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Fight or Flight?…. Or Freeze? Is your character’s response to fear realistic?


We’ve all seen the movies like the Titanic, where a disaster or emergency has everyone running for their lives, people screaming, trying to save children, pushing others out of the way, a general disoriented craziness. But the Fight or Flight response has another, less popular, reaction… Freeze.

My daughter fell out of her bed last night. I heard the thump and I heard the crying, but I couldn’t move to go to her. I was woken from sleep and thrown into panic mode. The adrenaline put me into Fight or Flight response, which for me is the Freeze reaction. I can’t move for a good 5-10 minutes, until the adrenaline rush passes. Does this every happen to you?

I once read a chilling re-telling of what actually happened on the Titanic when it sunk. Most of the scared passengers ‘froze’ when disaster struck. In fact, the halls of the Titanic were eerily quiet as the massive ship slowly sunk. Some people remained in their rooms, frozen in fear. They weren’t screaming and running around, if anything they moved about like silent zombies, doing whatever they were told or not doing anything at all. The few passengers that were yelling commands and getting people into life boats were those previously trained in emergency situations, either with military / army backgrounds or men and women who were leaders in other professions.

This is part of the reason flight attendants go through the emergency procedures with you before each flight. In a scary situation you will only do what you have pre-planned in your mind to do. There is little ability for reasoning or rationalizing when adrenalin is pumping through your body and brain, unless you have previous experience responding in emergency situations. And of course there are exceptions to the rule.

For those of us who write stories, the third response in Fight or Flight is often ignored or forgotten. Does your character have an adrenaline rush when threatened and run away? Does she fight the monster? For a more chilling response you can have your character freeze, unable to run, as the threat closes in.

Your readers may relate to this on a deeper, more realistic, level that will have them biting their finger nails and holding their breath for the next page. But of course we want to see the heroine survive, so a last minute escape or fight response may be necessary to get her out of trouble. Maybe she is a natural born leader, leading the masses in their frozen alarmed state to safety. Or, if he is a man, he may instinctively start to fight as adrenaline courses through his veins.

What other cliché reactions do you think Hollywood gets wrong in their movies? Do movie characters’ reactions influence your writing? What reactions have your characters had in situations that you’ve never experienced personally? Did you research the reaction or just guess based on what you’ve seen in movies or read in other books? Would you go investigate a noise in the basement when you’re all alone in the house at night? Would you try to peacefully communicate to a scary looking alien or just throw a dagger at its heart to kill it?

I’m glad I don’t go through some of the situations my characters do, but I’m always intrigued by how a particular character, with his or her personality type, will react in uncommon situations. In my novel Moonlight Shadow ( Ayza is put into a very strange situation, she has been transported into someone else’s body on a different planet and injected with an alien virus. How did I handle her response? Her captor, a young alien male, uses his mind powers to calm her and make her feel at ease. Prior to this I used fight or flight response as she escaped the doctor and nurses administering the needle with the virus into her arm.

For a contemporary novel, like my romance The Virgin Diaries (  I would have tried a more realistic reaction. But for sci-fi, the planet, the aliens and the entire world of the story is built in the author’s mind, so hopefully this allows for some leniency in character responses to situations that no one will ever be put in.

Despite the wild and outrageous worlds your stories take place in, keeping the personalities and responses of your characters believable is important for engaging the reader at a more personal level.

A lot to think about when you are writing your novels!

Happy writings everyone 🙂


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