How do you handle stress? It’s a part of nearly everyone’s life, and successful coping with stress is an important part of a healthy adult life. We all have different ways of handling stress, and those ways are part of what make us unique. That’s one reason why coping with stress is a really interesting way to explore characters in fiction.
Some characters use jokes to handle stress. That can at least help to relieve the tension, and it adds a lighter touch to what can be a very suspenseful story. For example, Cat Connor’s Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Tracey is a Wellington-based former NZIS officer turned private investigator. In [Lure the Lie], she is recruited to work with Australian Intelligence officer Dave Crocker to find a missing cryptographer, Tania Bateman. At first, it looks like the sort of missing person case that Ronnie has had before. But it soon turns out that there’s a lot more going on here than it seems on the surface. There are several layers to the case, and more than one person who’s not what it seems. There are several tense and dangerous moments, and both Ronnie and Crockett use wit (and some funny one-liners) to cope with the stress. That wit breaks the tension so that they can focus on the job at hand.
In Eoin Colfer’s Plugged, we are introduced to Irish ex-pat Daniel McEvoy. He’s now working at a sleazy New Jersey nightclub/casino called Slotz. One night, one of the club’s hostesses, Cornelia ‘Connie’ DeLyne is murdered. McEvoy becomes a suspect when the police find out that he had a relationship (the ‘friends with benefits’ type) with the victim. McEvoy knows he’s innocent, and he wants to clear his name. He also, of course, wants to find out who killed his friend. So, he starts asking questions, doing the best he can to avoid the police, who do not want him to be involved at all, especially considering that he is a suspect. In the meantime, he gets drawn into another mess when a friend of his goes missing, and the culprit is a very nasty gangster who will have no qualms about killing McEvoy if it suits him. It all makes for a very tense, sometimes dark situation. And McEvoy deals with it with jokes and wit. It doesn’t always endear him to others, but it helps him cope with the stress.
Some characters, like John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep, face stress with meditation and contemplation. Sonchai is a member of the Royal Thai Police, who’s based in Bangkok. His job often involves a great deal of stress and tension. But he is a devout Buddhist, which gives him an interesting perspective on dealing with what happens in life and keeping a productive focus. He meditates regularly, and in some ways, he is a deeply spiritual person. This approach to life helps him to navigate some extremely tense and difficult situations. It also helps him to have consider the perspectives of the other people he deals with, and that helps him face stress as well.
There are also characters who deal with stress by snapping at others and being in a bad temper. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck is one of them. He’s a Copenhagen-based homicide detective who was badly injured in a line-of-duty incident. He wasn’t the easiest person in the world to deal with at the best of times, but since that incident, he’s become even more impossible. In fact, in Mercy, we learn that he’s become so difficult that other officers aren’t willing to work with him. So, he’s named to head a new department – ‘Department Q’ – whose mission it will be to look into ‘cases of interest.’ These are cold cases where there’s been public pressure for a solution. Fans of this series can tell you that the department proves itself more than up to the challenge.
For some characters, stress is so difficult that they do their best to escape it. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family travels to the Mideast for a sightseeing tour. One of their stops is the ancient city of Petra. On the second day of the tour, family matriarch Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks at first like heart failure. But Colonel Carbury, who investigates the case, isn’t so sure it was a natural death. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. As he gets to know the family, he learns that Mrs. Boynton was a tyrant – Poiro refers to her as a mental sadist – who kept her family so cowed that none of them dared cross her. And each of them has a strong motive for murder, so they all come under scrutiny. The stress was nearly intolerable for all of them, and each had different ways of coping. The youngest, Ginevra ‘Jinny’ coped by mentally escaping to her own fantasy world. Her step-siblings are deeply concerned about her, and after Mrs. Boynton’s death, are hoping she’ll get the mental health care she needs.
Stress is a part of life. That’s true of fictional characters just as it is in real life. And that can add some interesting suspense to a story. It also gives the author the opportunity to add some character development. How do your top characters cope with stress? If you’re a writer, how do your creations do it?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Close to the Borderline.