Physically Reacting to Conflict, Part 1: Perceiving a Threat

A guest post by Emily Godhand.

Growing up, health classes taught that when filled with adrenaline, the human body would react in one of two ways:

A) React with extreme violence (Fight)
— or —
B) Run away like a coward (Flight)

And of course they were phrased as such. As if the only fighting that could be done was physical, and that running away isn’t a legitimate survival tactic.

But once I moved out of the realm of elementary school sound-bites and actually evaluated the world I was raised in, I came to the sobering conclusion that the body’s reaction to a threat is much more complicated and twisted than I ever would have imagined. … And I write horror.

The month of April could be devoted to daily lessons how a person’s response to perceived physical, mental, or emotional threats develops from their psycho-social upbringing. In fact, I could probably spend the month contrasting the various different ways a character could develop Complex-PTSD based upon childhood development traumas and the way that would present as an adult. But that’s a bit much and better people have expanded further than I ever could.

For ease, I’ll split this into two parts:
1) Characters perceiving a threat, whether physical, emotional, mental, or social.
2) Characters reacting to a threat (Fight, Flight….Freeze, Fawn)

There are many factors that come into play when determining if the body will perceive a stimulus as a threat.

1) Have they experienced this before?

a) Do they have a frame of reference for what might happen?
“I’ve never met a bear but I’ve heard stories.”
“Mother taught me not to go out at night.”

b) Did it end badly for them if they have?
“Last time I asked a girl out I made a fool of myself.”
“Dont touch me. Don’t you ever touch me!”

c) Could it have ended badly, but didn’t, so they have a false sense of security?
“What’s anyone going to do about it?”
“No one cared/bothered me last time.”

2) Is there a social difference (age, class, gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc).

a) Opponent is perceived to be stronger/faster/better trained, or
aggressive/evil/corrupt.
A male vs a female, if the society discourages females from violence/fighting
An armed person/Police officer/Soldier versus a civilian
Crossing the street to avoid someone of a certain ethnicity or class

b) Opponent has more socio-political power.
Authority/Parental figure vs protagonist
Rich man vs Poor man (who will buy the better lawyer?)
“Antagonist is a respected pillar of this community, who is going to believe
you?”

c) Does your character care?
“I won’t stand for this any longer!”
“Justice!”
“I don’t play well with authority…”

3) Is the character’s perception skewed in some way?

a) History of Abuse
“The last person who hurt me was sex/race/Authority, so I’m nervous
now.”
“Every time I tried to fight, I was punished.”

b) Prejudice
“I don’t trust THOSE people….”
“What’s SHE going to do? She’s 50kg of adorable!”

c) Ignorance or self-delusion
“What? Did I say something wrong?”
“How was I supposed to know they would be hostile to outsiders!”

Each of these will paint a different lens through which your character views the world, and the perception of the power that they wield, the power the world feels they are allowed to wield, and the degree of repercussions for violating that amount of permission.

“But, Em, I’m not a (insert race/sex/gender/orientation/religion) in (insert culturally appropriate location)! How am I supposed to know how their perspective might differ?”

Simple: Ask them. If you have the opportunity and good rapport with someone who might identify with your character, ask for their opinion and feedback on the passage, and what they’d be thinking or worried about in this encounter. Sometimes we have to imagine ourselves in our character’s shoes, and it’s better to get an outside opinion from someone who would have an easier time doing so.

You might be surprised. The world can be terrifying.

About Emily Godhand: Emily Godhand HeadshotEmily Godhand is a cross-genre author who lives in a book fort in Denver, CO, with nine rats who revere her as their Queen.As former psychiatric technician, she draws her inspirations from her work and the constant nightmares she’s had for 13 years. As such, her works tend to focus on an exploration of trauma, immortality, and human consciousness. Read her latest work on Wattpad, where she is an Ambassador.

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