At some point in all of our novels, our characters – be they protagonists, villains, or even the person holding up the queue in the coffee shop – are going to have to deal with some sort of adversity. Adversity is what propels our characters to change, as they stand in the face of their demons, or are given the wrong Starbucks order.
And how our characters react to that adversity can tell our readers a whole lot about who they are as people. In fact, it’s a great tool for showing (and not telling) your reader, what your characters are truly like.
But how do you decide on their reaction? Where will it come from? And how can you be sure it’s psychologically sound?
To help us through this character conundrum, we asked Dr Stephanie Carty, clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and non-fiction – and frequent special guest at The Novelry’s Character Clinics offering writing classes and workshops for members of our writing community – to share her top tips for deciding how your characters will deal when the going gets tough.
Survival mode: characters dealing with adversity
When we hurl difficult situations at our characters, they react in ways that match their history. Some will have picked up methods that focus on how to survive whereas others are able to thrive.
You can either work backwards from how you need your character to react, then figure out a backstory that matches; or you can take what you know about them already and discover their reaction by digging deeper into their survival mechanisms.
A psychologist's top tips for figuring out how your character deals with adversity
Decide on their worldview
In their early years and beyond, what did your character learn about how safe other people are?
If they were mistreated, bullied, surrounded by anger or fear, then they learned from a young age that the world is a dangerous place and that other people are potentially harmful.
This leads them to developing hypervigilance for danger and learning which responses help them to survive: fight back, withdraw, be charming, feign illness, make allies with the aggressor, blame someone else, and so on.
These early strategies reoccur in times that are (or are perceived to be) threatening. Their focus under real or anticipated danger is to go into survival mode.
Now consider a different trajectory for your character: they were cherished and nurtured in childhood. They were allowed to take steps to independence safe in the knowledge there would be back-up if needed. They learned that the world is a relatively safe place, and that other people help you when things get tough.
So their response to a challenge as an adult is to trust in their capacity to cope, to seek help and to help others, to believe that there is a way forward which facilitates problem-solving. They have a potential to thrive in difficult circumstances.
As you can see, the worldview informs what behaviour occurs. These can differ widely according to what has been learned to be effective.
Distinguish the root cause
What looks like the same behaviour on the surface could be either a sign of thriving or a sign of surviving.
Let’s take the example of a character who is cheerful at the harshest time, focusing their efforts on helping others.
This could be an example of thriving in someone who genuinely believes in themselves and that the future will be positive. However, it could also be a mask that has been learned as a survival strategy – that to act happy instead of scared and put other people first keeps them safe from the anger of others.
Your task is to show the reader the difference between the two by writing through the eyes of the character.
Choose some subtle signs of survival
Your reader can absorb clues about your character all the way through your novel without even realising. What little details could you choose to pay attention to that give more information than would appear at first glance?
Ideas for how you can ‘show’ a character’s survival pattern:
- Environment – if your character tends to be in survival mode, then in scenes from their point of view, use what seems like background description of a room or street to show the reader what is foremost in the character’s attention. For example, you could mention that the exit is to their left (without needing to state this is someone who automatically checks for an escape route due to being in high threat mode), or that the second streetlight is flickering as if it could switch off any moment (they are hypervigilant to threat outdoors as well as inside).
- Self-monitoring – show the focus that a character in survival mode may have on their own body. For example, someone who has learned to act passive in order to stay safe might sit on their hands or grip a chair to hide their anger; whilst a character who has been conditioned to act tough, and never show weakness to avoid being harmed, may be very aware if they are sweating or flushed.
- Appearance – has your character learned to keep themselves looking drab and folded over to avoid unwanted attention, or are they immaculately turned out in popular brand name clothes as a survival strategy of fitting in to avoid bullying? You don’t need to explain this or make it stand out too much, you can simply name drop a label or the particular shade of nail polish in mint condition for example.
It’s really important to remember that survival mode has developed in a certain set of circumstances. This means that survival responses differ for each character.
Let’s say you have a section of the novel where your three characters are reacting to a threatening note that has been delivered to their flat.
Milly is fearful of coming to harm, just like her mum who was attacked in her twenties. This triggers her to panic and want to leave the area.
Jamie is fearful of being seen to be scared. He was bullied at school and learned to mask his fear to avoid being beaten up – or worse. He makes jokes about the letter but inside is scared that he’ll not be able to protect his friends.
Daniella’s survival strategy means she doesn’t notice her fear and goes straight into anger. She learned in her teens that the only way to stop her dad from hurting her mum was to fight back. She grabs a knife and sits by the door, ready for action.
Outside of this clear threat, you could find that Milly often stays home and does a lot of her social life online, Jamie is focused on how he looks in public and lifts weights at the gym for hours on end, whereas Daniella goads people to test them out and prove she’s the most capable.
You want the small scenes to add up to the same picture as the behaviour found towards the main threat.
You can plan this out for your characters by answering the following statements for each:
- My survival mode is triggered by… (type of threat)
- I keep myself safe by… (action)
- I get my needs met by… (action)
A final point to remember is that your characters don’t have to fit neatly into one box or another. They may go into survival mode in some contexts and thrive in others, or you can have an arc that moves them out of threat mode across time.
Members of The Novelry can enjoy Character Clinics with Dr Stephanie Carty and other writing workshops and classes in our Catch Up TV Library.