Increasing Tension Through Personal Space

One of the oddest things I find in this Covid-19 era is how physical distancing affects different people. My family and I have been sheltering in place for four weeks now, but I remember what my husband, Scott, said to me the first week (like the second day into Shelter in Place).

Scott: “People aren’t meant to stay at home. We’re social creatures.”
Me: “Not all of us.”

You can tell which one of us is extroverted and which one is introverted. Out of my family, I’ve been the least affected from the stay at home order. Even though the last three years I have been meeting my friend and author Stacey Wilk at Starbucks or Panera to write four times a week, we’re not socializing…much. We put on our headphones and fall into our own worlds. The rest of the time, I write at home in solitude. I’m still writing at home, though now I have more interruptions as I’m not alone. There are four of us here. I’ve experienced more social interaction as a result of this virus, not less. Lol.

Social distancing is much harder for my gregarious and outgoing husband who enjoys meeting new people and making new friends with anyone, anywhere, and at any time. It’s also difficult for my two college age children. What 19 and 22-year-old wants to see their parents all day, every day? It’s been especially hard on my son whose senior year ended abruptly and without fanfare, and who probably won’t get a graduation ceremony next month.

My husband and I are runners and when we are out on our runs, we now give the dog walkers, kids on bikes, and other exercisers a wide berth. I want to protect others from breathing in my exhaled breath and protect myself from breathing in theirs. It makes me feel bad to have to run in the street instead of the side walk for a few strides until we pass, but it’s safer. And I always try to smile, say hi, or give a nod of acknowledgement. Just because we are distancing for safety, doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly or polite.

I haven’t gone to a store in weeks. Scott has been picking up any groceries we need, but he says everyone keeps their distance, which is good but, again, odd. Our society’s comfortable personal space used to be about two feet. Now it’s six feet or more.

However, this distancing doesn’t have to be the case with our characters. Most of us are probably not writing a story set in a Covid-19 world. So lets take a look at what personal pace (and the invasion of it) in fiction can look like and how to use it to tell a good story.

How do you feel when someone enters into your personal space, whatever distance that space may be? It depends on the person right? My husband and children can get close, but everyone else needs to stay back. How do your characters feel when another character enters their personal space? The answer again depends on their relationship. A young child climbs into her grandmother’s lap for story time. A father holds his child’s hand or picks him up when walking together. A husband rubs his wife’s shoulders. A girl snuggles with her boyfriend while watching TV. In each of these examples, the other person doesn’t feel his or her personal space has been invaded because a familiar intimate relationship has already been established between the two people.

Characters with a desire to create an intimate relationship won’t automatically cross this invisible barrier with the object of their affection. Like real people would, they slowly test the other person’s personal space and evaluate the response based on verbal and nonverbal cues (body language). For example, as the hero and heroine banter, she moves closer to him. He doesn’t back away. She takes this as a good sign and touches his arm. And so on… You can create page-turning sexual tension as one character figures out how to cross into the other character’s personal space. Your scene might start off with a gaze from across a crowed room (or something less cliched) and progress to “leaning”.  For a definition of leaning, and a great example of increasing sexual tension by crossing into personal space, watch this YouTube clip from the movie While You Were Sleeping.

But what if your character doesn’t want someone invading her personal space? Perhaps she is in a crowded elevator, subway or cafe? Many times it’s hard to maintain personal space in these situations. Most people try to give each other the illusion of personal space by avoiding eye contact. But what if the other character doesn’t do this? What if the character maintains eye contact or moves into her personal space uninvited? Now we have a different kind of tension.

What will your character do when a drunk guy gets into her personal space in a bar? Hopefully she’ll tell him to back off while she physically steps back and raises her open hands in front of her to create space and a protective barrier between them. If he backs off, great. She can enjoy the rest of her night. If he steps into her personal space again, she knows this guy—the villain, perhaps—is not harmless. A nice palm heal to the nose might do the trick, which is the other reason her hands went up in front of her. It might have initially appeared as though she merely created space, but her weapons were ready to strike if needed. Of course, your scene will be shaped by your characters’ personalities. Would she run away, strike him, or call for help? Would he chase her, block and counter her strike, or pull a weapon like a knife or gun?

Showing your characters’ interactions around and within each others’ personal space reveals character personality, establishes relationships, demonstrates intimacy or lack thereof, and increases tension—sexual or otherwise.

In FEARLESS (The Survival Race #2) Myia can soul jump into someone else’s body to heal their tortured spirit, but she has to be touching them first. She tries to heal the warlord, Kedric, but he’s determined to evade her touch. The story has many fun (and sexy) instances where the boundaries of personal space are explored including the innocent shaman trying to seduce the warlord (badly), mingling auras, and a very intimate scene where she enters inside his body, comes face-to-face with his pain and fears, and tries to reawaken his soul.

What are your favorite scenes in books or movies that demonstrate crossing into personal space? Have you thought about your character’s personal space and their reactions to someone getting too close? I love talking with you (while maintaining a healthy distance, right now) so please leave a comment.

Stay safe out there!

~ K.M. Fawcett

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