Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Understanding the Alert/On-Edge/Scared Character

So, something has happened/is happening/will happen/might happen to your character, and they're freaked out. How does their body react? How do you make their fear believable, especially since you've never been in that situation yourself?

Go Teen Writers had a great post about how to write what you've never experienced. It's about drawing from experiences you HAVE had, no matter how small, to start understanding the emotions that your character would be experiencing. The post has these examples for fear:

I've never been threatened at gunpoint. But as I search for a similar emotion—fear for my life—I've had a few moments on the road where I thought I'd crash. One time our tires hydroplaned on the freeway and we slid into the grassy median at 65 miles an hour. It was a good three seconds of horrifying fear. I recall the heat that flashed through me, how my breathing seemed to stop, how I screamed (I'm not a screamer), and how, once the tires got traction again, the amazing relief that this wasn't the end of my life.

Interesting. I could use that.

No one has ever broken into my home. But I heard a noise once. We all have. But this time I stopped moving, held my breath and listened. I was imagining it, of course, I always was. Until I heard the front screen door wheeze shut and slam.

I vaulted off my bed and sprinted to the kitchen, slowing just before the door to peek. No one. My heart felt like it was a pinball in my chest, desperate to get out of my body. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, figuring that someone was either in the house or they'd just left. Either way, I wasn't going to torture myself by waiting around to find out. I glided into the living room on noiseless feet, holding my breath the whole way, praying God was watching and would keep me safe.

Then the screen door banged again, I lifted the knife, staring at the entrance way...

And my son came running inside the house. At midnight! He's eleven!

"Daddy's home!" he said, smiling.

"You scared me half to death," I told him. "Look, I have a knife in my hand to kill you with."

He laughed, thinking that was pretty funny. Little punk, anyway. :-)

So, clearly I could use that.
What else could you use?

Sometimes, I think I can handle horror. And I absolutely cannot. But I'll watch something scary anyway. And everything is fine while the sun's up and there's people moving around the house doing stuff. But everything becomes sinister when the lights go down. I'll sit in my bed with my back to the wall, my eyes wide open and constantly scanning the room. The lamp on the night table is on, and I only have one earbud in, the music turned down to 1. I can feel my heart beating hard in my chest, and every muscle in my body is stiff. I don't want to move at all, in case I draw attention to myself. Adrenaline shoots through me at every harmless little noise. My ears are physically perked up as I strain to listen for suspicious sounds. My mind is going a mile a minute, wondering how I might defend myself since I don't have any weapon-like thing near me. Since my body is fully focused my potential impending doom, it stopped caring about it's lesser functions, and now I'm very aware of that water I drank before. But no way am I leaving this bed, man. No way.

I've never been hunted by anyone (or anyTHING dun dun dunnn), but my brain has told me I was. I could use that.

Actually, that's not true. I have been hunted, during games of Manhunt at our youth group. [If you don't know how to play, it goes like this: You select a designated area to run around in (in our case, the church). If it's a building, turn out all the lights. If it's outdoors, wait until night. Designate a few hunters, depending on the size of the group. Hide an item somewhere in the area (usually a small flashlight that's well hidden, but on, so it's not 100% impossible to find). Set up a "jail" area and decide whether people who are caught will be out for the rest of the game, in jail for a certain amount of time, or if they have to do something (sing a song, make up a poem) to get out of jail. Then everyone scatters and tries to find the item without getting caught. Romans and Christians is a similar game, but much harder.

Running around in the dark, knowing people are trying to catch you, is FREAKY. Especially since a lot of the guys in our group liked to hide in dark doorways, then scream and leap out at you. Even if they weren't a hunter! And sometimes they'd stay totally quiet and just grab your ankles as you passed by. Anyway, you're sneaking through the halls, trying to breathe quietly even though you're out of breath from running, trying to listen for footsteps approaching or doors opening, trying to determine where they're coming from and how you can get away from where you are right now, hoping no one's hiding in those shadows. As with the above scenario, your heart is pounding, adrenaline is making you shaky, your neck and shoulder muscles are stiff, you're on high alert, and dangit, you have to go to the bathroom again. You're almost relieved when they finally (or quickly) catch you.

This too, can be used.

