At the root of all character motivations are a handful of deeply primal drivers. Love and hate, desire and fear. Fear is a big one. As the appointed protector of our survival, fear undergirds many of our reasons and motives in life. Therefore, understanding what your character fears can offer significant insights into your story and its underlying themes.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been diving into some of your character’s deepest motivating factors. We’ve looked at your character’s Ghost, wound, weakness, and Lie. And we’ve also examined the Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs, as well as your character’s desire, moral intention, and plot goal. All of these (often overlapping) elements within a story correspond to either motivation or goal.
Although fear often plays a role in these elements, we have yet to discuss it as thoroughly as it deserves. Within a story, your character’s relationships to fear will offer many variations. Not only will each character portray differing levels of fear, different coping mechanisms, and differing levels of capability in handling fear, so too will you find variation in the many different fears to which a character may respond throughout a story.
You can sort a character’s fears into two piles: little fears and big fears. “Little” fears are incidental to the story. They may indeed not be so little (e.g., a crippling fear of heights), but if they don’t inform the character’s arc or the plot’s throughline, then they exist merely to provide color and personality. (The caveat here is, of course, that anything in a story that is given emphasis may seem to be the “plant” in foreshadowing and will thus call for some sort of payoff before the story’s end—in which case, this “little” fear will be intrinsic to the main throughline in some way and therefore not so little.)
This post will be talking primarily about your character’s “big” fear. This is the fear that defines your character in some way and which will be an important element within the character arc—either as the element the character overcomes in a Positive Arc or is overcome by in a Negative Arc.
Before we get started, please note that just because your characters possess fears does not mean they need to be cowardly in any way. Your characters’ fears may be largely under control within their personalities, or possibly even categorically healthy fears. Although your characters’ fears may hold them back, the important fears within a story are more likely to be acting as motivating catalysts, driving the characters toward a goal. This is an important distinction, since the former interpretation can cause passive characters, while the latter is likely to keep the characters in a more appropriately active role within the plot.
The Thematic Importance of Your Character’s Fear
If your character’s core fear isn’t immediately obvious, take a look at the Lie the Character Believes. As you may remember from last week’s post (or from my book Creating Character Arcs), the Lie the Character Believes is best understood as a limited perspective preventing the character from realizing a full or healthy potential within the story. Very often, the Lie will be closely related to a main fear.
Throughout most of the story, the character will be reluctant to exchange the limited Lie for a more expansive (and therefore effective) Truth. One of the reasons the character clings to the Lie is a belief that the Lie is either an antidote to and/or a protection from the thing the character fears. For example, if the character fears intimacy, a Lie that “relationships are all doomed to fail” would seem to protect the character from that fear.
It’s also possible the Lie is, in fact, causing the character’s fear. For example, a Lie that a certain subset of people “are dangerous” could cause a character to live in fear even in situations in which the people in question are trustworthy and kind. Note that this sort of Lie often shows up in phrasing that doesn’t obviously point to fear. The previous Lie could just as easily substitute “dangerous” for a word that seems more empowering to the character. For example, “people are weak” or “people are lazy.” It’s also possible the specific Lie might show up in a way that makes the fear seem smaller. For example, the Lie might not seem broadly inclusive of an entire subset of people if it is phrased so as to project its fear onto a smaller group or even just a single person: “That guy on the corner is lazy.”
These sneaky permutations of the Lie are where you find the gold. The more harmless a belief seems to be, the easier it is to believe it is true. The easier it is to believe, the more insidious it can be. This is also how you can make sure the Lie/Truth polarity within your story achieves a depth of subtlety and nuance, rather than bashing audiences over the head with black-and-white oversimplifications.
The events of the story will challenge the character to arc out of the Lie and into the Truth. What this means, of course, is that the characters will be challenged to overcome their fears. Whether or not they rise to the challenge will depend on what type of arc you are exploring in your story.
If your characters started out believing the Lie offered protection from their fear, they will rise into the understanding that the true antidote to and/or protection from the Lie is only found in the liberated mindset of the Truth. It might be that the Truth shows the characters how to overcome their fears. For example, our initial example about the character with a fear of intimacy may show him growing into the Truth that intimacy is worth the risk.
Another option is to utilize the Truth itself to shift the characters’ perspective and show them that either there wasn’t anything to fear (except fear itself) or that there are more accurate metrics of identifying true threats. For example, the Lie that whole subsets of people “are dangerous” might transform into the more nuanced view that humans should judged on an individual by individual basis—allowing the character to more accurately identify both allies and threats.
