Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Guest post by Bonnie Randall
Your heroine, shipwrecked on a treacherous island. Your hero, face-to-face with a rabid beast. Your beloved side-kick, diagnosed with an aggressive—and likely terminal—illness.
When faced with extraordinary shock-fear-danger—aka, trauma—your character’s brain will react in predictable ways. We are, after all, only human, and the instinct to survive peril is permeated within the human experience.
That said, in the wake of a traumatic event, people will also react in ways that are highly unique and completely beholden to their circumstances, history, and personality.
Given that, let’s unspool what it means and how to craft the most authentic reactions for the characters we love to place in great danger.
1. The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response
Governed by the brain’s Amygdala (or ‘Fear Centre’), the instinct to fight-flight-or-freeze will occur more rapidly than even the most cutting-edge computer can count. What’s more, even though the brain chooses one of these three options without conscious thought, it does apply discernment. Meaning the brain will, with immediacy, assess the circumstance, stack it up against our own capabilities, then employ the best possible option for our survival—regardless of our own conscious thoughts or wishes. For example: if the brain detects an escape route, it will force the body to run … even if the body is that of a tough guy who might be able to fight.
Similarly, the brain whose body is overpowered by an assailant will swiftly determine whether victory would be likely in hand-to-hand combat, or if the body is even capable of running—and if both options appear unlikely, the brain will then force the body to freeze until the attack is over, for as we play dead we stand the chance of our assailant giving up and leaving us alone.
Yet these instinctive responses don’t come without cost. Consider the character whose ego is shattered because he “ran like a coward instead of fighting back.” Or the character who believes she “let the rape happen” because she froze, brain instinctively knowing she was not physically strong enough to win combat with her attacker, and also seeing that he was big enough to out-pace her if she tried to run away.
Many internal emotional conflicts—both in real life and in fiction—are borne out of the contrast between what we think or wish we would have done and our brains’ instincts when faced with the peril that’s just been survived.
Therefore, when crafting traumatic responses, stay attuned to what the brain—in survival mode—will be aware of that may go against the grain of what that character might typically do.
2. The Traumatized Brain Has Access To Feelings, Not Words
Emotion, not logic. As such, our typically level-headed hero may not, in fact, react logically at all. Instead he will react, and the reaction will fall into step with whichever instinctive response his brain is employing to keep him safe from the peril.
An example, particularly for any die-hard Grey’s Anatomy fans: Remember the fatal plane crash? Recall how Cristina wandered aimlessly around the crash site, searching in vain—and inanely—for her missing shoe. Irrational reaction? You bet. But was it in tune with what the brain will do when traumatized? Absolutely; in searching for her shoe, Cristina had dissociated from the crash and all the carnage. The quest for her shoe was her brain’s way of ‘fleeing’ the peril—and the shoe was actually (brilliantly) symbolic—for if she were to find it, perhaps she could take flight for real.
Therefore, as your characters’ brains dole out their most logical instinct, make sure you keep their accompanying behaviours firmly illogical—so remember: they are operating from emotion, not from lucidity.
1. Your Character’s History
The brain’s most successful reaction to trauma might get derailed depending on what has happened to your character in the past. Think of traumatic responses being like a finger dragged through nearly-set cement. The more often someone is traumatized, the more ingrained their ‘go-to’ response will be—even if it is not the response that will most likely assure their survival.
Consider, for example, a little boy who grew up in the throes of domestic violence. As a child, his brain knew that if he just froze—stayed very still—he would not incite the ire of his violent father. He’d stay safe. Fast-forward to adulthood. Now we have a big, strapping man, physically able to defend himself. Yet he freezes on the massage table as his masseuse sexually assaults him…then beats himself with shame ever after. He shouldn’t—his brain was merely doling out the reaction that had always worked before. And yet you can see how that personal history has now created an internal conflict that could tear your character’s ego apart.
2. Neutral Stimuli Becoming Traumatic Stimuli
This one is a close cousin to history. Remember, when facing peril, the brain is assessing, swiftly and certainly, its environment. Remember also that it is thinking from a place of emotion rather than logic. Therefore, it is common for neutral stimuli (like the song that was playing on the radio, the color of the assailant’s shirt, the weather outside, etc.) to become encoded, by the brain, as ‘traumatic stimuli’—remembered ever-after by the victim, and evoking an anxiety response whenever it reoccurs.
3. The ‘Friend’ Response To Trauma
This reaction, while certainly the most sophisticated, is also the most insidious. Said to be “The Fourth F”, ‘Friend’ is more often, referred to as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ or ‘The Trauma Bond’. Here’s how it works: when a person has been terrorized, again and again, by the same spouse, parent, bully, etc., it is not uncommon for them to employ extreme rationalizations or excuses for their abuser’s behaviour. This too is a protective measure; for as their brain ‘waters down’ the extent of the abuse, the abuse then becomes more bearable. Acceptable, even. Sometimes the ‘Friend’ response will even see the victim engaging as a helper to the assailant so h or she can focus his or her tactics on another target (think the school yard “Queen Bee” and her ‘minions’). Heinous? Yes, but … the brain will do what it needs to do in order to survive … even if the option is not necessarily the most palatable.
So there you have it! A springing-off point to help craft believable responses to traumatic events. For further research, I strongly recommend unpacking any articles you find PTSD, complex PTSD, gaslighting and/or narcissistic abuse. Happy writing!
Bonnie Randall lives in a forest at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, Canada. Through her social work in a career spent in Child Protection, addictions counseling, and now as a national trainer on Violent Threat Assessment, Trauma, and Adversity, Bonnie knows that it is our relationships—with people and our environments—that shape our souls and craft what, ultimately, becomes the human experience.
Bonnie's passion for writing explores what love looks like in the face of paranormal peril, for “Till death do us part” is, after all, only an illusion … Love never dies ...
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