So, I was working on a scene this morning. I was working on a scene and I screwed myself…I screwed myself because, while I was writing, I wasn’t thinking. The particulars of the scene in question aren’t important, not nearly so important as what I failed to think about when I was writing: panic.
With all due deference to love and hate, panic — pure, blind, incapacitating panic — is pretty much the strongest emotion we humans have. As someone who has seen and done things that many folks simply read about, I can honestly say that panic has killed far more people than stupidity and hate combined.
When someone is flailing and thrashing in the water, it is not the lack of skill at swimming that drowns them, it is the panic — they waste all their strength and energy, not to mention whatever opportunities for salvation may come, in that panic. When folks get lost in the backwoods, it is not the unfamiliarity that kills them, it is the panic — they wander and run, they make bad decisions and do stupid things, all because of panic.
That list of examples could go on and on, by the way. From the fields of combat to wandering city streets at night, from facing down other humans to dealing with wild predators, the one who stays calm can survive, where the one who panics will die. It has nothing (really) to do with fear — fear is a healthy, natural response to dangerous situations — but has everything to do with control.*
*I once wrote a smaller example of this, in a post about “navigating small.”
Now, the reason I had to think about panic while writing is that, for all my planning and envisioning of the scene in question, I had left no room for that particular failing. And it needed to be there.
Oh boy, did it need to be there.
My characters were in a situation where 99% of humanity would suffer at least a bit of panic…a situation both strange and terrifying. As usual, when I finished writing, I did a quick read-through to check what I had come up with. That read-through left me with a sense of wrongness that I just couldn’t shake. Hell, I couldn’t even figure out what was wrong, at first…
…until I put myself into the scene. I would’ve panicked, I decided. Shit, I would’ve skipped Go, and gone straight into holy-shit-I’m-fucked blind panic.
Now, look…I’ve faced bears and wolves in the wild. I’ve been lost among hills and valleys with no sign of a trail or another human for fifty miles. I’ve had scuba diving accidents a hundred feet down. I’ve jumped out of airplanes. And, with everything I’ve seen and done, still I would’ve panicked in the particular situation I was writing about.
But, as the writer, I didn’t think about that. No…instead, my characters all stayed calm. My characters all kept their heads. My characters all did what they were supposed to. And my scene had no urgency or sense of danger. In the end, it had no reality or authenticity.
Even when we plan and build our characters with all the depth in the world, even when we take into account faults and problems and weaknesses to go with their strengths and triumphs, it is FAR too easy to forget that they have to be people first. Confining the “reality” of a character to a good backstory and a set of parameters for personality and skills doesn’t give you a true character, it just gives you words on a page.
No, to move beyond mere words…to move beyond the flat, two-dimensional characters that plague so many stories, you have to get to reality: your characters have to be people. They have to eat and sleep. They have to piss and shit. They have to have bad breath from time to time. When you get right down to it, they have to panic.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to Square One with my scene…