Tip #30: Characters In Conflict

Barricade line separating interior troops and protesters seen as the conflict develops. Clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. Events of February 18, 2014.
Barricade line separating interior troops and protesters seen as the conflict develops. Clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. Events of February 18, 2014. Via Wikipedia Commons.

The tips keep coming! Recently, I posted an article on writing about catastrophes. It was a tangential response to the Paris attacks: how do you represent such disasters in fiction or non-fiction?

This post is about what your characters do in a conflict situation, whether it’s a personal conflict or catastrophe.

I found an incredible article on BBC News today, What should you do in an attack? It was interesting in a number of ways: as emergency knowledge which you will hopefully never need to use, demonstrating how much of burning concern these attacks have become for the global public, and for the insights it gives into people’s reactions to sudden unexpected conflict.


Here are some figures for how people react to life-threatening situations:

  • 75% – no reaction at all, too bewildered.
  • 15% – response leading to survival.
  • 10% – reaction dangerous to self and others.

So what does your character do when caught up in an unexpected conflict? This could be physical violence, natural disaster or a personal conflict (e.g. someone starts crying or shouting at them).

Statistics say that they are too confused to react in any way. Of course, your character could well be one of the 15%. A lot of fictional personae are. It could be interesting though if your protagonist, while exceptional enough to have their own story, is like everyone else in this sense.

A character in the final 10% will provoke a complex emotional reaction in the reader. They have put their own self and others in peril, but it is hard to blame them. Unless the character has training or experience in these situations, their response will largely be a part of their programming. These are not “bad” people.

That said, the article points out that individuals react better than those in groups. Bear this in mind especially when your character is having an argument with another. Being in a group could lead them to have an irrational or counter-productive response.


According to the article, many people take cover behind objects (e.g. overturning tables) in disasters. This is a part of human instinct. The same impulse which makes you turn away if someone waves their hand in your face makes you lie on the ground when you hear a gunshot.

How does this affect your writing? 75% of people cannot have both no reaction and an instinct to dive for cover. The answer must be that there is a switch-on moment.

This is a sudden realisation your character has: the attack is not some sort of prank, the person shouting about their feelings is not fooling around, the wave coming at them is no surfer’s paradise.

Now instincts kick in. People really do play dead sometimes, and it can work. No change needs to occur in your character’s behaviour. They could make a smooth transition to open-mouthed surprise at being told off to a social version of playing dead (mouth open, eyes blank, slack face, “ummmm”).


Do people fight back? In Hollywood there is a bizarre genetic trait which makes characters incapable of not diving in front of flying bullets, speeding cars, verbal assaults. Is this accurate or believable?

Apparently, it does happen. But it might be best to view this as an exception to the rule. If someone possesses extraordinary innate bravery or has specialist training, they may be in that 1%.

A psychologist, relationship guru or accomplished “people person” is unlikely to start frothing at the mouth whenever someone calls them a pig. Off-duty military, police or medieval assassins will attempt to disarm an attacker.

But remember which of your characters is armed with the weapon or anger. No matter who their opponent is, they hold the higher ground. And an elite samurai warrior will have little enough luck trying to kick a tsunami into submission.


This surprised me more than anything else in the BBC News article. People actually do help each other. It is rarely a case of every man for himself.

Your writing could benefit from this as a way to add complexity to a character, without sacrificing believability. Imagine an incredibly cruel, selfish protagonist. They are the typical anti-hero, but when a disaster strikes, there they are helping others to safety.

Is this an epiphany or plot twist? No. It is nothing more than psychology, human behaviour taking over their choice to be “bad”. After the disaster, they go back to their malignant ways. But that brief interlude of kindness will be thought-provoking for the reader.

More character complexity is no bad thing.

Let me know in the comments if this was useful. Do you have any writing tips to share?


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7 thoughts on “Tip #30: Characters In Conflict

    1. I tend to jump at anything with a human behaviour aspect.
      It’s an interest I acquired reading into anthropology at uni and I think that’s why I write historical fiction, to show that there isn’t too much difference between a medieval masterless rogue and a modern gangster (except in speech and dress).

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Off to read the article in a moment…

    Another thing to keep in mind during emergent situations is that “Freeze” is just as applicable as “Fight or Flight”. The freeze instinct developed as a critical trait. Not precipitating incorrect action and not exacerbating the situation are very often keys to safely resolve a situation.

    Of course that might not make the most engaging storytelling, so take it with a grain of salt.

    “The cacophony of bells and buzzers assaulted Don’s ears, penetrating him to the cold reptilian base of his mind. He froze. Watching. Waiting.

    *chirp* *chirp*

    Damned car alarms.”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. That’s been a very interesting read, and also helpful. By chance I was recently writing such an episode into my own project. As most of the characters were trained combatants it was seen from their ‘15%’ perspective, however another main character and innocent did go into panic, and the majority of the population of the main did likewise. The result will need an amount of re-writing but after reading your post; I was encouraged with the overall picture. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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