On Writing: Characters in a Crisis

If you can keep your head about you when all about you are losing theirs, odds are you’ve worked in retail a while.


Basically, if you work in a big enough retail environment, something weird, quirky, or just different is likely to happen every day, and a serious crisis is likely on a weekly or monthly basis. Anything from angry customers because you misheard one letter in a word to computers going down to roof collapses to trying to sort out why X item can’t be priced – was it mislabeled, was it never entered in the system, is it even from this store?

This is more relevant to fantasy and SF than you might think.

Often, so often, books and movies like to take an “average person”, throw them into a horrible crisis, and watch as they rise to beat overwhelming odds. Two movie examples that spring to mind are Under Siege (he’s just a cook) and Die Hard (just a cop on vacation). Of the two McClane is more of a real Average Everyday Hero, given that we know he’s a cop from the start. A cop trying to pull a failing marriage back together, making him a very plausible Regular Guy indeed. But he is a New York City cop, homicide no less, which makes it reasonable that when a crisis suddenly erupts he takes cover, investigates, and then goes out to solve the problem. In that order.

If you put your average “originally innocent bystander” into a crisis situation, especially with violence, most people would freeze. It’s not part of their mental framework. It takes extra energy and clear-headedness for a brain to cope with a completely new scenario, and when the adrenaline hits the fan, that’s exactly what you don’t have.

Unless – and this is the trick – your character can somehow reclassify this extreme situation as somewhat like messes they’ve dealt with in the past, and apply similar strategies. And survive.

Conflict de-escalation. Dodging. Knowing who’s the higher authority to drag into a mess. Figuring out what tools you need to handle X, Y, and Z – or at least to improvise battering the problem into temporary submission.

If it came to surviving a zombie apocalypse, between researchers from the CDC and the average store clerk, I’d bet on the store clerk. If only because a clerk/cashier/stocker/what have you, has a pretty good idea when a situation has escalated beyond what they’re supposed to deal with and it’s time to get the heck away from the crazy guy.

Think about this, when you toss your characters into a life-or-death situation. It’s not just what they know and what they’re trained for that determines if they live or die. It’s whether or not they can sort what they don’t know into something close enough that they can make a strategy work. After all, if you’re suddenly up against killer aliens or angry Fae, who do you think is more likely to die? The trained SWAT or Special Forces team who are all used to human bad guys? Or the pizza delivery guy who may not have a clue what just landed, but is pretty sure it’s mean, ugly, and not going to leave a tip?

…Granted, that’d likely depend on whether or not focused firepower makes a difference. But it’s something to think about!

15 thoughts on “On Writing: Characters in a Crisis

  1. On a related point I’d think some autists would, _because_ of our normal difficulties dealing with even slight changes in situations from “normal”, be better off than most neurotypicals in this sort of case… because of doing the same thing that gets jokes made about the military: running through scenarios for all sorts of improbable or unusual situations ahead of time so as to already have a way to deal with it in the unlikely case it does happen. Even just with purely mundane situations, this habit has served me well and is one of the reasons I’m classed as high functioning. I even managed to work out how to do this modularly, and have “processes for handling not having a process” and “processes for developing new processes on the fly” as part of my repertoire of pre-worked scenarios, and have used them successfully.

    Liked by 7 people

      1. Oddly enough… I think Science Fiction, as a genre, serves this “gaming out scenarios” function on a societal level. Well, *some* SF, at least, the well-thought-out kind. I’ve sometimes wondered if SF is, in part, some sort of societal “immune reaction” to “future shock,” and the assorted stresses of the world changing at an unprecedented pace over a multi-generational period.

        Case in point: anyone recall Dolly the (cloned) Sheep? The talking heads on the news were freaking out, and I ran into a *lot* of “mundanes” who were *also* freaking out, and expecting Evil Duplicates to suddenly start showing up in battalions. But SF fen? Were generally chill. Mostly b/c *good* SF has spent *decades* exploring the potentials, pitfalls, and *limitations* of cloning technology, and if you’d read enough of those stories, you had a good idea how far the distance was from Dolly to, say, The Sixth Day (a movie that sprang *from* the “Dolly scare”).

        SF is, on some level, a tool for “gaming out” the “what-if” scenarios of new technologies. A sort of “mental prepping”, if you will. Try *that* on the next person who mocks your reading habits….

        Liked by 4 people

      2. You can coast for a loooooong time writing scifi that is straight up story-telling build around old religious philosophy questions– something like City of God by… I think it was Augustus of Hippo… could fill out season after season of Deep Philosophical Themes.


