Characters Under Pressure: 23 Telltale Signs of Stress
Part of the art of storytelling is placing your characters in situations that may be stressful or out of their comfort zone. Readers want to experience the drama unfolding and observe the characters’ reactions and interactions. How each character reacts to a situation and each other depends on personality. A major obstacle for one character could be routine to another. Sometimes the character may handle a situation well while other times s/he struggles and makes mistakes.
“But there comes a point where almost anyone will feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. This is when the signs of stress will be seen by the outside observer.” –Dr. Glenn Wilson, Body Language: A Practical Guide
Whether a character is experiencing a stressful event firsthand or observing someone else’s hardship, it’s really the reader who is the “outside observer.” While dialogue is an important facet of a character’s response when under pressure, the body’s physical reaction to stress is just as telling—sometimes even more than what is said. For example, your protagonist could say she’s fine, but her posture communicates the complete opposite to the observer. How you describe the body language in a scene depends on the character's habits and motivations—and how much insight you wish to give to the reader (aka the “outside observer”).
In Body Language: A Practical Guide by psychologist Dr. Glenn Wilson, he describes 23 “telltale signs of stress” that will help you craft believable and relatable behaviors for characters under pressure:
Remember that your characters may exhibit only some of these short-term signs of stress based on their unique personalities and physical traits. Long-term symptoms of stress and anxiety can include insomnia, loss of appetite, stomach problems, dizzy spells, loss of breath, and panic attacks. Most often these signs are observed by the people closest to them.
To learn more about the signs of stress and other physical manifestations of emotions (e.g., facial expressions, courtship signals, trustworthiness, spatial awareness, etc.), I encourage you to get a copy of Dr. Wilson’s book to have on hand as you craft your characters and story.
Source: Dr. Glenn Wilson, Body Language: A Practical Guide (New York: MJF Books, 2012), 135-139.