Let’s Write Fear
From a fright when the spider lands on your arm, to being scared of the weird guy on the blind date, to full-blown terror when a dragon sticks its head out of the cave and you left your sword at home, fear is one of the most complex emotions that we’ve all had to deal with in our everyday life. Unfortunately, this one isn’t reserved for traumatic events. It’s also guaranteed to be in most manuscripts, regardless of genre. Any good book has a moment where the character is afraid – a little or a lot, it doesn’t matter – so this keeps the clichés rolling in.
The good news is that you can actually plan the responses your characters will have to fear in advance, in the plotting phase. You need to understand them to understand their fears (which often go hand in hand with their motivations). Do they have a specific phobia? Do they suffer from PTSD? Are they just easily frightened? When you understand what motivates their fear, you’ll know with what intensity the emotion (or sub-emotions of fear) must be portrayed.
Fear seemed like a natural progression from excitement and nerves, since those emotions share so many traits with anxiety, which is often a direct result of fear. Because of that, you’ll see some anxious traits in this post too. I also have a pretty comprehensive breakdown of my personal experience with panic attacks, which might help with writing those.
A last note before we start. The most effective way to portray a character’s fear isn’t to show just their physical responses in the moment. When you sprinkle little snippets of what they’re afraid of throughout the story, the reader will not only know the character is afraid, but will be afraid for the character when the moment of truth arrives. For example, we all know Indiana Jones isn’t afraid of much, but he hates snakes. We follow him through many situations where normal characters would have flipped out, but he keeps his cool. Then, when he’s faced with snakes, we all know he’s scared shitless, and we feel it too. It’s always a good thing when the reader is immersed enough to feel what the character is feeling, amiright?
Fearful Body Language and Speech
- Drawing back. Either retreating a few steps, or remaining in the same place, but pulling back the torso (flight).
- Maintaining a large area of personal space. If the character is afraid of a specific person or thing, they’ll take care to keep their bodies facing slightly away from the person/thing, ready to dash if needed.
- Another flight trait shows in any movement that covers the face or torso. This is a subconscious action to protect oneself and usually goes along with actions that make the character seem smaller, like slouching or shoulders drawn together. Hands over the heart, arms crossed over the chest or stomach (usually when the character also hunches), hiding the face in the crook of the elbow, or covering the face with both hands, hands stretched out in a ‘stop’ gesture etc. When sitting, the character might pull their legs up and hide their face behind the knees, cross their legs, or sit on their legs while bent over so their forehead can touch the ground (especially when hiding).
- The character might become more aggressive, and might puff out their chest or spread their legs in a stance that prepares them to fight.
- Characters who become aggressive when afraid might advance on, or even attack, the person/thing causing their fear.
- Freezing in place. Stoic characters or characters trying to hide their fear will often freeze, but since these are usually characters who are more thoughtful or cunning overall, they’ll keep thinking of a way out. As always, these characters will try their best to seem calm, so they’ll often have a relaxed stance. The tells will be in microexpressions, the tightening of muscles, hair rising, rapid breathing and colour draining, which aren’t so easily hidden.
- Acting out of character. Independent characters might become more clingy and needy, timid characters might become more vocal or might even take lead of the situation, and strong characters might become subservient, allowing others to tell them what to do. Fear will allow some characters to become calm and levelheaded.
- When survival instinct kicks in, some characters might stop caring about the fate of others, their own safety takes priority. Other characters will care less about themselves and more about others. Adrenaline might cause reckless behaviour in both cases.
- Clumsiness and fumbling.
- Balled fists, or fists rhythmically opening and closing.
- Shaking hands.
- Hands thrown in the air.
- Clutching at other characters or objects.
- Like with nervousness, rubbing and self-soothing, or putting clothing, fingers, hair or objects in the mouth.
- Rocking from side to side or any kind of swaying motion.
- Biting fingernails.
- Fidgeting or squirming.
- Avoiding eye contact OR the inability to stop staring at someone/something.
- Goose bumps.
- Excessive sweating.
- Heavy breathing.
- Shaking the head.
- Speaking quickly, half-forming words.
- Repeating words or phrases.
- Saying inappropriate things, joking or randomly laughing.
