Have you ever read a book and not accepted the character’s actions? Have you ever declared aloud, “That’s stupid, no one would do that.” I have. And I’ve heard other people say it too. But in all honesty, how do you know how you’d really react if confronted with a axe-wielding maniac or if you unexpectedly found yourself in an unknown world. How do you know how you’d truly feel if a stranger snatched your child from your side and took off with him? How do you know what you’d instinctively do if a gun was held at your head. How would you know, unless you experienced it yourself.
Sitting comfortably in your lounge room reading about a character who experiences these things is not the same as facing the situation in real life. Yes, as you read, you might feel your heart quicken and you may even recognise a quiver of fear run up your spine, but that’s as far as it goes. You don’t have to rely on your legs to carry you to safety. You don’t have to hope your scream is loud enough to wake the neighbours. You don’t have to actually fear for your life or make a snap decision. And in that moment of terror, how do you know you’ll be capable of making a snap decision? You can’t know until you are in the situation.
I didn’t accept this until I reacted to the news of my son’s passing. Being such a practical, straight laced, focused person I never thought for a second that I would collapse in a heap on the floor. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I went down into the foetal position and sobbed. If anyone had suggested that I’d do such a thing, I would have smirked and said, “I don’t think so! That’s just not me.” And I would have meant it, but I would have been wrong.
It’s reasonable to say that you don’t think you’d react in the same way as the character, but you cannot say their reaction is totally wrong. Everyone reacts differently and that reaction can change due to their mental status at the time or the emotional investment they have in the situation or past experiences of a similar nature or just from shock. You might view the reaction of a character in a book as silly or stupid, you may even laugh, but if faced with the situation yourself you will soon discover that we don’t always react the way we think we will.
Many years ago, I wrote a rape scene. I have never been raped, but my instincts told me that I wouldn’t necessarily scream. I think I would, however, fight against the violation to the end and I guess I’d keep all my strength for that instead of wasting it on screaming. I hope I’m never in the situation to find out what I really would do. However, several critiquers told me that the scene was not realistic. They felt the lack of screaming flattened the scene and they urged me to do a rewrite. This brought to mind an incident when I was about 15 years old. I was sitting with my parents, watching a movie, when the loudest, most terrifying, scream penetrated our home and announced that someone was in desperate trouble. We rushed outside, as did a lot of our neighbours, to find a young woman running and screaming at the top of her lungs. The man chasing her quickly took off into the shadows, but was caught by police later. Upon seeing us, the woman made a bee line directly to my father and begged him to help her. She later told us that the man was waiting in the bushes near the bus stop and pounced on her as soon as the bus disappeared around the corner. Her wild screams saved her from events I would rather not think about.
Yet whilst I was thinking about the comments I received on my scene, I concluded that it wasn’t wrong. Just because the majority of readers felt they would scream bloody murder, it doesn’t mean I wrote the scene incorrectly. I decided to keep it as it was. Then…several days later I received an email from a critiquer who had read the scene but hadn’t offered her opinion, but she had seen what the others had said to me. She had taken several days to think about it and then she decided that for my sake (and for the sake of the scene) she had to speak up. She had been raped! She told me that reading the scene bought it all back – the emotion, the fear. She said that despite what everyone else thought, the scene (to her) was more realistic than any other she had ever read. Her experience was exactly like my scene. My words had connected with her on the deepest level and, although she was battling with past demons because of what she’d read, she needed me to know that my scene was good, that it didn’t need changing.
She understood that for me it was just a scene, but she opened up to me like I was another rape victim. My words connected us and she shared so much of her experience with me that saying I was grateful just didn’t feel right…or appropriate. I find myself wondering, all these years later, if she realised her emails boosted my confidence as a writer. If I could connect to one person in that way, perhaps I could connect to others…that thought drove me on.
But why have I brought this up today? On the train this morning I sat behind two young women discussing a book they had both finished reading recently. Unfortunately, I don’t know what book they were referring to, but what caught my interest was their conversation on how they felt the main character’s reactions were totally wrong. When I heard one of them say, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t react like that. Would you?”, it made me think of that rape scene. Surely readers don’t expect everyone to react in the exact same way they do. Do they? As a writer, I must chose carefully how I want my characters to react to the situations I put them in. Are they going to do what everyone expects of them, or are they going to react in the way befitting their personality? I will chose the reaction for their personality every time! To do anything else, just wouldn’t seem right.