What You Fear vs. What You Fear Fears You
Fear is a complex subject. Not only do our fears motivate us in different ways (i.e., sometimes holding us back, sometimes pushing us on), and not only do we react to fear in differing ways (i.e., fight, flight, and freeze), but fear can also evolve through its proximity to other people’s fear.
In Writing for Your Life, Deena Metzger offers many insightful exercises and prompts for digging deep into one’s own psyche. I particularly liked this one:
Be attentive so as to isolate the specific dynamic between what you fear and what you fear fears you.
We often think of fear as a simplistic emotion with a single origin point and destination. “I fear you.” But, of course, it’s not nearly so simple. Mutual fear is one of the most potent magnifiers of out-of-alignment motivations and escalated behavior. Even if we want to (perhaps accurately) assign hatred or some other loathsome quality as an opponent’s motivation, we always understand on a deeper level that it is the other party’s fear that is most dangerous to us. And so begins a fascinating cycle of fearing other people’s fear and then fearing their fear of our fear.
Hate vs. Fear
Metzger goes on to ponder:
What distinguishes [hate] from other possible responses like fear, disdain, dislike? … Each of us responds very differently…; some of us hate and some of us fear; some of us feel rage and others feel nausea. What we are trying to discover is the emotional barrier we establish between the world, the qualities and experiences that comprise it, and ourselves.
Although not always recognized, thanks to the unhealthy relationship most of society has with anger, this emotion is almost always a first line of defense. A little tingle of fear shows up first, letting us know a boundary has been breached, but if that boundary isn’t immediately protected, anger is likely to arise to push back. And if that anger isn’t expressed in a healthy way (i.e., it is expressed violently or isn’t expressed or isn’t effective), then it can easily escalate into darker emotions such as bitterness or hatred that begin to “tell stories” about why the thing we fear is bad and should be punished.
This isn’t to excuse darker emotions (“oh, they don’t mean it, they’re just afraid”). Nor is it to indicate that, when writing a story, fear is the emotion that should always be stressed. But if the author understands the character’s deepest motivating emotions, it opens the door to more complex characterizations.
The Fear, the Wound, and the Weakness
A few weeks ago, we discussed the wound as the primary “pain point” motivating the character’s belief in the Lie. Often, this wound originates in the character’s backstory, emerging from the event called the “Ghost” (which haunts the character). The fear and the wound will usually be intrinsically related. Indeed, the wound may simply be this deep fear that lives within the character—which can span the gamut from effective coping mechanism to full-blown PTSD.
In that post, we also talked about the weakness, which is a character flaw emerging from the character’s wounded relationship with reality. In some stories, the fear can be the weakness. If the character’s primary challenge is overcoming fear itself (e.g., fear of heights, fear of people, etc.), then the fear will obviously function as the weakness within the story. In other stories, the fear may function more subtly in the background, only influencing the character’s weakness (e.g., as when a character’s maladjustment to society takes the form of bravado rather than fear).
A useful way of examining whether the character’s weakness is the fear or whether the weakness has formed in an attempt to evade the fear is to examine shadow polarities. In my book Writing Archetypal Character Arcs, I talk about six pairs of shadow archetypes. Each one is made up of a passive archetype and an aggressive archetype. Usually, when characters lean toward a passive archetype, this indicates their main inner opponent is their own fear. When they lean toward the aggressive archetype, this indicates they have tried to banish the fear but have done so without truly facing it and have instead “covered it up” with bravado or hyper-control.
Shadow archetype pairs include:
- Damsel/Vixen (shadow archetypes of the Maiden)
- Coward/Bully (shadow archetypes of the Hero)
- Snow Queen/Sorceress (shadow archetypes of the Queen)
- Puppet/Tyrant (shadow archetypes of the King)
- Hermit/Wicked Witch (shadow archetypes of the Crone)
- Miser/Sorcerer (shadow archetypes of the Mage)
If you want to simplify character arc down to its most basic element, simply ask yourself: “What does my character fear? And how do they overcome that fear?” Add on the understanding that fear does not equal cowardice or a reluctance to move forward, but instead is a motivating survival instinct, and you’ve got it!
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions: Tell me about what your character fears in your story!
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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland