Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Make Your Characters Come Alive with Visceral Reactions

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Have you ever been told your characters are cardboard? Or have you read a book where you were left wondering why you couldn't identify with a particular character? It could be that the character isn't reacting in a "normal human" way, which includes visceral responses.  


What is a Visceral Reaction?

A visceral reaction is a response to an emotional stimulus—something that is involuntary, immediate, and very, very physical. It's the skin crawling when we see something that scares us. It's the punch in the gut when we get bad news. It's the feeling in our bones when we know something's not right. It's also the heat of a blush when we're embarrassed. In other words, it's our body reacting to outside stimulus without any thought. Humans have five physical senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing— our "antenna" that allow us to perceive the things that go on around us. And each of us perceives that stimulus in a very unique and personal way, depending on our previous experiences. 


As do our characters. We want our characters to seem real, so having them react to situations needs to seem real too. Visceral reactions always come first. 


Here's an example.

When Joan sees Brad, her soon-to-be ex-husband, put his arm around his much younger girlfriend at the courthouse, her visceral – and completely unconscious – reaction will probably be an elevated heartrate and blood pressure, a dilation of her irises, and a surge of blood into her arms and legs, a set of items called the "fight or flight syndrome". She has no control over that reaction. It's an immediate and overwhelming sensation. (To explain a little more – the sympathetic nervous system, which has just been triggered in Joan's body, supports the assumption that she will need to protect herself or flee for her life. Our bodies set the stage by increasing the amount of blood to our brain, lungs, and extremities so we can run or fight, and our eyes dilate so we can see better.) 


Another reaction follows, one of three possibilities and not in any particular order.

  • Thought
  • Speech
  • Action

In fact, she may experience all three with lightning-fast speed. But by then, the visceral reaction has control and, in this particular situation, she may do something she shouldn't. 


This is how it might look:

A high-pitched giggle from the end of the hallway brought Joan's head around. Who would be…? The tight skirt, bleached hair, and five-inch spiked heels caught her attention first. Then, Brad patted the woman's butt, looking down the hallway at Joan with a smirk (stimulus). Hot blood shoved its way into her face and her vision blurred (visceral reaction), finally narrowing on the man who had promised to love her forever (thought reaction). "You son of a …." (speech reaction). She was halfway down the hallway (action reaction) before her attorney caught her arm. "Joan, don't do it. It will just make everything worse." But the fear on Brad's face was worth it.


Of course, there are hundreds of better ways to show this on the page. Here are a few of them:

  • "His heart skittered." (Abbie Roads)
  • "Fear plunged into this heart sharp as a scalpel." (Abbie Roads)
  • "Something twisted into my chest. Something ugly. Something I didn't even know existed." (Lori Freeland)
  • "Fear and panic and guilt jammed in his chest." (Kimberly Meyer)

Also consider the depth of reaction. 

The stimulus of a door slamming, for instance, will bring a different reaction from someone who is safe in their own home or someone who is hiding from a murderer. The reaction to the second version will be stronger, of course, but a character can still react to a slammed door, probably just not with fear. 


Getting visceral reactions right is almost an art and playing with different ways to put it on the page can be a lot of fun. Create something new! You'll be amazed at how your writing will improve!


Make Your Characters Come Alive with Visceral Reactions - @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.


A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for almost twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 


You can find her at or

From Sally: I wish to express gratitude to the giants upon whose shoulders I stand and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. Thank you Sally for the valuable lesson, and for adding at the end how it's "almost an art" - which makes it seem more like a fun challenge than work. :)

    1. LOL!! It IS an art! And a challenge, all wrapped up in a cute little package. But I'm sure you'll come up with some great visceral reactions as you write.

      Thanks, Grace!

  2. This post was extremely helpful, Sally.

  3. Thanks, Ingmar! I always appreciate your comments and support.

  4. I smile when I see another post of yours on Edie's site. And - as always - you didn't disappoint. Very valuable, helpful crafting tip here. Thanks.
    Jay Wright; Upstate SC

  5. Great examples! Sharing with my Word Weavers group. Now I'm going to find a way to use "skittered" in my WIP.