Monday, August 18, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Fear

Whether it’s spiders, heights, socializing, public speaking, deep water, patterns, or even themselves, most every character you’ll ever write will face some debilitating fear or phobia. In today’s article let’s take a look at what fear is, how it differs from a phobia, and how you can best write these factors into your characters believably. We’ll be discussing: 

·        What causes fear
·        Physical signs of fear
·        Internal sensations of fear
·        Mental responses to fear
·        Cues of long-term fear
·        Signs of suppressed fear

What is Fear?
In its most basic definition, fear results from being afraid of something that is perceived as a threat or danger. Fear-inducing stimuli can occur directly in the present or be influenced by an impending threat in the future, but all fear results from the individual’s past (in which they first learned to be afraid of the stimulus). Contrary to popular belief, all humans are born with two natural fears—the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling. The remaining fears are learned through experience.

Similarly to anger (which we discussed previously), it’s important to understand that fear results from a simple perception of danger. This forces the character into a flight-or-fight response in which they prepare to take on the fear aggressively or engage in mental (or literal) escape techniques to get away from it. If the stimulus is extreme, the character might become overwhelmed, mentally and physically locking themselves in paralysis and thus unable to engage in either response.

Fear is not the same as a phobia. Fear is an emotional response to a stimulus. Though the effects of fear can be extreme (passing out, freezing in place, breaking down in tears, etc.), fear itself is a result of cognitive learning and thus considered rational. Phobias are irrational fears, meaning that they are continuous states as opposed to temporary responses. Phobias are crippling, irrational fears that a character will go out of their way to avoid. This, in turn, negatively impacts their lifestyles and may greatly affect their ability to function normally.

Physical Signs of Fear
Fear is accompanied by a flight-or-fight response. This means that many of the physical signs of fear are directly affected by adrenaline—sweating, dilated pupils, rapid movements, and extreme sensitivity to sounds and movement.

Characters who take the “flight” response are likely to engage in escaping from their fears. Physical escape techniques may include backing into a wall or corner, hugging oneself, pleading with the fear or oneself or deity, or literally running away.

Characters who attempt to physically “fight” the fear may be more aggressive with it, albeit somewhat blinded by the adrenaline and terror. This may include rapid blinking, gripping something until the knuckles go white, jerky movements, attention to sound and movement, stiff posture, and tight shoulders.

The physical signs of fear may go unacknowledged by the terrified individual, especially if they are caught up in the emotions of the moment. From an outsider’s perspective, visual cues, such as dilated eyes and a pallid complexion, are more easily noticeable. It’s important to understand what cues the character experiencing the fear would actually be aware of. Signs observable from the chest down, such as shaking and grasping, or signs that can be felt, such as rapid blinking and sweating, may be perceived by the character, however. 

Internal Sensations of Fear
The internal sensations are those that the fearful character is completely aware of. These signs may go completely unrecognized (or at least, unobserved) by onlookers. Internal sensations are still completely physiological (or pertaining to the physical body), and are not to be confused with mental responses, which we’ll address next.

As already mentioned, fear is bolstered by adrenaline, and all of the internal sensations are affected by this chemical. The character’s heartbeat will speed up and they may experience chest pain and heavy breathing as a result. Dizziness and weakness may be prominent, especially if the fear threatens to cripple the individual. During a moment of fear, the character may be highly aware of holding the feelings (and many natural responses) within—the desire to scream, cry, or even breathe, for example.

Mental Responses to Fear
Regardless of whether the character chooses to “flee” or “fight,” they are likely to experience unusual mental phenomena. The adrenaline rush impairs a character’s ability to think rationally and logically, instead causing them to respond swiftly and recklessly. Because of this, characters are likely to jump to an immediate, primary action rather than consider the best response and act on that.

The speeding up of bodily functions and heightened senses will cause a character to perceive events in a unique, and sometimes distorted, manner. Time may appear to slow down or speed up. Even the “life-flashing-before-the-eyes” cliché is very applicable here, as the weird time distortion causes individuals to process information and potential outcomes both hastily and (more often than not) irrationally.

Cues of Long-Term Fear
Fear that lasts beyond its initial shock and response becomes crippling. Panic attacks and phobias may develop. Some characters may become angry about their fears and respond to them aggressively. Other characters may give in to sadness and depression.

When fear is overbearing, it becomes an obsession which greatly impairs the character’s ability to function. Exhaustion, insomnia, and panic attacks may ensue. The character may even try to distract themselves with substance abuse and quirky (or even self-harming) tics, such as scratching, twitching, and repetition.

Cues of Suppressed Fear
Depending on the character’s disposition (and the situation), he or she may try to hide or suppress their fear. This means that they may try to hold it in for a variety of reasons—to save face, to be “brave” for others, to attempt to “force” themselves to recover, to avoid getting attention from others, or even to try and erase any evidence of the stimuli that is causing the fear.

Characters trying to suppress fear will do three prominent things: (1) seek silence, (2) distract themselves, and (3) hide their fear with other, false emotions.

Seeking silence, or avoiding the presence of others, is an easy way to hide feelings of fear. This may include turning away from the cause of the fear or avoiding the topic if it is brought up. Some characters may find it easiest to suppress fear by distracting themselves from it. This is particularly true if the character is one who tends to obsess or worry. Common methods of distraction may include over-indulgence in something (food, hobby, conversation, interest, etc.), consistently changing topic away from the fear, or becoming engrossed in a tic or habit (nail biting, scratching skin raw, checking to see the door is locked, etc.).

Lastly, characters may attempt to hide their fears behind false emotions and feelings. Some may take a more optimistic, care-free tone by joking, forcing smiles, and faking bravado, but these are often betrayed by a shaking, cracking voice, or a forced smile. Others may be more convincing behind false emotions of anger or frustration.

A Final Note on Fear
Remember that fears (with the exception of loud noises and falling) are learned at some point in your character’s past. These may be general dangers, such as fear of war or disease, or may be more character-specific fears, such as fear of a specific disease or dog breed. With proper use, fears can be incredibly fundamental to your character’s backstory and, ultimately, shaping your character into who they are (at least, partially).

Keep in mind, though, that simply having a fear does not a character (or backstory) make. Fear is a useful component in shaping a character and making them pulse with life. That being said, fear without cause or believability (or fear that is simply overdone) lends itself well to melodrama.

To help avoid melodrama, use descriptions to set the mood of the scene. This will gradually prepare readers for an emotional experience once the character becomes engaged. Fear is a very palpable feeling, and whatever intensity, no matter how small, that your character experiences will likely be channeled to the reader’s own feelings. Humans are highly empathetic creatures. If your character becomes tense, so will the reader—even more so if you use carefully-crafted descriptions to create unease and unknown. Use these tools to your advantage.

For more information about writing sadness and other character emotions, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. The lists and charts in this article are all adapted from that book. All rights reserved.

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  1. Having also indulged in psychological studies and made a hobby of fiction writing, I found this more than interesting. You aptly captured the big and small of fear and its many implications in as few words as possible, all while conveying the necessary information. If that doesn't scream INTJ, I don't know what does. :) Very good work, Casey. As a mutually aspiring author, one of these days I would be honored to read some of your prose.