- Speaking only when the character has no other choice, and then only in single words or short sentences.
- A character might also be unable to stop speaking.
- Dry, husky voice, OR a high-pitched, shrill voice.
- Speaking very softly, mumbling.
- Sharply inhaling, or hissing.
- Many characters will go completely limp when their fear is spent.
- Eyes wide open, showing a lot of the sclera.
- Eyebrows raised, but drawn together.
- The eyebrows could also be raised but kept straight.
- Open mouth, with the lips tight. This is different from surprise in that a surprised mouth opens up like an ‘O’, while a scared mouth kind of flattens into a sideways oval. The corners of the mouth pull back and the lips might cover the front teeth.
- A quivering mouth.
- Licking lips.
- Biting lips.
- Jaw clenched with exposed teeth.
- Flaring nostrils.
- Dilated pupils.
- Rapid blinking.
- If they’re trying to hide their fear, they might smile. The fake smile doesn’t crinkle the corners of the eyes and seems tight.
What Fear Feels Like
- Cold hands or feet.
- Tingling skin.
- Heart palpitations.
- Rapid breath, feeling like you can’t breathe.
- Chest pains.
- Blurred vision, or black spots at the edges of your vision.
- The sensation of choking.
- Lightheadedness or dizziness.
- Being unable to think clearly, OR being too aware of everything around you and being unable to stop thinking.
- Nausea or an upset stomach.
- Feeling the need to urinate.
- Dry mouth.
- Tight muscles.
- Being unable to sleep.
- Skin that itches (some characters might break out in hives when in situations that cause excessive fear).
- Cold sweat.
- Thought spirals.
- Feeling numb or removed from the situation.
- Feeling irritable.
- Feeling trapped or as if you have no control.
- Feeling unable to speak.
- Being unable to move, OR being unable to stop moving.
- Feeling as if everything around you is moving slowly, while you’re moving too fast.
- Being more aware of the passage of time.
If you’d like to revisit the other posts in this series, have a look here. I’ll be back with another emotion in two weeks.
Free Creative Writing Prompts #76: Fears
Don’t be afraid of the free creative writing prompts about your deepest and darkest fears. While there are few among us who have legitimate clinical phobias, most of us have a handful of things that we tend to be afraid of. It may be something common like speaking in public or may be something less run of the mill like household cats. When fears are overcome, people can feel brave like they can make anything happen. When fears overwhelm, a person may let his life slip away from them in moment after moment of cowardice. Use fear in your writing in discussing characters or yourself.
Free Creative Writing Prompts: Fears
1. Name five things that you are personally afraid of in order of most fearful to least. Why are you afraid of those things in particular? What would change about your life if you conquered those fears? How do you think you’d be able to do it?
2. Think back to a time when your fears preventing you from doing something you wanted to do. For example, after all of your friends jumped off the high rock platform, you wanted to prove yourself but couldn’t because of fear. Do you think that your fear helped or hurt you in that instance and why?
3. Imagine that you were alive in ancient times with your same fight or flight response having to battle the perilous dangers of the uncivilized world. Do you think that you would be successful facing such scary challenges or that you would be too modernized to stand much of a chance?
4. List five different phobias that you’ve heard of or try to make a few up. Write a little story for each about how your life would be different if you had that particular phobia. What normal activities might you not be able to participate in due to your clinical fears?
5. As you’re walking down the street you come upon a mirror that makes you look about 20 years older. Suddenly, you realize it’s not a mirror, but it’s actually you from the future, coming to help you face your greatest fears to avoid a later in life calamity! What does this future self help you with and are the two of you successful?
6. Was there ever someone during elementary, middle or high school who you were genuinely afraid of? Imagine that you have come face to face with this person during a situation in which you couldn’t leave the room and had to talk to him or her for an extended period of time. What would happen and would you continue to remain afraid after the encounter?
7. A lot of people are more afraid of death than they are anything else. Why do you think so many people list death as their number one fear? Where do you rank it in the fears of your life and how do you think the fear of death has shaped who you are today?
8. For those who are afraid of public speaking, the time-honored suggestion of picturing the audience in their underwear has been made over and over again. If you had to add any other tips to someone who was afraid of speaking to a room, what would they be and how have you used them to your own benefit?
