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: 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 the 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, a deep point of view puts the reader IN THE STORY with your character. It’s intimate, personal, visceral and immediate.