Thursday, October 17, 2013

Channeling Fear for Character Depth

Photo courtesy of Jason Odell
It's October. Halloween comes to mind, which in turn leads to thoughts about scary stuff. Goblins, Zombies, Vampires and things that go bump in the night. We all have our fears. As writers, of course we're afraid we won't be able to finish the book. When we finish it, we're afraid nobody will buy it. Or that it's got mistakes we missed. Or that it'll get bad reviews. Or we'll never be able to write another book. But that's not what I'm talking about today. I'm talking about things our characters are afraid of.

Nobody's perfect. And nobody wants to read about a perfect character. We want them to be flawed, because that makes them easier to identify with. And we want to see how, despite their flaws, they can overcome obstacles and can conquer their fears to emerge victorious at the end of the book.

I write a lot of action-adventure themes in my books. I put my characters in tight spots. In their action scenes, yes, they're  afraid of being shot at. But to be more human, they need personal fears as well.

It's important to include visceral reactions. What happens inside when you're afraid? We're hard wired for 'fight or flight' reactions to fear. Among other things, your heart rate increases, your palms sweat, your mouth goes dry. As authors, we need to keep track of our reactions to what everything feels like as well as what it looks like or smells like, and then make sure that gets on the page. When you're writing, to give your characters depth, find out what their deepest fear is…and make them confront it. In Where Danger Hides, Dalton is afraid of babies. Yes, babies.

Here's an excerpt to serve as an example.

      When Miri led him down the hall and he heard a baby crying—no, make that babies, plural—he was ready to jump ship.
      “Shh. Keep your voice down. Sudden noises upset them.”
      As if crying babies didn’t upset him?
      “Go. Sit.” She pointed to one of three rocking chairs in a room with five cribs and other bits he recognized as nursery furniture. Elsie fussed over one of the cribs, then brought out a squirming, squalling blanket.
      His heart went into triple time forced march rate. Blood rushed in his ears. Before his knees went to full Jell-O mode, he sank into the nearest chair. “What are we doing here?” he said to Miri. “What am I doing here?”
      “Elsie and her husband Joe are foster parents extraordinaire. They take in the ones nobody else will touch. The mothers were on drugs, or HIV positive, or alcoholics. The babies need human contact. Lots of it.”
      Elsie appeared in front of him. “Hold out your arms. Come on, don’t tell me you’ve never held a baby.”
      He shrugged. Words couldn’t get past the baseball in his throat. When he accepted the bundle from Elsie, his hands shook.
      Elsie adjusted the infant in the crook of his arms. “Relax. Big guy like you shouldn’t be afraid of a tiny baby. Keep his head supported. This is Xavier. He’s a little feisty tonight, but he’s been fed and has a clean diaper. Figured you might want to start out easy.”
      Easy? She had no idea. Dalton zeroed his attention on Miri’s calm, soothing voice, coaxing her baby to eat.
      “If you’re okay, I’ve got some things to do out front,” Elsie said.
      “We’re fine,” Miri said. Her furrowed brow meant he’d be toast if he disagreed.
      Elsie padded out of the room. Panic-stricken, Dalton looked at Miri. She smiled, which helped relax him. Not a lot, but it helped.
      “Hold him close. Rock. Singing is good, too. Or talk to him.”
      Sing? Talk? He couldn’t swallow. Breathing was an effort. He pushed his feet against the floor and set the chair in motion. Xavier didn’t seem to notice.
      Miri’s charge now made slurpy, sucking sounds.
      Dalton stared at a mobile dangling above one of the cribs. He focused on the shapes swinging gently back and forth above the crib. Fish. Fish were good.
      Think about fish. Snorkeling. Deep sea fishing. Fly fishing. Anything but babies.

Of course, the why comes out later, but show your readers the emotion first.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.


  1. Hi, Terry,

    I agree that characters need to have flaws just as real people do. Fear exists in all of us and is an important component in novels just as in life.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jacqueline. It's making sure we show the emotions our characters are feeling that make them real. And we don't have to put ourselves through the same experiences, only similar emotions.

  3. Flaws, yes ... real emotions? Oooo, I'm starting to feel all squirmy inside.

    1. Chris - channel those feelings. Write down all your squirmies so you can write them into your book.

  4. Your discussion of grounding a character's feelings and experiences in their physical sensations is excellent advice. Good post.

    1. Thanks, Susan. I think everyone's experienced emotions, even if they haven't been in the situations our characters have.

  5. Hi Terry, great point, and really great excerpt as example!

    I think the mistake I see most often is choosing a random fear that is never brought into play in a meaningful way— like having a bad guy afraid of birds, so her cringes when a pigeon flies past, but overcoming this fear is never brought back into the plot. I think fears best serve the story is treated like Chekhov's gun—if you plant the fear into the story near the beginning, make it story-relevant before the end.

    1. Yes, you have to foreshadow, and then get back to it. If all we saw was Indiana Jones scared of the snake in the plane in the opening scenes, and we never got to the "good stuff" it would have been a throwaway scene.

  6. Great post, Terry! Love the examples of how to handle it in your excerpt! Tweeted this as well.

    1. Thanks, Lana. Appreciate the word-spreading, and glad the example made my point for you.

  7. Excellent post, Terry, and not only is it important to let our characters experience those feelings, we need to show that, not tell it. I'm reading a book now in which the characters begin to feel something; as in "Sam became agitated." I think I feel another BRP post coming on. (smile)

  8. So true, Maryann. That's why describing those visceral responses can take you from telling to showing. Looking forward to your post!

  9. Engaging the senses in a meaningful way lifts the characters off the pages and into our lives so we can connect. Very valuable post, Terry.

  10. Great examples and great scary picture!

    Morgan Mandel

    1. Thanks, Morgan - my son always goes all out for Halloween.

  11. Great post, Terry. I loved that scene when I read it in the book.

  12. Really good advice, Terry. Sometimes we are so focused on moving the story forward that we forget how important the details, feelings and senses are.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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