Q&A: Left for Dead and Threats

So there’s the cliche where a character is wounded and left for dead – but what is a plausible escape when enemies are bayoneting all the bodies to be sure? My MC is able to get her revolver point-blank, hair-trigger against a soldier’s foot to get him to back off (it’s late 19th century and he doesn’t want to lose his leg). But I feel like that’s too easy.

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There are two different issues.

This is not a cliche about being left for dead. That’s where someone incapacitates another character and doesn’t care enough to check and make sure they got the job done. (Or, if it’s their allies, they don’t go back to see if they survived.)

When it’s an antagonist, it can indicate a callous disregard for the survivor, or it could it could simply mean they have more important things to do and survivors don’t matter to them.

If it’s allies, it could indicate that they don’t care, but it could also be because they didn’t have the opportunity to go back and check. There’s a lot of potential scenarios on this, so I’m hesitant to label the entire thing a cliche because it’s not.

The former ally who comes back as an antagonist because they were left for dead by their friends, especially when those friends had very valid reasons not to go check on them, can a bit cliche, but there’s enough scenarios and potential variety that I’d hesitate to mark the entire thing down as cliche. It’s not.

This may seem obvious, but if you’re sending out soldiers to execute any survivors, that’s not being left for dead, that’s making sure.

I’m saying this because, in fiction, being left for dead is very survivable. (In real life, less so.) If you don’t see a character die there’s a serious chance the author did that because they want to bring them back later. That part is cliche, and bringing back “dead” characters is something you should use very sparingly, but not every writer feels that way.

Second problem is the threat. I’m going to say some fairly obvious things I want you to think about. Bayonets attach to rifles. A rifle is a ranged weapon. Your character is threatening someone who is pointing a gun at them right now, and is clearly willing to kill them because they were just killing other survivors and can still kill them even if they back off as requested. Soldiers do not (as a rule) work alone. (And if one was alone poking around through corpses, they’d be looting, not making sure.) They are part of a larger organization. Much like cockroaches, if you see one soldier, there are many more there.

We’ve talked about this before, but for a threat to work your character has to be able to articulate a coherent harm to the target, and the threat has to persist for the duration of the coerced action. I’m pointing this out, because threatening a character who is better armed than you is a losing proposition.

Your character has a revolver, the soldier has a rifle and friends. This is a very bad situation to be in.

The only way out is to remain undetected until the soldiers wander off, or someone else intervenes.

The revolver is useless as a weapon for getting out of this situation. Shooting your way out isn’t an option, and the gunfire will (almost certainly) draw more soldiers. While your character could probably dispatch one, having more, better armed foes swarming in is a death sentence.

Your character’s only real option is to avoid detection, and play dead. If they’re lucky, the soldiers don’t really care about checking the bodies, and as a result might poke their stack and move on, or that something else, more pressing will come up and the soldiers will be called away. Worst case, it may mean they need to hold their tongue if they are stabbed someplace non-critical.

This scenario is incredibly disempowering for a character in it, because almost anything they do is going to be a death sentence. This isn’t a bad thing: It can create genuine fear for the character’s survival. But, turning that around by threatening a soldier undermines the scene. Your character has just demonstrated there is no real threat, so the entire sequence suffers.

And, of course, as soon as he backs up, he’ll shoot her.

If you want to turn this into an empowering moment, it’s probably by enduring pain. She gets stabbed non-critically and that wound will be with her for awhile, but she needs to remain quiet and resist the impulse to cry out. Then escape with the added pain of the wound, and (eventually) get it treated, before it gets infected and kills her. Injuries like this tend to add all sorts of complications down the line.

As a writer, “extra complications” is a good thing. I’ve said before, your job is not to make life easy for your characters. You benefit when they suffer, because you turn situations that would been trivial into new challenges. If her leg’s been injured she will have a harder time walking out. If her arm is injured, she’ll have a harder time climbing or fighting. These things can take simple (or uninteresting) solutions and make them far harder (or impossible) for the character, which gives you more material to work with.

The alternative option is for someone to rescue her. This could be indirect, an attack elsewhere could draw the soldiers away, a spy or traitor who knows she’s there could call the soldiers off the corpses before they get to her, or an officer could simply order them to do something else on pure coincidence. Realistically, those are the best possible outcome for her. She walks away uninjured. They may not build her character, but they should come as consequences for her prior actions.

-Starke

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