Writers in the Storm

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October 31, 2018

The Body Language Of Fear: Beyond “Lions and Tigers And Bears, Oh My!”

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Boo! What better day to write about the body language of fear than the scariest day of the year!

Fun Fact: Fear and excitement create the exact same physiological response. What I mean by that is our bodies react the same way to both emotions. The difference between how our bodies respond to fear or excitement is how we internally/mentally interpret what we’re experiencing.

Scientists believe that pleasure and pain share some neural pathways. There are studies looking at how different painkiller medications also numb the ability to have an orgasm for instance. When in pain, the body flushes with endorphins and other pain-blocking pleasure-building chemicals that quickly shift the pain into pleasure. There’s such a thing as benign masochism – which is the intentional seeking out of pain while also maintaining an awareness that pain won’t cause serious damage. Think of everyone who loves tear-jerker stories, wild roller coasters, or scary movies! So, there’s a very close association.

* AHEM * Moving On

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 in fact a low-intensity fear response to worry, daily insecurity, anxiety, etc. The more I learned about fear, the more I realized this 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.

Your POVC has finally worked up the courage to ask a pretty girl out on a date. Ask him why he’s afraid.

Because she’s really pretty. OK – why does that make her scary or make talking to her scary?

Because he likes blonds. Nope – too superficial. Dig deeper.

She is pretty and he’s attracted to her, but she’s also friends with some influential people who could help his career. Ahh – there, now this is something we can work with. Which people? Why is their influence important to him?

He’s starting out at the bottom of the corporate ladder. Being seen in the right places with the right people is important. That she’s gorgeous and funny are icing on the cake.

…what if she says no? So, you’re afraid you’ll be disappointed?

I’m afraid my friends will laugh at me. I’m afraid that I’ll be stuck in this entry-level position forever. I need a girl like that to get where I want to be. I’m afraid that I’m not good enough to get a girl like that. That I’ll never be good enough for a girl like that. That she’ll turn me down because I’m nobody.

Now we have a better why—certainly better than “she’s pretty.” Now there’s more at stake for this character than having a pretty girl turn him down. Now he’s got skin in the game. Now, it’s not just his ego, but his career, potentially his self-worth—you get the idea.

The fear is partly instinct, partly imagined, partly taught. If she says yes, his fear is instantly turned into euphoria. If she says no, what’s he do with that? It confirms his worst fears. He’s lost his identity, his role or place among his friends potentially. What kind of man is he? What will he do with that tsunami of emotions?

How do we show this guy’s fear? Does he fall all over his words, does he overthink every gesture? Is one of these things (the girl or his job) more important to him? How could you show that? Does he cross his arms in a protective gesture or stand tall and use a power pose to impress her? Does he stare at the ground and tap his thigh? Does he have sweaty palms, a racing heart, a hyper-awareness of every other person in the room?

Fear is so much more than what a character says, it oozes out of every gesture, expression, pose, tone of voice, and thought.

“…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

Fear Amplified

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.

What Does Fear Look Like?

Wide eyes, raised eyebrows, furrowed brows, flared nostrils, avoid eye contact, look the 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, racing heart…

Always answer the why, work backwards and layer in the emotions. 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.

What was the last story (book or movie) that left you feeling fear?

Registration is open now for my 8 week course Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers.  

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-WilsonLisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.

Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

22 comments on “The Body Language Of Fear: Beyond “Lions and Tigers And Bears, Oh My!””

  1. Nice blog post. It gave some excellent tips about "setting up" the background for fear.

  2. Thank you, Lisa. Will be printing this one out for sure for reference as I'm slogging through my new WIP which is based on "repressed"' fear. Loved it.

  3. So practical! As with conflict, I need to up the stakes and experience for my main characters - they're much too reasonable!! 🙂

  4. Thanks, Lisa! As a thriller writer this gave me a lot to think about. Now I'm afraid I'll have to go back and revise some scenes . . .

  5. You've brought up a lot of important points and all good to remember. Thank you! also I love the background picture it is menacing. Like Kansas or Oklahoma before a tornado. Awesome.

  6. IT freaked me out a little. But, King is a master of those tales. Psycho still freaks me out, but I still watch it. I should know better than to watch it alone, though.


  7. I'm all about the emotion, so you know I loved this post! I like what Donald Maass says about it - to layer the obvious emotion with the not-so-obvious. Like, at a funeral, you're sad, but you're also grateful, to have known the deceased. You may laugh at the memories. You may be glad you killed him.

    Tee hee. Hey, it's Halloween, right?! 😉

  8. This is so phenomenal. I'm really thinking through your questions now about what my main character fears, what the stakes are, and what she stands to lose. Thank you, Lisa!

  9. Thank you, Lisa. I had thought anger was driving my two main characters in the novel I'm writing, but I'm thinking fear underlies their anger--both have to do with sudden loss of people they loved. So, fear at losing another and more than a smidgen of survivor's guilt.

  10. I'm with Julie. In my current WIP I need to play up my main character's fear. He's not a trained soldier, but he's fighting in a war and he could die. A year ago he never would have believed he'd be at this place in his life and he needs to be way more scared.

  11. […] For those working on character development, Jordan Dane proposes making your characters memorable. One way to do that is to give your characters flaws. Bonnie Randall shares 8 ways to create character flaws, and Kristen Lamb ponders the difference between flawed characters and those “too dumb to live.” Also, to help you show instead of tell about your characters, Lisa Hall-Wilson digs into the body language of fear. […]

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