The most common response to encountering something unexpected or potentially traumatic is to freeze. This has always been my default response to spiders. And once when I was gardening, I stood up to find myself face to face with the largest snake I’d ever seen. It had slithered into a bush and upward through the branches so we were eyeball to eyeball. Instinctively, I froze. But while my body remained perfectly still, my mind was racing—was it a poisonous snake? Had I disturbed it? Was it going to lash out at me?
In writing, a character might freeze momentarily, as I did. In westerns, minor characters might freeze in the background as the dangerous antagonist enters town. Spectators might freeze as they watch a disaster unfolding, such as floodwaters rushing toward them or the proverbial train wreck. But our hero rarely freezes because that halts the action—or does it?
If a person remains frozen for too long, they can easily become a victim. Our hero’s story might begin with such a moment, such as a hiker that freezes so long that a snake or a mountain lion is able to attack, or an avalanche, tsunami or tornado sweeps them away. That is where the story begins, as the victim must become his or her own hero in order to survive. They must awaken from their frozen status—sometimes forced to by external actions—and they must fight their way back.
In reality, people can remain frozen for more than a few seconds. Soldiers experiencing PTSD often find themselves frozen in time—a horrendous battle, for example, or being gassed, as happened in World War I, keeping them in that moment for years afterward. Others have less dramatic backdrops. An abused wife may remain in the marriage, frozen by an inability to escape because a physical, mental or emotional barrier exists. Oftentimes, these are peripheral characters in a book—a parent that has given up, and the son or daughter, our hero, vows never to follow that path. Ellen O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is a frozen character; we learn of her earlier passionate but unrequited love and subsequent marriage to Gerald O’Hara, and though she continues to move through her days, she is but a shell of a person.
Other times, it is the hero himself we encounter as frozen at the start of the book; the man or woman with a traumatic past, perhaps escaping through alcohol or other vices until they are roused to action. Often, we discover their trauma as backstory interwoven into the plot. Vicki’s Key begins as CIA psychic spy Vicki Boyd is remembering a flawed mission resulting in the deaths of children, prompting her to leave the CIA and move to a small town, where she hopes to remain psychologically frozen—but fate intervenes.
The second reaction to trauma is flight. When I encountered that snake in the bushes, I began stepping backward after those first frozen seconds (or as my family put it, I was doing a great impression of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk) as my mind registered that it was not poisonous but it was huge—over six feet in length. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Robert Getchell, our battered hero flees from her abusive husband and begins a new life. Other times, events dictate our hero’s flight, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads are forcibly evicted from their home—or in countless tales of immigrants fleeing starvation, war or vendettas, including Mario Puzo’s The Godfather trilogy as a young Don Corleone immigrates to America to escape Sicilian killers and coming full circle, when his son Michael Corleone is exiled to Sicily from New York to escape Mafia retaliation.
In writing, it is the flight itself that propels our hero onward, through various challenges and literal or figurative monsters. We know our hero will be forever altered at the end of this journey, and we also know he or she would never have realized their potential if they had remained in place. Reluctant heroes are often frozen characters that have become intimately acquainted with a mediocre existence, but are often propelled upon a journey not of their own making. This is Vicki’s plight in Vicki’s Key, as she flees to a small town only to be pulled from her intentioned freeze by a haunted house, a mysterious woman hidden away in a creaking old house, an enigmatic nephew, and the CIA calling her back for one more mission.
The third reaction is to fight, and our literary heroes must inevitably battle for survival. Their fight might be quite literal, from Dorothy’s destruction of the Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz to James Bond, Jason Bourne or Jack Ryan’s destruction of countless villains.
Other times, their fight consists of survival—a will to live despite their traumatic circumstances. One of my favorite books is Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a true story in which ordinary people find themselves on Mount Everest during one of the deadliest days in the mountain’s history as a massive storm turned every climber’s life into an epic fight for survival. We know some will perish and others will survive despite the odds, and their individual struggles keep us on the edge of our seats.
Other times, the hero’s struggles are a blend of frozen, flight and fight as their backstory unfolds, revealing a trauma that seems insurmountable; a flight from the location or circumstances; and ultimately, a fight to survive, as in William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice. Our hero may or may not be successful, and it is that uncertainty that propels the story forward. In the climactic scene of Vicki’s Key, Vicki has transformed from one that is frozen to one that is fleeing—and finally, at the end of the journey, to one who must stand and fight.
In all excellent literature, there exists a constellation around the hero comprised of individuals that are frozen, others that are fleeing, and still others that are fighting. Tom Clavin’s Dodge City is such a book. It is filled with characters that remain in Dodge City despite the hardships and violence because they have simply given up, perhaps believing the entire world is exactly like their lawless town or perhaps because they feel a sense of powerlessness. Others are only passing through, from dance hall girls and prostitutes to cowboys and settlers on their journeys westward. And still others, the ultimate heroes of our story, choose to stand and fight.
When writing their stories, we rarely provide the psychology of each character—nor should we. Their actions—or inactions—are all we need to piece together their profiles in our mind’s eye. Yet the author must delve deeper, arriving at each character’s backstory and motivations, even if those details do not find their way into the storyline. Other times, our main characters become multi-dimensional as we write of both their present and their past trauma, slipping from the current scene to their backstory, while peripheral characters remain at the edges, a little fuzzy perhaps but always representing the ones that froze, that ran… or those that fought.
And that snake in my garden? It was the largest black snake I’ve ever seen before or since; more than six feet in length and as big around as my arm. Neighbors told me to leave it alone, as we lived in a rural area of Virginia known for copperheads, and as it turned out, black snakes dislike copperheads almost as much as humans do. So I named him Jake the Snake, and we peacefully coexisted until an ice storm at Christmas might have frozen him, because after the storm hit, I never saw him again. As large as he was, I hope he’d lived a nice, long life.