Character Evolution: Crisis and Types of Response

Yesterday we discussed what might affect how people react to external events that threaten their worldview. Today, we’re going to discuss the general types of reactions exhibited in circumstances like this.

First is resistance and denial. In this situation, people can’t conceive of the possibility that something they believed all their lives might actually be wrong. Or the realization might be so devastating that to actually believe it would shatter them, so they avoid believing by whatever means possible. Some might refuse to listen, some might find ways to convince themselves that their sources are lying, some will come up with increasingly convoluted ways of explaining away the things they don’t want to believe, some run away. Essentially, this strategy focuses on avoidance, whether it’s mental, social or physical. Since they don’t want to believe it’s true, though, they’re not going to do anything about it.

Second is breakage, the opposite extreme. Similar to the above, the realization is something that the character can’t handle and knows it. But for whatever reason–overwhelming evidence, less strength of conviction, being pushed almost to the breaking point by prior stress–they don’t find a way to resist it. Personally, I dislike this method when dealing with mean characters; it’s good in the temporary, but over the long term it leads to rather boring main characters. If you must do it, have some idea how to snap them out of it. A main character in states ranging from nearly suicidal depression to utter apathy isn’t much fun to watch for more than a chapter or so.

Or they could choose utter opposition. This one is rather like resistance in that it is characterized by utter rejection of the offending issue. But unlike resistance, in which the character will not accept that the issue could be true, the character will not allow it to be true. Instead, she fights back. On the plus side, this is an effective source of conflict and motivation. The catch is that characters in a state of utter opposition can be rather stupid, sticking to their fights long after they should have given up.

Then there’s examination. This state can appear on its own or be paired up with any of the above, even resistance. In this state, the character tries to deal with the problem by making sense of it, whether it’s “This can’t be happening; there must be some other reason”, “How dead am I?”, “All right, how did this happen and how do we solve it”, or something else entirely.

Sometimes, a character ends up choosing dissociation.  Yes, the world-shattering revelation is true and inevitable, but as far as the character is concerned, it doesn’t actually involve her.  She might look at it as an academic exercise, or commiserate with those whom it does affect, but she will not accept it as a threat to herself.

Last is acceptance, which can come in any of a number of forms.  For some people it might mean embracing the new state of things and attempting to ensure it–this is relatively rare, though, and usually requires at least one other reason.  For others, it leans more towards agreeing that the revelation is true and grudgingly coexisting with it. For still others, it involves accepting the truth of the matter but resisting its continuance; this is rather like opposition, only with less of a bent towards foolhardy stupidity.  Acceptance is essentially the equilibrium point; most roads lead to it, and few lead away.

Note that these states are anything but mutually exclusive.  Even acceptance can combine itself with almost any of the other states.  Often, a character will transition between multiple states.  One might at first deny the truth of a world-shattering revelation, then be overcome by the evidence and shatter for a little while, then rebound and throw herself completely into preventing it from being the problem that it is, possibly learning everything she can about it in the process.  While this order is the most common, almost any sequence, permutation or combination is possible.  It mainly varies by character, as noted yesterday.

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