I was reading a book the other day, and was amused (and bemused) by the number of things the hero noticed during an intense fight.
Greece has a conscription service, and I spent 23 months in the Navy, namely at a Navy helicopter base. During that time, I met a lot of pilots undergoing their training. One of them told me how instructors knew when the trainees had reached their maximum capacity for learning. It was when they could not answer a simple question: “What’s your name?”
I have been lucky enough to have participated in only one fistfight as a grownup. One thing I remember is that I experienced tunnel vision big time. Fighting is no different than that.
I believe that my experience ties in nicely with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Abraham Maslow was a psychologist who came up in 1943 with a theory to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through. He used the terms Physiological, Safety, Belongingness and Love, Esteem, Self-Actualization and Self-Transcendence needs to describe this.
According to Maslow, people will need to cover their more basic needs before progressing to higher ones. For example, physiological needs are the physical requirements for human survival. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail. Therefore, these are considered most important and should be met first.
What does this mean in practice? Simple: if your character is scared, it’s unlikely they will worry about philosophy. When fighting, they probably won’t engage in abstract dialogue. And when exhausted, they might not care for sex.
These are not meant to be written in stone, of course. We all have parallel needs running through our heads, and will act accordingly. As a rule, however, it is more believable if we respect the hierarchy when deciding what our characters will do next: more basic needs will usually take precedence.
There are certain genres that call for the characters to ignore this hierarchy. A wonderful example is Indigo’s fight against Westley in the Princess Bride:
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another example of snappy one-liners interjected in fights, to great effect. In other, less cheeky genres, however, this is not advised.
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