I’ve argued in previous posts that emotions always, regardless of circumstances, play a bigger role in everyone’s choices and actions then do reason, logic, or cognition. Yet it is not a human pattern we admire. We admire those who, in times of crisis, quell their emotions and at least appear to apply a rational mind to the conflict or challenges they’re facing. We call these people “cool”.
He was cool under fire.
Wow! Did you see that? That was cool.
Dude! The cops came, and she was, like, chill.
James Bond, Jason Bourne, Laura Croft, Batwoman, Jay Gatsby, Carl Webster—all of them are visibly cool when the heat is on. Why do we admire this, at least in the context of fiction? Because it shows mastery over what we all know is the more common human weakness, letting our emotions dominate our choices and actions. To overcome that, to assert one’s controlled, analytical brain over one’s base, often irrational instincts is to show the higher order of human abilities—to be cool.
However, that’s not most of us. Most of us are all too human, and literature’s best characters are, too. Jay Gatsby, Nick discovers, is not as cool as we thought. Most of us can’t escape our emotions’ dominance over our intellect, so we can readily relate to a character with whom we share that fault, that weakness. Moreover, if that character can face conflict while wrestling his/her greed or fear or rage or jealousy, so that it doesn’t compromise his/her ethics or loyalty or integrity, then our respect increases for that character’s inner being. We may not see him/her as cool or heroic in the Hollywood sense, but we still admire him/her in their character.
These are the attributes that a writer deals with when the story puts the character in question under stress. A glib illustration of stress says that pressure is hurrying to be on time, while stress is hurrying to be late. That is, we become stressed as soon as we recognize that we will fall short, that the risk of failure is high. That failure can be falling foul of the IRS, facing a divorce, or losing a foot race with a grizzly bear. And so on.
This takes us to a more forceful illustration: “Stress is a perception of threat.” If the grizzly bear is lurking outside your cave, and you know it, that’s stressful. If it’s there but you don’t know it, you’re not stressed. But if there is no bear, and you believe there is, that’s just as stressful as if it’s real. The source of the stress is your perception; it is internal, manifested via the emotional and physiologic changes the internal experience causes. The character shows his genuine self under stress, and this creates changes in behavior that the writer must grasp and convey in the story.
Eddie attacks Gene in Beachtown Blues because he succumbs to the stress of his crumbling dream. The Brass Ring shows Modrzewski under stress when he chooses to shoot his captain, as well as how he copes with his act afterwards. Nigel Hawkins faces stress when, unarmed, he confronts the assassin near the conclusion of The China Contract. In the sequel, The Eunuch of Shanghai, Thanh overcomes his stress when he outwits Tian Wu, and Benelli copes with hers as a prisoner in Shanghai’s Iranian Consulate. Each character cracks or overcomes the stress according to the strengths and weaknesses of his/her inner self. Even meeting the basic challenges of life without the flaws of melodrama is proof of character.
There can be humor in stress, as well. One of the appealing traits of Indiana Jones is that he doesn’t take himself or the stresses from killers and alien corpses too seriously, and, if he does, irony and sardonic humor are often the outcomes. Similarly, Inspector Clouseau is humorous simply because he doesn’t recognize the threat-laden stressors in the story. He treats them in a mindless, cavalier fashion because that’s who he is, The Mindless Cavalier.