Books don’t usually get physical reactions from me. Tears are hard to come by. I rarely grip books in terror. While audiobooks have me making faces along with the characters, that too is pretty restrained. Only the best of books can get a physical reaction out of me— The Book Thief almost made my eyes leak, The Way of Kings had some suspenseful moments, and The Raven Boys has such emotions (and such a great performance on audiobook) that I couldn’t help but make faces. But there’s one physical reaction that keeps coming up. It’s a heart-pounding feeling of suspense as I read.
For a long time, I had no idea what caused it, only where it happened. The first time I remember was actually in my Warriors days. (Animal fiction is still one of my favorite genres, honestly.) Early on in the series, the main character makes a promise to bring his nephew into the clan. Without going into too many details, the rest of the clan is already skeptical about the main character’s worth, and bringing his nephew along was not a good idea. The scene where the main character fulfills his promise hit me really hard. I was on the main character’s side, I knew his reasoning, and I still wanted to tear out my hair as I waited for the clan’s reaction.
That series is one of the ones that really drove me to write. I think that scene, and the emotional and physical impact it had for me, definitely affected that.
Fast forward to a year ago, when I was reading The Name of the Wind. I was on vacation, with plenty of time to read, and I would sit by myself for hours at a time devouring this amazing book. About halfway through, the main character plays his lute in front of a crowd. This is a common occurrence for him, as the descendant of a band of traveling performers, and yet my heart was trying to break free of my chest. For the entire scene, I was wire-strung. The next time he played for a crowd, nothing.
I still didn’t know what caused it. Was it the suspense? No, not in either case. A flubbed performance or even an errant nephew wouldn’t bring death and destruction to either character. Was it just tension? Not really, no. Tension existed, but it wasn’t the reason I was so physically engaged. Was it just that I identify with performance anxiety, and have brought my share of captivity-bred cat nephews into my adoptive clan of wild friends? Well… no. I have never been adopted by a clan of wild cats, frankly, and I have no nephews, cats or otherwise. And not even performance anxiety would elicit the same reaction.
Fast forward exactly one year later. I’m on the same vacation I was when I read The Name of the Wind, but now I’m reading Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas. This phenomenon was happening almost every other chapter. I would be reading along, perfectly fine, laughing and sympathizing, and suddenly my heart starts pounding like crazy. Then back to normal. THUMP THUMP THUMP never mind. It was like my heart was doing sprints, and I still had no idea why.
It wasn’t until I read another book, Brandon Mull’s Wild Born, that I realized the connection. (Animal fantasy, people. It’s good stuff.) Wild Born didn’t impress me much, but in one chapter, my heart gave a little thumpity-thump. Since Mull’s writing is pretty blunt, I didn’t have the same reaction as I might have with Rothfuss or Maas, but it enabled me to figure out why I kept getting physical reactions from these books. In this scene, the characters were being tested, and the main character desperately wanted to prove herself to the rest of the group. She was proud, and she wanted to be the best.
Pride, then, makes my heart work hard. It isn’t suspense as in a bomb under the table as much as suspense of reputation. What will the others think when I bring my pampered nephew into the clan? (Through all the series beforehand, that main character was extremely proud.) I attempted a really hard song to impress this crowd— what happens if I fail? (There too, the main character had been working almost the entire book to create a reputation.) I was once considered the greatest assassin in the world, and now they’re calling me a jewel thief— I need to prove myself or they’ll think it’s true. (Again, huge pride. Amazingly huge, in fact, considering her previous stint in jail.)
All these characters are proud. All these scenes made me sit up, pay attention, and breath quickly. I can yawn my way through a car chase, or laugh during a duel, but the moment a character’s hard-bought reputation is at stake, I’m engaged mentally and physically.
Maybe it’s because I care a little too much about my reputation. Maybe I’m so proud that similar characters really speak to me. Or maybe you have the same reactions to such scenes. Maybe you’ve engaged just as much with Enola Holmes (Nancy Springer), Vin (Mistborn— Brandon Sanderson), and Puck Connolly (Scorpio Races— Maggie Stiefvater). Perhaps you’ve engaged for a different reason, and have a completely different set of scenes where your heart does calisthenics. But a while ago, I made a statement that resonated with a lot of people, while talking about the Unsaid:
There is always someone for whom the character will want to appear a certain way, even if they’ve never cared about their appearance before.
That’s a bit wordy, but you get the point. We all care just a little about how we appear to others— it’s one of the main sources of anxiety. When that reputation goes on the line, we can all identify.
Or perhaps we can’t. Perhaps I’m alone, and you yawned your way through all of the books I mentioned. What gets you engaged physically? Is the reason obvious, or has it been a long time showing itself?