser. All the senses sharpen. The threatened person assesses the threat in order to take the action that will most likely insure survival. I believe people who deal with chronic illness, who must spend more time in a hospital than they’d like, and who are forced to deal with the medical community and insurance companies, often deal with life itself in a survival mode. So, if your character has a chronic illness that he or she must deal with daily, keep in mind that your character won’t be reacting to life in the same way a healthy character would.
When your character is threatened with death, the first thing that happens is fear. It’s very rare for someone to face a dire threat without fear. Fear is a normal emotional response to any kind of threat and is part of our signalling system that tells us that the threat is real.
Fear triggers physiological changes. The first thing that happens is an increase in cortisol and adrenalin levels in your character’s blood stream. They cause the heart to beat faster and respiration to increase. They also will cause the entire body to go into survival mode, so all non-essential processes will go on hold until after the threat is gone. Adrenalin often feels like a tingling throughout the body.
Your character now enters the fight or flight response. Part of this response is the laser-like focus on the present and immediate surroundings I described earlier. Now, your character’s personality will influence his choice. If he’s an aggressive personality, perhaps he’d more likely fight than find a way to escape. Or if your character is passive and you want to force him into a defensive stance, he may react very differently. If there are other people present for whom he’s responsible, that adds another layer of pressure and stress. Will he defend and protect them? Will they join the fight? Or will they find an escape while he’s fighting? Threatening situations reveal character.
What’s your threatened character thinking? First of all, she’ll be assessing the threat, then assessing flight or fight. It happens very fast, almost instantaneously, this thought process. When writing it, short sentences will give the feeling of the high speed of the thoughts. In fact, long sentences will slow down the pace of the scene and you want it to be faster. Your character’s mind will be focused totally on the threat and how to neutralize it or get away from it. If you decide to have your character fight, she’ll be looking for her opponent’s weaknesses or looking for weapons.
Remember, too, that after the threat is gone and your character is safe, there is a residual reaction, especially physiologically from the cortisol and adrenalin. It’s often called the “adrenalin crash” and it begins with full-body trembling. It’s possible for your character to faint, especially if he doesn’t sit down and breathe deeply with his head between his knees. EMTs and medical personnel working in emergency rooms are very familiar with the adrenalin crash — they can experience it after a particularly challenging emergency.
As an example, I recently faced a life-threatening situation: major abdominal surgery. Surgeons take great care to reassure their patients that all will go well in the operating room, but the bottom line is that anything can happen. I trust my surgeon to take care of me. But I still was nervous during the pre-op preparations. My mind was very focused on my immediate environment, the people around me, and the procedures. Happily, the surgery was a success, but my survival response continued during my post-op hospital stay and my first month at home. I was very much in survival mode. Not much other activity got done.
I was thinking, however, about survival…..