      3. Not so “oddly”. One of the old names was “speculative fiction”, but it was also sometimes stated as “speculative science”. And while modern usage has changed it to “stories involving some combination of space, aliens, spaceships, rayguns, etc”, the historical use of the term was for “science not quite yet” or “15 seconds into the future, if we had X new scientific discovery/gadget/etc”. It wasn’t about the _scenery_, instead it was “if we changed the world in this one way (whether some gadget, some discovery, or a literal difference in how the world works), what butterflies would result? Let’s explore this and see what happens.” This is as opposed to Fantasy, which historically wasn’t “elves and magic and swords”, but instead “let’s have some escapism, exploring this world that fits our wishes for something different.”


  2. Or, you could play it the other direction- have a useless and even distracting and obstracting character, have a moment where they get to sdo something that the hero can’t.

    Like having the lawyer of the bad guy, who hounded the hero and his group throughout half the book with legalese and technicalities, using any and every chance to give trouble, legally, while disbelieving their claims about his boss being a demon, and later proving as useful as a headless chicken when the demons invade… Turning really useful, when he ends up being the one to figure the riddle of the sphinx guarding the sword of +1 that the hero needs to kill the demon, because he used to read all teh riddle books he could get his hands on, as a teen.

    they guy who proves dead waight during the zombie apocalipse, almost dying a dozen times, with the suffering protagonist saving him again and again, and again… suddenly turning to be a hacker, and hackin the attack robot into ignoring them and focusing on the zombies.

    Bonus points if the guy was not only useless but also annoying for both the heroes and the readers untill that moment he helped save the day.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Actually, a lawyer would be Fairly Useful against a demon, in a lot of situations, because demons are usually weak to certain kinds of authority. Lawyers in the US are sworn officers of the court; they know legalese; they are used to not trusting people they negotiate with; and they are comfortable with imprisonment, legal trickery, deportation, et al.

      Of course, the problem is that demons are not usually considered legal persons under US law, but there may be precedents to the contrary. Plus potentially it could really torque off a demon to be considered anything else but a legal person, so potentially one could mess with the demon.

      The secular or non-secular nature of a lawyer’s authority would probably come into play in many situations… but a lawyer could probably argue the “one nation under God” and where secular rights and authority come from under US common law (ie, God, albeit through the consent of the governed), and slither through the secular bit.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. A lot of this sort of thing depends on your theme and story motifs, as much as what can be done. So what “seems like a good idea” depends on what’s simmering deep in a writer’s mind. Is a person’s professional skill more important, or their backstory skills, or their current hobbies? Anything you choose will give a story a different feel, and you’d want to foreshadow them and build up to them somewhat differently.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Yeah, well, check your lore first. During the witch trials, it was agreed that the Devil would promise all sorts of things to make you sell your soul, and then laugh at the idea of fulfilling them, and throw you some magic powder to revenge yourself on your neighbors.


  3. There are certain kinds of “take command” and “evade responsibility” that can be leveraged by retail. “Corporate says” and “that is not our policy” are fairly common ones.

    Also… safety briefings tell you what not to do, but in some situations, that can be reversed.

    I mean, if you’re a forklift guy, you know how to make a stack of pallets of stuff practically explode across the floor, or how to set a trap. Because you know how not to make that happen by mistake.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Expertise in any given area usually comes down to knowing the critical information you need to find and being able to throw out the junk data that you don’t need for the job.

    My work involves reading a specific type of technical diagram, so I can glance at a page and understand what is happening.
    Somebody new might spend hours looking at the same page and be completely confused, but they might also notice a note in the corner that’s different than usual and I overlooked.

    A person trained for the wrong crisis might respond instantly, but their response might be wrong.

    A person untrained for the crisis might freeze or run around like a headless chicken, but given time, they might be able to reach better conclusions than the person making the wrong assumptions.

    The parts that annoy me are when the trained people don’t respond correctly, but they don’t respond by their training either.

    Or untrained civilians that instantly understand what’s going on.

    Or even worse, the “genre savvy” people who make random assumptions about the situation and assume they know the correct response because “that’s how the stories go.”

    Liked by 3 people

    1. See, Shen Yuan and Shang Qinghua in SVSSS. Genre savvy as all get out, but they were in there thinking they were in a harem drama, even worse, a stallion novel. They aren’t.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Unless – and this is the trick – your character can somehow reclassify this extreme situation as somewhat like messes they’ve dealt with in the past, and apply similar strategies. And survive.

    You can have a lot of fun with this one by making it incredibly outlandish stuff– say, your guy thrown into a giant mecha survives because he was really good at playing dodgeball.

    If it’s more than a one-off, you’ll want to stick with the strengths and weaknesses of this “training”– say, don’t try to catch the ball when it’s explosive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Miss Marple’s village parallels. She’s not wrong — experience with people and situations does tend to repeat, and unfortunately you do have to consider the worst possibilities about people as well as the best.

      Liked by 2 people

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