What is Fear? How do you Describe Fearful Emotions in Fiction?

Hello, my readers. Today I wanted to discuss something that’s been on my mind recently. It’s probably been in a lot of people’s thoughts with the whole COVID-19, the riots, and so forth.

Fear. What is it? Why is it there? How can we overcome it, specifically as writers, artists, and human beings? What about our characters in fiction? How do we describe fear? I’d like to share some of my experiences and how I’ve addressed these, particularly as a writer. This will also be the first in my Emotions Series for fictional writing.

What is Fear?

It’s a sensation we all know too well. Your heart starts pounding, and a cold sweat trickles down your neck. Maybe you lose your breath, or your body tightens. There are myriad ways to describe fear.

As nasty as this f-word is, it’s useful and versatile in fiction. Readers love it when protagonists are scared out of their wits, crying for their lives. This creates tension, another powerful tool in story writing.

Standard Definition

Fear is a primordial and potent sensation. It involves biochemical responses and emotional alarm. Nature gave us fear to help with self-preservation, so that we could avoid danger.

Symptoms of Fear

  • chest pain
  • cold sweat
  • dry mouth
  • disorientation
  • rapid pulse
  • short breath
  • trembling
  • broken or stammered speech
  • upset stomach
  • lip or nail biting
  • restless movement
  • loud laughter
  • wide eyes/small pupils
  • crying
  • chattering teeth
  • sudden, jerkish movements
  • goosebumps

Emotions Often Related to Fear

  • sorrow
  • grief
  • panic
  • anxiety
  • shame
  • guilt
  • apathy
  • desire
  • pride
  • anger

Fear Versus Phobia

Fear is rational behavior, while a phobia is not. Phobias will persist and nag the character, perhaps creating tension unique to that person. You can play on phobias to create dynamic scenes and heighten the tension.

Understanding Fear

Fear can be provoked many ways. From being attacked by a saber tooth tiger to facing a deadline for a project, losing one’s pride, or even the fear one experiences on a first date.

The Depths of Fear

When fear kicks in, the sympathetic nervous system activates, leading to all the changes in our body. It is important for a writer to describe the protagonist (or the one experiencing the fear) with sufficient depth. The victim should be relatable and realistic. Otherwise, you risk your readers detaching themselves from the horror. From the immersion.

Character Responses to Fear

When confronted with fear, a character can respond in one of four ways:

  1. Run: the character is scared (or smart) and needs to flee from the scenario.
  2. Fight: the character can’t run (or doesn’t want to) and victory through a battle is the only way to survive.
  3. Freeze: the character is paralyzed with fear, and unable to act.
  4. Mediate: the character draws on problem solving or negotiation skills to survive.

The Importance of Fear in Fiction

Fear can be a powerful, versatile tool for character and plot progression. Through fear, you can:

  • Create tension that progresses the plot.
  • Challenge or explore the protagonist in unusual ways, thereby growing the hero.
  • Alter the pacing of the story.
  • Increase reader immersion and attention to detail.

Without fear, tension would be much harder to produce in stories. Characters would stagnant more, and the pacing would slog. Fear is a primordial emotion that evokes challenge in all of us, for good or ill. It is fear that drives us forward, what challenges us to overcome our own boundaries.

Some Notable Authors of Horror

  • Stephen King
  • Edgar Allen Poe
  • James Patterson
  • H. P. Lovecraft
  • Dean Koontz

One of the best ways to learn the art of fear-crafting is by reading famous authors like those shown above. This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are many others. Even some fantasy or sci-fi novels create good fear, so don’t feel the need to confine to the horror genre.

Thanks for reading! 🙂


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