Boo! What better day to write about the body language of fear than the scariest day of the year!
A Deeper Look At Fear
Fear can range from mild to paralyzing. What’s interesting though is that 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).
Chronic stress is a low-intensity fear response to worry, daily insecurity, anxiety, etc. The more I learned about the body language of fear, the more I realized that fear is an emotion that every novelist should know more about because it’s laced in virtually every character arc ever written.
**Sorry if you thought this post was only for horror/thriller authors.** smile **not sorry**
4 Components Of Fear
Fear can be partly instinct, partly learned, partly taught, partly imagined. 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. The fear of public speaking is largely imagined, but what’s really at stake is reputation, identity, self-worth.
What blend of fear does your character feel?
“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
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 they can’t see anything threatening the fear is ramped up.
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 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.
We allow ourselves to disregard our intuition if we can’t explain it logically – he doesn’t look like a rapist.
In fiction, the role of intuition — especially if the character ignores it, is a great device to show the reader unease and discomfort and tip them off that something bad is about to or could happen. The conflict between internal dialogue and physiological response can be juxtaposed with what’s expressed outwardly.
“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
Answering The Why Question
Remember, we have to answer the why question for readers so we work backwards. Why is your character afraid? What is it exactly they’re afraid of and what’s at stake? What do they stand to lose?
Don’t just go through the motions on this. Really dig deep for these answers because the why 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.
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