The situation described by the writer of a recent letter to Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist, sounded to Hax like “abuse.” I would never have guessed that, which is why she writes a successful newspaper column, and I don’t. One of the sources she suggested her correspondent consult was Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. At least I’d read the book! And grateful to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s timely to repeat my review. The cover says, “This book can save your life,” and, whether that’s true, it sure can save the lives of the characters you’re writing about and suggest ways to put them in peril.
The Gift of Fear is a 1997 classic on recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer, people say, “We had no idea. She didn’t seem the type . . .” This book, like a 2018 FBI report, says baloney to that. There are signs. You just have to recognize them and accept their validity.
As a crime fiction writer, I hope 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 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 annoying “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 the bags for her. He followed her into her apartment, 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!