Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

Four Ways to Reveal Your Character's Personal Boogie Man

Posted: October 26, 2013, 3:13PM


Her thoughts stopped spinning so abruptly they slammed into the back of each other like train cars crashing into a stalled engine.

This wasn’t about her! It never had been.

“That’s just scared talkin’,” Princess said aloud. Her husky voice sounded shaky, but she kept speaking and it grew stronger with each word. “Just fear a-babblin’, talkin’ things it don’t know nothin’ about! Can’t listen to scared. It lies. Scared lies and mad lies and hate lies. But love don’t lie.”

She lifted her head and shouted into the shadows of her cell, “My last night on this earth, I ain’t gonna listen to lies!”

Five Days in May

What is your character afraid of? What your character fears and how he reacts to that fear provides a wealth of insight, a window into your character’s soul. It is a powerful tool to craft characters your reader never forgets. And don’t you forget to scare Loyal Reader, too. Unless your reader is terrified that something awful is about to happen to the characters he cares about, there’s no compelling reason to hang around and see how it all comes out. Making the reader fear The Bad Thing Coming has a name. It’s called suspense.

Writers need to become masters at revealing the fear a character is experiencing and using that fear to add depth and complexity to characterization.

The uses of fear in your novels are limited only by your own imagination. The most obvious, of course, is to heighten tension. We do that by making characters face what they fear most.

In Hunger Games, Catniss is afraid her little sister will be selected as the tribute--and leaps up to take her place when that’s exactly what happens.


The Wizard of Oz is all plotted around characters’ fears. The Strawman’s fear of fire, the Tin Man of water, the Lion of everything and Dorothy of losing Toto.

In a suspense novel, you place characters in steadily increasing peril and the reader knows only what the character knows. In a thriller, the character is dropped into a scary situation on page one and often the reader knows what the character does not. The reader watched the guy put the bomb under the car, saw the murderer hide in the cellar. The fear in readers tightens as the un-knowing hero goes blithely into that danger. Loyal Reader wants to grab him and shout, “Don’t do that! Don’t open that … oh, man.”

Here are four ways to show your reader that a character is afraid.


The audience in a movie has to rely on what they observe to find out what the character is afraid of. As fiction writers, we would be wise to emulate the silver screen and use show-don’t-tell to communicate fear. Don’t tell me Joe’s scared, show me the drink he spilled in his lap because his hands were shaking.

But novelists rock. (You already knew that.) We’re not limited to what Loyal Reader can see. As we talked about last week, we can take the reader into a character’s mind and show him what the character is thinking.

Something profoundly evil lurked in the swirling purple depths of my recollections, in the deepest dark ditch there. Fear of facing that secret trumped the yearning in my heart to be like everybody else and the niggling itch of curiosity.

Fear trumps everything; always does, always has, always will. Fear held me hostage for a quarter of a century. Like a schoolyard bully, it twisted my arm behind my back until I cried “give!” It forced me to accept that my life began at age 11, on my knees in the dirt on the side of the road with the wind blowing smoke into my face from the gulley where our old Dodge station wagon was burning like hell had opened a crack in the world right there in the back seat.

The Memory Closet


What a character does reveals the fear in his heart.

Exactly how the slave trader would kill them, Ron couldn’t imagine but he couldn’t pretend any longer that it wouldn’t happen. He was going to die.

The sun was setting. Only a little light shone from the lone window high above his head. Masapha lay on his side facing the wall—either asleep, unconscious or on his own private journey. Ron knew the room would soon be blind-man black. While he still could see, he forced his pain-wracked body to move. Leaving a bloody snail trail in his wake, he crawled/scooted across the room to where Masapha lay. When all the light was gone, Ron had to be able to reach out in the darkness and touch another human being. He couldn’t be alone; not now. After the torture he’d endured, he couldn’t be here in the blackness by himself.



“Me? Afraid?” Theo looked sideways at Gabriella and sighed. “Not ’xactly afraid. More like scared spitless. I look down into that valley out there, it’s all I can do not to spew my breakfast all over my shoes.”

