Want to scare your readers? SHOW them what your character is afraid of!
Your story needs life or death stakes (and not necessarily the murderous, knife-wielding, gravestone kind of life or death stakes). Fear and the body language of fear, should be topics every novelist strives to know better.
Fear can range from mild to paralyzing, but fear caused by a real, immediate threat is rarely paralyzing. Our bodies and minds instinctually engage in a race for survival. Usually the fears that can leave us paralyzed are imagined (what ifs).
Fun Fact 1: Chronic stress is in fact a low-intensity fear response to worry, daily insecurity, anxiety, etc.
4 Components Of Fear
Fear can be partly instinct, partly learned, partly taught, partly imagined. Imagined fears also come with stakes. Public speaking a common imagined fear, but what’s really at stake is reputation, identity, self-worth, etc.
- Pain causes instinctive fear – survival instinct.
- Falling is an instinctive fear present even in newborns.
- Past experiences can create learned fears – a young child will learn to fear bunk beds if they had a friend fall out of one and seriously injure themselves.
- Social context can teach fear of a particular person (avoid your uncle – don’t ever be alone with him) or various forms of racism.
Know What Your Character Is Afraid Of!
“Wendy? Darling? Light, of my life. I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just going to bash your brains in.”
Stephen King, The Shining
Always know WHY your character is afraid — what the stakes are. What unique blend of the five kinds of fear listed above is your character reacting to? What have they risked, put on the line, stuck their necks out for? What’s their worst case scenario? By answering the why and the what (why they’re afraid and what they risk losing), and layering in emotions well, you SHOW readers what your character is afraid of and now the reader can be afraid with them!
Remember, deep point of view puts the reader IN THE STORY with your character. It’s intimate, personal, visceral and immediate. Learn more about layering emotions here.
A character’s body language, tone of voice, internal dialogue, gestures, expressions, ticks – these are all the pieces of evidence you need to show fear to readers. Above all – tell the truth. Fiction is truth inside a lie, as Stephen King says.
Don’t just go through the motions on this. Really dig deep for these answers because showing the WHY and making the stakes clear is how you show the emotion. In deep point of view, we avoid naming emotions so you’ll have to show your reader the excitement or fear through body language, physiology, internal dialogue and spoken dialogue.
The Role Of Intuition
Humans have this wonderful gift of intuition. The problem is we don’t listen to it often enough. We perceive a threat (could have been body language, past experience, a friend’s experience, an article we read a year ago) but we discount that perception in favor of what we can see.
When you take that admitted predisposition and place a character in a situation that feels threatening but the feeling is ignored because they can’t see anything threatening — you ramp up the fear element for readers.
Gavin De Becker in his book The Gift of Fear talks about a woman waiting for an elevator. The doors open and inside is a young man in a suit who leers at her and bobs his eyebrows suggestively. Given the statistics about violence against women, her own past experiences and those of her friends, the isolated location, etc. she’s not crazy for perceiving this man as a possible threat. But rather than obey her intuition and wait for the next elevator, she’ll get into the sound-proof steel box because he looks OK.
“It is understandable that the perspectives of men and women on safety are so different – men and women live in different worlds…most men fear getting laughed at or humiliated by a romantic prospect while women fear rape and death.”Gavin De Becker, The Gift Of Fear
Fun Fact 2: We allow ourselves to disregard our intuition if we can’t explain it logically. He doesn’t look like a rapist. She doesn’t look like a scam-artist.
A Fear Case Study
Your POVC is a teen girl who’s lost her phone at a bonfire social in the country and just realizes that her friends have all left without her. She has no way to get home. Ask her why she’s afraid.
Because I don’t have a car and there are no taxi’s, uber, or public transit out here. It’s too far to walk. OK – but why are you so afraid? You’re sweating and it’s not even hot out.
Because I have to ask someone to take me home and I don’t really know anyone here. Dig deeper. Why is that scary? These people aren’t really strangers, you went to school with them — you know where they live, their parents, whether they played hockey or soccer.
Some of them have been drinking–a lot. Fair enough. But not everyone is drinking. A few of them chose to be designated drivers.
But the only car with room is Darren’s. He’s not safe. What makes him unsafe? He isn’t drinking. Is he reckless? A criminal? Has he done something to you or someone you know?
She shakes her head. What makes him unsafe?
She lifts a shoulder. He’s on the hockey team. He’s loud. He’s really big. He’s been looking at me all night. I can’t predict how he’s going to act or behave. Why is that important?
Because last time I ignored those warnings and something bad happened. Because if I can control everything, then I won’t be hurt again. You’re shaking. Are you OK? She shakes her head. I’m all alone. Here, use my phone. Call your Dad.
Fun Fact 3: Fear and excitement create the exact same physiological response. This means that our bodies react internally to fear and excitement the same way. The difference between how our bodies respond to fear or excitement is how we mentally/emotionally interpret what we’re experiencing. WHAT?!
Now we have a better why. Now there’s more at stake for this character than having to walk home or ask a schoolmate to drive her home. Now the reader gas skin in the game. They care (hopefully) and are wondering what’s happened to this poor girl. It’s not just being shy, or timid, or that she’ll be teased. Her whole body is reacting to a fear. She’s learned from the past and can’t see a way out of it happening again.
How do we show this girl’s fear? She’s sweating. She’s shaking. She doesn’t say much, she shakes her head a lot. This happens when the logical/analytical side of our braing shuts down and the part of our brain responsible for survival takes over. She can’t think her way out of this–she’ll walk home before she gets in a car with that guy. She’s not paralyzed, but she’s not thinking rationally either. PTSD is one condition that causes this type of reaction.
She can perhaps feel her face heating up. She feels her hands trembling. She’ll be hyper-vigilant of who is near her, of any possible threats (loud noises/voices, who’s been drinking, who is most likely to do something unexpected/threatining). She may start crying and not even realize it. She’ll protect her vulnerable bits: slouch to protect her neck, round her shoulders, cross her arms over her chest, maybe cross her legs.
“…there has to be an element of genuine loss connected to that fear—be it loss of life, limb, sanity, or loved one…”Gary A. Braunbeck, To Each Their Darkness
Once fear is already present, it’s very easy to amplify so that even harmless events seem scary. You can prime your character to feel fear. The abusive man who comes home already angry, slamming doors, kicking toys out of his way, swearing – his family is now primed for fear. They’ll be on edge when he sits down at the table, hyper-vigilant to a threat, they’ll avoid meeting his gaze or contradicting him, and their posture will minimize their size (work to appear small). The father leans over to cut his four-year-old son’s meat, the knife scraping the plate. The child breaks out in tears and this angers the father even more – he didn’t DO anything to make the boy cry.
The Body Language Of Fear
Wide eyes, raised eyebrows, furrowed brows, flared nostrils, avoid eye contact, looking at floor or hands, slouching, hunched, crossed arms, feet angled away, busy hands, shaking or tapping legs or feet, rocking back and forth, rapid breathing, speaking very quickly or not at all, hyper-awareness, weakness, pent-up energy, inability to sleep, sweaty palms, profuse sweating, hugging oneself, covering vulnerable bits like neck, crotch and heart, racing heart…
Make sure you check out my book Method Acting for Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layering.