What about you? Have you had any scary experiences you could draw from for your writing? Do you have a favorite example of character fear from a book, one that you could really feel, and that got YOUR blood pumping? Did this post even make any sense, since I came up with it at like 2 in the morning? I have all the questions for you guys today. X)


  1. This is a very cool post, I love your examples. I have done that where I have watched something scary and then sat up half the night terrified. *shivers*. I think the worst was when my entire family left for the weekend and I had the house to myself and at around midnight I heard loud bangs coming from the main floor. ( My room is in the basement) I had already locked my door and had a phone with me. So here I was thinking, I am going to die. Should I call the cops, but what if its nothing, and someone is in the house. Luckily I remembered the two cats we had up there, I still didn't sleep the whole night.
    Off topic is the hand coming out of the bed from Doctor Who.

    1. Lol my dad told us a story about one time when he was a young man with his own apartment (or sharing an apartment with a roommate who was away, I can't remember), and he read a Stephen King novel. He didn't go to bed until the sun came up. And another time, when he was a kid living at home, and he loved books about Dracula, and how one time he was in bed at night and looked across the hall, and moonlight was shining through the window opposite and illuminating a bathrobe that was hung over a floor lamp, and.....there was Dracula. He was absolutely, literally, paralyzed with fear. He couldn't even shout for his mother. Finally he figured out, "wait, that's not moving, that's not a person", but it was still a scary experience! XD Aaaanyway, such stories make me a little more forgiving of the idiots in movies and tv who DONT SCREAM OR RUN AWAY EVEN THOUGH THEY'RE ABOUT TO BE MURDERED WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU JUST MOOOOOOVE!!!!!!!!1 *ahem* anyway.

      That sounds terrifying!! :O Uggghhhh I hate being home alone at night! And I hate being home alone (day OR night) and in the shower. There is literally nothing you can do if someone attacks you in the shower. And whoever finds your body will see you naked. A lose-lose situation. Basically, being home alone is a horrible idea. XD

      LOL really? Do you know what episode/season/doctor/any of that? XD I don't recognize it.

  2. Very good tip! I hate that feeling of fear in the middle of the night, especially if you're the only one still awake or the first bedroom an attacker would hit (aka my room).

    1. Hehe thanks! And lol I try to take comfort in the fact that (in our house, anyway) we'd hear the attacker trying to sneak through the house long before he'd get to our rooms. The advantage of an old, creaky house! X)

  3. These are very good ideas—if I'm reading right, it's basically boils down to being sympathetic to the responses we'd expect in our daily lives, and then comparing them to something we're very, very familiar with. :)

    1. Exactly! I think the premise for the GTW post was that you don't have to follow the "write what you know" mantra, since most people haven't experienced the things that might make their story exciting. X)

  4. I love this post! I've recently been struggling(ish) with character fear -- like, my MC narrator is lying on a river bank, freezing and starving, certain she's about to die. How do you write that?? Should she be sobbing and incoherent? Passing out? Having deep meditations on the meaning of life and love and all those she'll never say goodbye to?

    I just ended up writing rubbish about the cold skin of the earth and the dancing faces of those she's known and goodness knows what.

    And then how do you come back from a near-death experience? Does it scar you? Of course. But does that show? Or if you're in a war-torn country and you don't know if you're friends and family are alive and you're on the run stealing for every meal (all of which she is), do you become stronger through necessity?

    Drawing on my own fears is a great thing to do. Thank you!

    Also thanks for stopping by my blog :)

    PS new follower!

    1. PPS we also play a similar game at my church youth group, called the Grog. The Grog walks around in the pitch black catching people whilst we attempt to assemble various torches because the only way to kill the Grog is to shine a torch in its face ... the catch is only one of the torches will work! It is actually a terrifying game. I love it but I kind of hate it!

    2. I'm glad this was helpful to you!! That sounds like a really interesting story, too! :O and OMG!! THAT SOUNDS HORRIFYING!! That sounds like a horror game IN REAL LIFE!! XD

  5. Wow, this post was FANTASTIC. So helpful! I'm always looking for tips to help add more emotion to my writing, whether it be fear, tension, heartache, what-have-you. LOVED reading this!

    Oh, and hey! I wanted to let you know I've tagged you over at my blog. You can find it here: http://musingsofanelf.blogspot.com/2015/05/favorite-screen-characters-tag.html
    There's no pressure to participate at all, I just thought you might enjoy it.

    Hope you have a great week, sweet girl! ^_^

    1. Yay!! :D I'm happy it was interesting and/or helpful. X) And LOL I actually just came from reading your post, and I was like, 'Hey!! She tagged me! Awesome!" Some (perhaps half?) of my answers will be the same as yours, I think. XD

      Aww, thanks!! ^.^ You, as well! :)