9. In the Nightmare on Elm Street movie series, an evil and scorned former school employee attacks students in their sleep by bringing their worst fears to life. What would your encounter with such a freaky individual be like and which of your fears would spring at you in a deadly fashion?
10. How would the world be different if humans had a constant fight or flight response to any stimulus, much like birds or insects? How would your day be different if you were scared of anything and everything around you all the time?
fear – quotes and descriptions to inspire creative writing
When the chance to connect comes, when I see my holy grail, the monster appears to tell me that pain is ahead. Thus the chasm I see is the mirage fear creates, my future is a step beyond, one stride. And as I take it all the while the monster speaks of betrayal, abandonment and the worst of memories. I know that when the sun rises tomorrow I will be glad I endured, that I landed safe and sound on virgin hallowed ground.
I swallow my own fear to expand the safe zone of others, to become the stoic leader they deserve.
My fear of loss is proof of my love for you, on that you can depend. The curse is the blessing as the blessing is the curse. Love is tough, but I’m tough enough.
Fear is natural and there to keep you alive and happy, yet where it has been weaponised and fashioned into a cage, one is honour bound to break free.
When we become great teachers of emotional intelligence we will delete the alt-right. When we explain how their new linguistics is acting as an catalyst for emotional indifference – the biological opposite of love – people will start to question how these subcultures are recoding and reprogramming their brains into isolated emotional spaces where they cannot access the love they need for good health. “Wrongthink” is made of “wrong” and “think” and will both ping the amygdala and (in some people) the PAG. This changes brain chemistry and traps people into their primitive brains, the parts that will prepare them for genocide and war, the parts that are incapable of empathy, logic and self control – all of the most desirable traits in humanity. Thus they unwittingly destroy that which they claim to seek – now, that is stupid, that is really, really fucking stupid. Alt-right delete. Let’s do it.
When I’m feeling triggered the world and everyone it is behind fifty feet of glass. Loving bonds become inaccessible. In this mode I have to take great care not to damage bonds of love, the relationships and people who are everything to my heart and soul. For in time the glass disappears and my love returns. I wish I could stop the triggering, but if I feel unprotected or left to fend for myself it returns – it is survival mode, cold and indifferent. Yet even in these times I am cognisant of my morality. I still make good choices. I can still imagine what the better version of me would want me to do and then carry that out. I can’t undo the trauma I’ve been through, but I can adapt and overcome.
Our fears can be triggered by real threats and by memories of threats. Humans find it challenging to unlearn fears. Thus when we realise that we are scared we must ask ourselves how real the threat is or if we have begun to generalise fear and seek evidence to cement it rather than challenge it. To remain well balanced and with good perspective we must always remain willing to ask ourselves these difficult questions, hone into our true emotions and see people as they really are. The prize for doing all this right is a well functioning society, the punishment for getting it wrong is run-away-paranoia. The former makes friendships, the latter makes enemies whom could have been friends. That said, if after analysis you find the threat to have real force and impact, take action to protect yourself, to protect those you love and call in allies to provide support. In summary, my love, fears can be real, ghosts of real fears, or entirely imagined. It takes courage to figure out your own fears, to face them and question them, but it is worth it.
When we are afraid, when we are under stress, we speed up our brain’s “angry-face search app” but, as we get faster, we get less accurate. We start to see angry faces that aren’t there, reading calm faces as angry. And the stress hormones don’t choose what we fear, they amp up whatever we’ve learned to fear. That’s why society falls apart under ongoing stress – cracking us at our weak-points, spreading hate and indifference like a damn virus.
The wise let fear school them yet never fool them, for then they are ever free to learn, to make better choices, to become heroes.
It tell myself that the fear is simply brain chemicals, my amygdala pinged, and then I try to analyse the situation as I may without it. I try to imagine it from the outside, as if it were a movie and not real life. Then I ask myself what my “character” should do. It helps me to make better choices.
This fear is my challenge and my demon to slay, for it will come until I do, unannounced and gnarly. The only way out is to order this brain to function, to demand solutions instead of this crazy-making circling anxiety. So though it feels as if my bones have no more strength and my muscles are all out of power, I still have the option to remain still, to be quiet enough to choose how to fight.
