“I Don’t Feel Her Fear”
The situation is perilous. My protagonist recalls how she got into this mess, imagines the worst that can happen, and feels her heart pound and her palms sweat.
Reader feedback: “I don’t feel her fear.”
It’s come up more than once, from different readers in response to different scenes. I’ve known fear; I’ve shivered over scary novels; I’ve read posts online about conveying character emotions. The problem persists.
Help wanted! What makes a portrayal of dread ring true to you? Does time speed up or slow down? Does the mind focus on details of danger or the fly buzzing in the corner? How do your favorite authors draw you into their characters’ fear?
4/1/2019 08:54:01 am
When I'm afraid, time slows down, my head feels muddy and smells get sharp, my spit gets thick and my breath gets faster. I have trouble focusing my thoughts and at the same time they get very very focused - on every sound, every plan, every possible escape.
4/1/2019 09:10:39 am
Great topic Sarah! I think voicing the character’s thoughts as they talk themselves through the crisis is one way to go. Another is to report the physical aspects of fear: heart, hands, odor, deer in the headlights. Good to think about what makes it come alive. -Rebecca
Thanks, Rebecca! One thing I hadn't thought much about until recently is the difference in emotions between a viewpoint and non-viewpoint character. Some of the physical aspects are more visible from the outside - facial expression, cringing? - while others - and of course thoughts - are only perceptible to the one who is afraid. Odor could go either way: the smell of the person, or what the person smells?
4/1/2019 05:13:50 pm
As usual, Sarah, I will be a voice in the wilderness.
Bruce, many thanks for your voice in the wilderness! Your advice to "Keep writing" is welcome and sound. As with so much of our work, it's important to make it the best we can - I do want readers (and agents) to keep turning pages - and to accept it will never be the best it could possibly be, everything to everybody. I struggle sometimes to strike the balance. [As for male hogwash, not in this instance - I've gotten the I-don't-feel response from readers of both genders.]
4/19/2019 10:30:38 am
[Disclaimer: I study brains, not writing.] I don't think the level of danger, or how time is perceived by the protagonist, or where the protagonist's attention is are of any import. The question is whether I *am* the protagonist vs. whether I am just observing the protagonist from the outside.
Matt, that's a wonderful response, and one that could come from a professional writer or editor. In fact, I have recently learned writing instructors have vocabulary for describing just this distinction. "Could see," ""wondered," "hoped" (in your example) are called "filter words" because they put a filter between the reader and the experience, and we are warned to avoid them. One discussion I read recently was that the version with the filter words has us looking at the person rather than at what she's looking at. I like your discussion of how the cleaner version invites and forces the reader to engage the imagination.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.