Real And Imaginary Dangers: The Importance Of Knowing What Your Characters Fear
More popular stories are about a character or characters who want something—whether it is to defeat evil, marry a certain person, discover the cure for cancer, and so forth—and the struggles and setbacks (and minor victories) they experience in pursuit of whatever they most desire. However, it’s possible to look at many stories and realize they are also about what a character fears.
For example, in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, the character Jane Bennett wants to marry Mr. Bingley. Since she isn’t from the same social class, however, she fears he won’t consider marrying her because this would involve marrying “down.”
In the movie “Dan In Real Life,” Dan wants to be a devoted father. He is so busy ensuring his three daughters are doing well that he doesn’t confront his fear of never finding a woman as wonderful as his deceased wife.
Finally, in the reality TV show “Naked and Afraid” the participants want to survive the 21 day challenge. While it isn’t fair to say they all fear this, many of them seem to fear that they don’t have what it takes to succeed.
As you probably realize from your own life, what a character fears directly or indirectly influences what this characters does and doesn’t do. Fear isn’t a force which always leads to action, nor does it always promote inertia. This makes it occasionally harder to see, yet that doesn’t mean it isn’t influential.
Before you decide what your characters fear it may be useful to think about your greatest fears and how these impact your behavior. Depending on your level of self-awareness, it shouldn’t take long to identify a few of your fears. From what I know of human nature, I believe most people have several prominent fears which influence their behavior and thought patterns. While it isn’t necessary to identify all of yours fears, it’s helpful to recognize patterns in your life which seem to indicate a fear of being alone, abandoned, or not living up to your potential.
After identifying some of your fears, you shouldn’t automatically write a story about a character with the exact same fear. This isn’t forbidden, of course, yet this isn’t a completely linear exercise. Instead, learning to identify your fears can help you become more observant regarding how fears impact behavior. In addition, you will hopefully become more compassionate towards yourself and your characters. Being a human being is no easy feat, and an understanding that all people act irrationally because of their fears—whether real or imagined—will help improve your ability to create believable, compelling characters.
Many fears are universal; these include the fear of being alone, being unworthy of love and attention, being rejected or betrayed, getting injured or killed, or living a life of insignificance.
Mr. Spock is trying to keep his emotions under control...
More uncommon fears are often found in fantasy-themed movies, books, and stories. These include Harry Potter’s fear of becoming evil because of his connection to Voldemort, Ender Wiggin’s fear in Ender’s Game of becoming cruel like his older brother Peter, and, in the original Star Trek series, Mr. Spock’s fear of acting overly emotional. It’s possible to have a character who fears something unique in a non-fantasy story; for example, you may have a character who is afraid he will never move away from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama.
Phobias, whether major or minor ones, affect more people than you might imagine. While most of us are not as afraid of germs as the character Bob in the movie “What About Bob?” is, many people are slightly superstitious and fearful about stepping on cracks or seeing a black cat on Friday the thirteenth and so forth. If you think about phobias as occurring on a continuum, it’s easy to see that many people are phobic about something to a greater or lesser degree. I’m easily spooked by cramped spaces, yet I’m not so claustrophobic it affects my daily life. Nonetheless, if I were placed in a confined space for too long, I may act less rationally than I would otherwise.
It’s essential to remember that your character’s fears may reveal themselves in subtle ways. While it’s possible for fears to exhibit themselves more obviously, I recommend erring on the side of subtly. For example, if I were writing about a character name Pete who is afraid he’ll never stop drinking, I would indicate this fear by the shame he feels when putting too many empty beer bottles in the recycling bin the morning after he drank himself into a stupor. I find this scene more powerful than him getting into a heated confrontation with his mom about his drinking problem.
What are you most afraid of?
Yet, as you may know from personal experience, there are moments in life when recognizing a fear is dramatic and life-altering. This could involve the heartbreak and anguish you experience after your lover leaves you and you realize your fear of being alone. Or it could be a young mother screaming at her toddler and, moments later, starting to weep bitterly because she recognizes that, as she feared might happen, she is acting like her mother did when she was a child.
Fear can make people behave erratically or out-of-character. Perhaps you have a character named Kate who is ordinarily a sloppy, slapdash housekeeper. However, she may fastidiously clean her entire place if her parents are coming to visit and she is motivated by the fear her parents won’t love her unless her life appears perfect.
Considering how fear can inspire someone to act as if the opposite is true is also important. One easy example of this is when someone who fears they are insignificant acts arrogant and narcissistic. Truly confident individuals aren’t interested in pretending to be better than others, but those who fear they are less worthy may act unreasonably arrogant and self-assured.
It’s helpful to consider why a character has specific fears. If your character is afraid she will never get married, does she fear this because she has been told she is ugly? Or could it be that she notices how many other women her age are unmarried and therefore it seems as if her chances of finding a good man are slim? The causes of certain fears are not always straightforward, and this fact can seem tricky to navigate as a writer. Certain fears may have multiple causes, and it’s likely you won’t be able to determine every event or thought which inspired your character to have a specific fear.
Certain writers don’t like to be bothered with carefully sketching their characters before they begin writing. There is nothing wrong with this approach if it works for you. If you prefer to dive right into a story, it’s important to eventually pause and start asking questions about your character’s fears based on what he or she is doing. You can ask, “What does this character want that he or she isn’t pursuing?” and “Is a fear or fears keeping this character stuck?” You may also want to ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen to this character?” The answer to this question may reveal what this character fears most. For instance, if the worst thing that could happen to your character is he gets fired from his job, it’s possible this character fears he is incompetent.
Focusing on fear may feel counterintuitive at first. After all, shouldn’t our characters be pursuing their dreams instead of letting fear get in the way? In theory this sounds preferable; in practice, however, fear plays a role in how our characters behave. By recognizing this, and thinking more thoroughly about what your characters fear, you’ll be equipped to create sympathetic, well-rounded, and realistic characters.
For any writer who wishes to streamline this process even more, simply ask yourself two questions: “What does this character want?” and “What is this character afraid of?” The answers to these questions should be enough to start writing something amazing. Good luck.