by Eldred “Bob” Bird
Fall is once again in the air, and you know what that means—Halloween! ‘Tis the season to carve the pumpkins, don our costumes, and break out the scary stories. Or in our case, it’s time to write them. This is the perfect time to talk about our fears and how we, as writers, can exploit them.
Whether you write horror, terror, thriller, or let’s face it, even romance, fear is one of the most powerful emotions you can tap into. Fear and panic can override logic. It can make people do things they normally wouldn’t do or freeze in place and do nothing at all.
Once we establish an emotional connection between a character and the reader, the game is on. When we play on the fears of our characters, we’re playing on the fears of our readers as well. So, let’s talk about how to use the power of fear.
A simple definition of fear is an anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience. Notice it says anticipation and imagined. Fear is not the monster or creepy-crawly creature under the bed, fear lives in our own heads. It’s the thought of what might be lurking under the bed.
Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our sense of fear developed over the generations as a survival mechanism. It’s the thing that stops us in our tracks and makes us look before we leap. Fear keeps us alive.
There are an infinite number of things we can fear, but according to Dr. Kari Albrecht in his Psychology Today article they can be divided into five basic categories: Extinction, Mutilation, Loss of Autonomy, Separation, and Ego Death. Let’s take a closer look at each one.
Put simply, extinction is the fear of death. It’s the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you stand too close to the edge of a cliff, or the panic when you hear a strange noise as you walk down a dark alley alone. The anxiety we feel when our life is threatened is there to try to keep us among the living.
Fear of death is one of the primary tools of horror and terror. It can be a powerful fuel for the emotional engine driving your story. Once you have the reader feeling empathy for your character, put their life in peril. If done well, the reader will experience the same emotion as the character.
Mutilation is probably the next favorite fear of the horror and terror genres. It’s all about violating the body’s boundaries. You may think this is just about the fear of mangled or lost body parts, but it also includes things like pain, infections, infestations, torture, bugs, and bites of all kinds. You’ll often find this fear coupled with extinction fear, as it can easily lead to death.
Want to really make a reader’s skin crawl? Send your character down a dark hallway covered in webs or roaches or drop them in a pit full of snakes. Maybe lock them in a room with a rabid raccoon and make their only escape require running barefoot through the glass of a shattered window. It’s all up to you. Have fun with it.
The loss of autonomy is the fear of being imprisoned, paralyzed, immobilized, or otherwise restricted in some way that is beyond our control. Again, as with separation anxiety, there can be a physical or emotional component, making this a good tool for many genres beyond horror and terror.
Fear of the physical loss of autonomy is just what it sounds like—being afraid of something or someone physically restraining you. It can be anything from being tied down or chained up, to being drugged, sat on, or trapped in an elevator. The latter plays on claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces.
The fear of emotional loss of autonomy focuses more on social and personal interactions, as well as relationships. This fear can be quite useful in creating tension between characters in a broad range of genres. The fear of being trapped in an abusive relationship might hold a character back from seeking companionship. This fear includes being afraid of getting lost in the crowd or not having your voice heard.
One fear that’s useful in almost any genre is that of separation. This is the fear of abandonment and loss of connection. I’m not just talking about being physically separated from others, but emotionally as well. That’s what makes this particular fear so universal.
We’re all familiar with physical separation in stories. Characters can fear getting lost in the wilderness or their group getting split up, whether by design or by unforeseen circumstances, giving an antagonist the opportunity to pick them off one by one. Then there’s also the anxiety brought on by the thought of outright abandonment—just being left alone to fend for yourself.
On the other hand, emotional separation can be trickier to use, but very powerful. It can be used in any genre to amp up the anxiety. Remember when I mentioned you romance writers out there? This is one of the fears I’m singling out for you. How many times have you read a book where a character is denied by the object of their desire, or shunned by the in-crowd? The fear of this type of rejection can cause a character to put up walls that will have to be torn down later to reach their goals.
Our final category, ego death, is another type of fear we can use across all genres. Ego death is the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism that leads to self-disapproval and threatens a loss of integrity or self-worth.
This one can be a strong emotional driver for your characters. Think of how paralyzing it is when you’re afraid that your actions may make others see you as less capable, less intelligent, or even less loveable.
A good example of this fear is social anxiety. As authors, most of us probably felt it the first time we were asked to talk about our books, especially to a live audience. Take that firsthand knowledge and transfer to your characters. Odds are you’ll have the reader feeling it as well.
While some fears can easily fit into one of these categories, many will overlap. The fear of one thing may lead to another, and that to another, forming a chain of anxiety for both character and reader. This is where pacing becomes super important.
Once you play on the reader’s fears and have their heart racing it’s time to turn it up a notch and keep the pressure on. Too much description at this point could slow the story down and give the reader a chance to breathe. Keep your language active and choose a few words that pack a lot of punch, rather than long strings of words that may paint a more gruesome picture but lose the emotional impact.
Of course, you may want to slow things down at some point to lull your victim into a false sense of security…right before you swing the axe!
How do you use fear in your writing? What genre do you write? Let us know in the comments.
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Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing Karma, Catching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking Room, Treble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.
When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).
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