Look, Sebastian, to quote my favourite TV show, “Fear is wisdom in the face of danger.” It’s a good thing to be tuned in enough to feel fear and figure out why it’s there and what to do about it; that’s what bravery is. You have to be brave to feel that fear long enough to analyse it and keep your self control. Because when we learn about it, it gives us a real chance to care better for others when they are scared, to be kind when others need help. Those who demand resiliency of others should ask themselves if it is loving and empathic to do so, for repeated exposure to harm and stress causes damage in the brain, whereas love, nurture and compassion build a stronger brain that gives a natural resiliency. When I am afraid, I remind myself that my good decision making ability is temporarily offline and I need to wait before I can figure things out, wait for my brain’s usual connections to resume.
It’s not predictable anger or pain that’s the worst, it’s the “randoms,” stuff you know is coming, just never when. The randoms work on the mind as a torture, elevating primal fear, decreasing logic and self-control. That’s how Curt keeps his iron grip, by exploding about small things he can blame on one of us. It’s mind control 101 and I want out. I want to be around folks who talk calmly instead of attaching their fucking jump-leads to my amygdala, igniting it at their pleasure.
Being with Arc was like resting in a house while a gale raged outside, like in her presence time itself became more calm. She always said the root of all fears, the rotten root of mankind, is the “fear of need” and our task is to meet this fear with the same resistance a rock shows to wind – that the resolved person lets fear blow around them and remains resolute in a will to be kind.
Who made you afraid, my love? Afraid of the future and the past? For neither exist in any place but the imagination, even memory must be imagined. Thus fear is a kind of madness, but one that is useful if you know how it works. Fear will take you by the hand to the things you keep and guard as precious. Always face fear with courage, understand it, and then let it go. Let these fears wake you up, let them show you the way to your true self, to the brave soul whose love shines like a star. For without fear, love is brighter, stronger, deeper. When you find yourself, my love, you will be your own master, fully healed, and your last fear will be of your own strength.
You poured gasoline onto the spark of fear in my belly. It’s not like you thought was alright; I was far away from any inner peace. You took words and fashioned them into a knife, sinking it in with cold black eyes. All I ever did was offer you my hand. All I ever did was offer love and ask for help.
If you are afraid of sunshine,
Even the sun is scary to you.
If you are afraid of rain,
Even a sweet shower is scary to you.
For if you love sunshine,
If you love rain,
They are a lullaby for the soul.
Fear lives not in the world,
But within the mind.
So when fear calls at your door,
Bang, bang, bang.
Ask why you are afraid.
And then you will find,
There is only sunlight in your doorway,
Only gentle rain in your garden.
Fear is shackles, fear is a knife in the gut slowly twisted, fear is a constant hammer on the head. Yet fear also evaporates like water under an early summer sun. When fear comes walk with confidence right past, because like the ghosts of children’s nightmares, fear is an illusion.
“Fear is part of being human, David, it’s the precursor to bravery. We need it, it wakes us up to what needs to be done. So feel it, own it, let it ignite your thoughts.”
We both see delicate spring blooms. I see life as so robust that the flowers come back season after season, Igor sees them as transitory – soon to be trampled under foot. We both feel the sunlight growing stronger. I feel warmth and look forward to the harvest, Igor shrinks inside and worries about burns and insect bites. We both know the goodness in our community. I know we can push forwards and grow in an enlightened way, Igor “knows” that the people from other religions will come to spoil it and take over, ruining our progress. But Igor confuses knowledge with fear.
There are so many problems in the world, I’m not blind to it, my eyes are open too. But I don’t see big religion, people as part of “herds” or “gangs,” I see billions of broken hearts reaching out to know they are loved by the Divine, and they are. All of them, every single one. So I’m feeling optimistic. Our enemy isn’t people at all, they are all born in innocence, there never was an “evil” baby. Cultures shape our minds, religions can inspire goodness or fear and bigotry. Cultures can change if infused with Love and mutual understanding. Fear breeds fear and shuts us off from the true inner voice of our moral compass.
People are good, human nature is just fine, culture we can change and more rapidly than people think. I reach out with Love because Love heals, Love makes us whole, Love elevates us to better and more noble thought patterns. The glass is still half full and I know we can make it if we try.