Building character into our characters is fun. As we imagine their physical traits and personality quirks, there are even deeper ways we can add substance to them. For example, with all of my stake-holding characters, I like to flesh out what they fear.
Fear is a powerful emotion. How characters respond to their fears can help build a fuller picture of them. I’ll share a few ways I’ve used fear, in various forms, in my own writing to help develop a character.
An Immediate Threat
There may be scenes where the character is literally afraid. Perhaps it’s a chase scene, or they’re locked in a dark cellar, or they’re alone in the woods at night. Obviously, we can learn a lot about fear from reading horror. Here are some tips if you’re writing the scary stuff: Writing Horror: Fear, Shock, and Disgust.
But fear might also shows up on the battlefield or in the high school cafeteria. Wherever it makes an appearance, it presents an opportunity to reveal how your character behaves under stress. Do they become quiet, tense, flustered, or frozen in place? Sure, it depends on the type of fear. Being called into the principal’s office won’t elicit the same response as being stalked by a serial killer, but any situation where your character feels immediate fear is an opportunity to give them more color and life.
I love writing the nail-biting scenes, where my characters are afraid. In one of my science fiction novels, the main character is attempting to use her telepathic gift to hide a small group of resistance members from the soldiers who’ve discovered their hidden command-center. I show her fear physically – by her shaking hands, cold sweat, and shallow breathes. But I also use this scene to show her cracking under the pressure. She’s been hunted, captured, and tortured earlier in the story, and she’s worn down mentally and physically. When she tries to save her friends, she simply can’t do it.
A Pervasive Fear
Some fears are not immediate, and don’t require our characters to cower under the bed or wield a sword. Some fear is subtle. Does a teenager fear that he isn’t going to make the baseball team? Does the loss of a job make a single mom afraid she won’t be able to take care of her kids? A pervasive fear may also be big and scary – the threat of the Empire looming over the galaxy. Or more personally, the fear in Luke’s own mind that he could become like his father.
I’m writing a female anti-hero in my current work-in-progress. She’s an assassin, but like the television character Dexter, she only kills really bad people. While developing her personality, I asked myself what she would be afraid of. Getting caught, of course. Also, the bad guys who are after her and her friends. That makes sense. But when I dug into her psyche a little deeper, I discovered another fear. Even though she delivers her own brand of vigilante justice with very little remorse, and for good reason, she’s afraid she is irredeemable. Once I understood this about her, I could add subtle layers to her character, and allow her response to this fear to color her inner dialogue and her personal relationships.
Fear as a Motivating Factor
Deep or pressing fear can be a motivating factor in our decisions, both large and small. It may drive us to do things we might not otherwise do. If we are afraid of starving, we might be driven to steal a loaf of bread. If we are afraid of seeming weak, we might take unnecessary risks. And if we are afraid to have our heart broken again, we may prefer to be seen as aloof or untouchable.
Identify your character’s fears, and ask yourself where they drive decision making, impact their relationships, or color their world-view. You have an opportunity to weave this thread throughout your narrative.
Fear is a dynamic, multifaceted emotion that we can use effectively in our storytelling to bring depth and life to our characters.