Writing about Risky Encounters

woman with groceries

photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The Gift of Fear is a two-decades old book about recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer—whether of a spouse, a girlfriend, or a mass shooting—people say, “We had no idea he’d . . .” This book, like the FBI report released yesterday, says baloney to that. There are signs. People just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime writer, I hoped those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement on ways to prevent violence and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the grating “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying bags up to her apartment. He followed her inside, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

9 thoughts on “Writing about Risky Encounters

  1. This is a terrific post both for writers and those interested in the psychology of victimology. So much harm has been done from being taught “you must be polite.” This applies to women and children. I’ll be reading this book.

  2. I read this book several years ago, and recently found it in a stack of books in a corner of my writing room. I recall sound advice, some of it surprising; it’s time for a reread. Good post.

  3. I’ve read and reread this book, and your post reminds me to read it again. (He also has a good book on managing fear) Once, years ago, I was up in northeastern New Brunswick, Canada, working on a true crime’s research, and late in the evening, sitting around at the jail, I started talking to one of the officers, and our subject was The Gift of Fear. It’s so full of great advice. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Maybe it’s because you’ve developed such a nuanced human understanding that Shots Fired was such a memorable and useful book!

  4. After 80 plus years of living, I’ve become pretty good at figuring people out. I’ve always paid more attention to people, how they act and speak, and what’s going on around me. Good post.

  5. It sounds like a good book. I’ve long been a student of body language, which is said to be 70% of our communication. Learning to “read” the “tells” is an important part of being a police officer. Unfortunately, it’s also been my experience that a lot of criminals, especially predators, have an uncanny ability to size people up and read these tells as well. Learning all you can is a matter of survival.

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