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WritersLife Wednesday – What Makes Your Character Freakout?


I have a hair trigger on my panic response for a few select things.  Anything with bugs, shots or unexpected expenses… or my ex 🙂  So a car problem that requires me to pay $1000 to fix it makes me spaz.  I cry, I rant, I curl up in a ball with a stomach ache, and then I deal with it after a few days (which really doesn’t work when there’s a wasp in the house or I have to get a shot).

When my car broke down with the engine on fire in the middle of Nowhere Nebraska, for some reason I was calm and switched into problem solving mode.  Car’s dead, how do we get out of the middle of nowhere?  What I should’ve done was take a picture of the engine on fire first and then got my shit out of the trunk (instead of just getting my shit out of the trunk right away cuz a pic would’ve been so cool!) because I was worried the car would explode (it didn’t, but that would’ve been a story 🙂

And then I figured out how to live without a car, surprisingly easy during the school year because I lived walking distance to campus and a good grocery store.

I can’t explain it, but we all have those things that make us freak out when other things, arguably bigger things, just don’t.  Big test?  I would worry, even panic a little leading up to it, but the second it started, I’d switch into testing superhero girl and there was no such thing as test anxiety.  I always do better during the real test than practice tests.  I have friends who are the exact opposite and are understandably bad at tests, which really affects your whole life when you have to pass a test to practice in your profession.

We also have different times in our lives where we are more vulnerable where something small will affect us more.  So if your character is more vulnerable lately due to whatever else you’ve thrown at them (because you’re a writer, it’s your job to make their lives hell, I’m sorry to break it to you 🙂 then some smaller things will affect them more.  They’re going to be more worn down and need more time to deal with it.

No matter how strong and independent and capable your character is, they are going to have one or three things that make them freak the f*%^ out, that they just can’t handle right now.  I know, I know, they’re supposed to be strong and capable and the hero, sidekick, love interest or even the villain, but nobody is perfect.

It might be a phobia, being trapped in traffic, moving to a new city or job, breaking up with bf or gf, getting embarrassed at school, putting on weight (I don’t know, I never said it was logical 🙂  It should be something illogical, because that’s what phobias and fears are.  They flick a switch and it bypasses your logical center and makes you panic and/or put up with something else as long as you can avoid the switch.

Why do women stay in abusive relationships?  Because in their minds, it’s not as bad as being alone, leaving the person they love, not having the financial security that person offers, or just change because who knows how much worse things could get?

Now, think what your switches are, what your friends’ and family members’ are, and how that panic response presents itself in you all.  My panic goes straight to my stomach and I get hot flashes, and then I rant about how the problem shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Asking around, some people get headaches or they pace or sit in the corner hugging their knees, others blame other people and go after them.

What are fears you can google?  Maybe dive into why people have them, do a little psych research.  Your character’s got to have at least one huge, irrational fear that flips their switch, probably two or three, and affects their whole life.  Because humans do.  We all have something.

One big but here!  If your character has already been through a lot of shit and dealt with it, they’re going to have scars from that which are much less obvious in the moment and never go away, but they’re going to deal with stuff that throws them off so much better.  My bf was born and raised in the USSR.  Nothing phases him.  He’s got fears, of course, we all do, but he deals with them with the calm aplomb of someone who has seen worse.  Again, everyone has something that flicks their irrationality panic switch, but the people who’ve seen the truly bad are going to have a higher threshold and are going to deal with it better in the moment.

Which leads to the next steps in your character’s development.  (Oh come on, you knew that’s where we were going with this. 🙂  Once you character flips out and then gets around to dealing with it, when something like this happens again, they’re going to deal with it much better because they have a map in their heads of how bad it was before and how they lived through it.

My big example is what I consider the biggest mistake of my life.  The ex I mentioned above (I still get a shot of adrenaline that feels a lot like fear when I see him on social media or hear his name and when he lived in town, I’d get the same fear responses I have to bugs or shots whenever I thought I might run into him.)  I trusted a guy I shouldn’t have and yes, he is being immortalized in stories, and killed off in at least one 🙂  He broke my heart and I spiraled down into a depression I didn’t know I could have, which affected the rest of my life.  So after that, I was scared to get involved, not because I was afraid of getting hurt, I was afraid of how I’d react to getting hurt and of spiraling again.  I waited until I had built myself up enough to trust that I wouldn’t spiral, that I could be hurt and upset and miss someone without being depressed.  Next time a guy broke up with me, I was upset and crying for a day, and missed him for awhile, but I was fine.  No spiral, no negative effect on my school work, just grieved and moved on.

Some people have the fear response to the unknown, like a noise outside.  Some people have been through some shit and it makes them even worse (PTSD or like people who are abused as kids and therefore put up with abuse as adults) and really flip out at a flick of their switches.  Some people deal by denial until something tips them over the edge, so they’ll freak out a week after what truly flipped them.

Utilize all of these in your characters.  Different triggers that make them panic, crises in the past that make them stronger and maybe one or two that makes them weaker, what decisions they make and what they put up with to avoid their triggers, how they deal initially, and what they do to rise to the occasion, and what they do the next time this type of crisis comes up.

By writing character driven books, we have to become students of psychology to some extent.  Your characters have to have weaknesses and there have got to be some mental ones, because everyone has those.

It’s how your characters deal after something happens, after they freak out, and after they are damaged that makes them who they are.  It’s the process of learning how to deal that makes a story.  The car story would probably be a lot more entertaining if we freaked out and panicked, but panic wouldn’t have gotten us out of the middle of nowhere.  Blaming the mechanics that changed my oil and didn’t notice a piece about to break off and puncture the oil drum wouldn’t have gotten us out of there either.

I however, will never forgive Nebraska and will never drive though it again 🙂

There’s your psych lesson for today, with some examples from my own life because I use those in my own writing… and because I’m a writer and have no sense of personal privacy apparently 🙂

Happy Writing 🙂

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