Q&A: Desperation

How does desperation affect people who are or at least feel like their lives are at stake? Is a desperate person really more dangerous than one who feels like they have more (and maybe less costly?) options left? I feel like probably a trained fighter who’s been psychologically conditioned to deal with such situations this would be the case, but what about like…average people? Do they panic, try things that aren’t likely to work, get more aggressive, etc? Does it vary from person to person?

The short answer is, “Yes, it varies.” Not just person to person, but also within the specific circumstances of that individual. There’s no unified, “a desperate man/woman/escaped wombat will behave in this specific way.”

Desperation comes from an inability to deal with some kind of jeopardy. This may be personal to the character, or it may be a threat to something or someone that character cares about. The threat may be realistic, it may be existential, or it may be imagined. All of these things will drive that character to behave in ways they wouldn’t normally. (Or it can result in complete shutdown. That’s possible too, though it’s distinct from what we usually think of as desperation.)

At very simple level, desperation will drive people to do things that would not normally do, (assuming they act at all.)

So, two things about your question. Even highly trained individuals can succumb to desperation. This can be a threat to them, their ideology, or their friends and family. The difference is, they have wider skill set, meaning they’re less likely to get into a desperate situation. Once they are there, like their skills, their options are also far more extensive, and could be far more destructive.

This is a long way to say, “yes, you’re right, but also wrong.” They’re not really conditioned to deal with desperation, but they’ll still have options left when most “normal” people have run out, and started entertaining desperate measures.

Put it in this context: A highly trained operative may engage in desperate acts to protect a loved one. The desperation may drive them to set aside restrictions on who they will use their particular skills on. This could result in severe violence against individuals who would normally be, “safe,” from them.

Second, their actions may work against their actual goals. It’s entirely possible to act out of desperation, and drive away, or even harm, the people you’re trying to protect (including yourself.)

You can never be fully sure of what restrictions someone will set aside first when desperate. This is where the, “dangerous,” part comes in. Desperate people are difficult to predict. You can make an educated guess how someone will break, but it’s harder than when you’re dealing with someone in an emotionally stable state.

The way someone was put into desperation will affect how they act. This is not predictable. It is cause and effect, and the effect is not random, but for anyone not inhabiting that character’s mind, it’s not possible to predict.

This also means, you need to get into your character’s mind to run this stuff through. You need to get into their hopeless place, to understand what they’re willing to sacrifice. When the desperation is provoked by threats to someone else, that may include themselves.

I hit this in passing, but it’s worth expanding a little bit: Desperation can drive someone to push harder than they normally would. Often that comes with sacrifice. Your character is deciding (rationally or not) that they’re to give up things to protect other things. This is where the unpredictability comes in, because you can’t be sure what venue they’ll use.

I’ve been talking about this in the context of someone who’s competent being pushed into desperate acts by threats to someone else, but the truth is, this can still be the result of threats against them.

The difference in training is simply the number of options they have available. That said, if the initial threat is severe enough, it may cut off most of their normal options prematurely.

Also, you can never be sure how far desperation will take you. Desperation can easily give way to despair, as the losses mount. It’s entirely possible your character will simply break down.

Desperation is a useful concept to understand, and one you probably want to examine and internalize. The entire thriller genre builds off of putting characters in desperate situations, and watching them react.

Really, desperation comes down to asking your character, “what if you’re about to lose everything you care about?”

-Starke

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