“Theo, why didn’t you tell me? What else are you scared of you didn’t tell me?”

“Water.” It just popped out. He bristled instantly at the incredulity on Gabriella’s face. “Now, don’t look like you ain’t never heard nothing so pitiful in all your life. I ain’t scared of water like bathwater or rainwater, puddles, creeks, things like that. Just … deep water.”

“Heights and deep water. Did you fall off a cliff into a lake?”

“Wasn’t a lake. And didn’t nobody fall.”

The Last Safe Place

For my money, Monster’s Inc. wins the award for the cleverest use of fear—turning it wrong side out. The monsters in the closets are terrified of children.


But we need to keep in mind that fear doesn’t ignite only a fight or flight response. The stranglehold of fear can choke the life out of a character's every waking moment. And the sleeping moments, too.

 Fear of the Boogie Man was the wallpaper of my life, the canvas on which every day was painted. Over the years, I offered the monster one peace treaty after another, a host of mutual co-existence agreements. If the Boogie Man would leave me alone, I’d leave him alone. Trouble was, the Boogie Man never lived up to his end of the bargain. He always figured out new ways to reach out of that dark closet into my wide-awake life. Anorexia. Bulimia. Cutting. Withdrawal. Depression. A period when I actually stuttered, debilitating migraine headaches, scary images on the edge of my vision, a knot in my stomach 24/7, sleep walking and night terrors.

I never questioned fear. Fear just was, a relentless predator that stalked the halls and alleyways of my mind. Eventually, I resigned myself to the reality that the Boogie Man would never stop messing with me; I’d spend the rest of my life dealing with his surprise attacks.

The Memory Closet

How have you used fear in your novels? Do leave a comment below so we can all learn from each other.

Write on!



Elaine Manders October 26, 2013, 9:20PM

I admit I could ratchet up the fear factor. I write romance, but it isn't that my h/h don't face enough to make their hair stand on end. Too often they just plow right in. It's time to make them squirm a little. Great post, 9e, as usual.   Reply

Replies (1)

Catherine Herzog October 29, 2013, 12:47AM |

Thank you. I'm working on my second novel-- it's a sequel to The Key to Her Heart (my first novel) and I think you may just have nailed the problem I've been having with it. There was so much fear to work off in the first novel, but in this one the old issues are resolved, and so I need to give a few new issues I guess. Fear is a great motivator. thanks again for your post.   Reply

Replies (1)

Judith Blevins November 1, 2013, 2:48PM

Hi Ninie, I read all your posts and use them as my guide to writing. I was however wondering about the fourth way to show that your character is afraid. I can't find it in the post. Am I missing something? Just wondering. Thanks, Judith Blevins, A #1 Fan   Reply

Replies (1)

Judith Blevins November 2, 2013, 2:41PM

Dear Ninie, You are the most attentive novelist I Know of. You take your fan base very seriously, and that is an exceptional attribute. I suspected the Monster Inc. portion of the post was # 4, but just wanted to be sure. There are times when I've been told I'm too observant, a bit anal, and perhaps have major OCD. Could be. The truth is, the older I get...the more I second guess myself and I must get clarification from someone else. Thank you so much for validating me on such a simple observation. You are absolutely the best. Until later   Reply
9e November 3, 2013, 11:21PM |

Awwwwwww.   Reply

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

I have soooo many stories I want to tell you, so many worlds I want you to see, so many people I want you to meet. People in trouble, most of them. Big trouble they didn't ask for but there it is. Ordinary folks like you and me who are forced by circumstances to fight for their lives. And then, smack in the middle of their everyday worlds they encounter the unexplainable. It's always the game-changer.

Welcome to my world. If you'd like to know more about me, I'm easy. Click on Meet Ninie and you'll see. My life isn't really an open book; it's more of a pamphlet, and you are cordially invited to read it. I'd love to interact with you on Twitter, Facebook Fan page, and Goodreads. Or come visit with me at 9e's Kitchen Table, a Facebook group where readers and I hang out. I think you'd like it.