Have you ever read a book where a character does or says something that seems to be completely bizarre? I don’t mean a plot-twist, I mean when a character literally does not follow ‘normal human behaviour’ causing the story to lose its believability and you, as the reader, end up questioning what planet the author was living on when they wrote their book? Unfortunately this seems to happen from time to time and it can cause readers to lose interest in, or give up on, a book entirely.
As much as every person is unique and reacts differently to different situations, and of course you will always have the anomalies (or rather the few that don’t behave like the majority), sometimes characters react in ways that you just cannot fathom, and when this happens your brain will point out everything that it views as flaws. Sometimes this is down to the individual reader but often it is the author’s fault, whether it be poor writing, or poor structural editing, or a seemingly lack of understanding in basic human reactions. Sometimes authors write sentences, paragraphs and even chapters that your brain just cannot get on board with. Before I go further, it is important to point out here that not everyone will enjoy or understand a particular book, everyone has different tastes, and even the famous authors receive bad reviews.
A visceral reaction in psychology is a subconscious reaction; these are our instinctive reactions which continue to affect our behaviour today and kept our early ancestors alive. Neurotransmitters in our brain will almost instantly react to an external stimuli (situation/experience) causing us to feel a particular emotion or set of emotions and prompt a physical reaction (action). Visceral reactions are often fleeting moments, like sudden anger when you overhear someone being rude or sudden jealously when your neighbour buys a brand new Porsche.
However, they’re not always fleeting moments, especially in literature. Take a fictional zombie apocalypse and it is likely that the characters will undergo prolonged periods of danger and stress, which will lead to ‘normal’ emotional responses such as fear and anger. You would expect the fight or flight instinct to kick in here, some people may run away from approaching zombies, some may be too scared to move, others may try to fight. It is unlikely that a character who represents a normal, average person, will react calmly or be particularly happy about their situation. There are exceptions of course, a character with a military background may well react in a calm and professional manner, and a character who is mentally unstable may well find the situation of a zombie apocalypse hilarious and entertaining. It all depends on who your character is and what sort of backstory they may have, but it is highly unlikely that an average teenage girl or boy will immediately turn into a kick-ass, zombie-killing, machine.
In combination with our basic instincts and visceral reactions, our modern lives ultimately shape how we think, feel and react. Society has a huge impact on our lives and we are not always aware of these impacts. The media, adverts, music, famous people, etcetera, all affect society. You will find similarities and differences throughout the world and what may be popular in China, may not necessary be popular here in the UK.
Generally speaking life has become easier, particularly for first-world societies, and as a result it is safe to assume that survival skills are pretty limited in first-world societies. The stresses and hardships of everyday life are vastly different throughout the countries of the world. Therefore, what one person may consider difficult another person may think is no problem at all. This is important because depending on where your character lives, or even where their parents and grandparents lived, it will affect them as a person. It will affect their reactions, morals, skills, how they think and how they feel. When it comes to describing the correct emotional and behavioural response for your character, you need to consider every aspect of their fictional lives. You also need to make sure that the reader is aware of all of this, ideally before your characters have to react to anything.
I read a book recently where within the first couple of chapters the main character, who happened to be a normal teenager, witnessed their parent being kidnapped by mythical demons, but appeared to be completely fine and calm the very next morning and up for going on a rescue mission and expected to kill the evil protagonist who happened to be a demon lord. The main character didn’t cry, or withdraw into themselves, or panic, or have an explosive outburst, they just calmly accepted their fate like it was the most normal thing in the world. I fully accept that it could just be me here, and I can understand the desire to protect a family member at all costs, but not even the hint of an emotional breakdown? I think that’s pretty bizarre, needless to say the voice in my head immediately piped up with ‘well that’s not very realistic’ (I know – the irony that demons could ever be considered realistic), but being realistic is important if you want to retain your reader’s attention.
So how do you avoid making this mistake in your writing? Well it’s not always easy, but the next time you’re writing and your character is faced with an extreme situation, or even any situation, pause for a moment and think things through. Are their reactions normal or can they be explained by the character’s backstory? Are their emotions justified? How long would they feel a particular emotion for? Does something extra need to happen in order to prolong their emotional state? Who would influence their decisions and reactions? If you’re not sure then talk to friends, family and even your editor/agent and ask for their opinions. Listen to people’s stories and ask them how they felt at the time if they’re not already explaining it. Read popular books and watch movies, analyse the characters and compare their situations to your written work, and above all else my advice is to experiment and practise.
Extra Reading and References:
Psychological responses to loss article
10 Psychological Principles Blog
How does your brain impact your survival chances in the wilderness?