Everyone is afraid of something — heck, even Indiana Jones is. And you know what? That only makes us human. We all know what it is like to be afraid, whether it’s snakes, heights, confined spaces, fire, death, rodents, flying, aliens, dogs, drowning, etc. I personally have an almost debilitating fear of heights; I get to a certain point and my body starts shutting down any further steps up. Purdue’s Hicks Undergraduate Library was a personal hell with its stairs allowing me to see the ground below me, but for four years I was able to survive climbing up and down them by not looking down and grabbing onto the railing nearest the wall — and staying close to this beacon of stability until safely outside that underground library.
Look at yourself. What are your fears? How do they affect your daily life? Now pause and reflect on your answers to those two questions. By considering your own fears and even those of friends and family members, you will be better equipped to shape a character’s fears and possible phobias, because your character has to have them, unless they are completely alien. Why is it so important for characters to have fear? Because it can really connect your readers to a character due to fear’s universal nature.
Fears can be used to create sympathy for a character, heighten the stress readers feel in regards to a character’s current situation, or, if you are a comedic writer, it can be used for humor. There are many approaches a writer can take in regards to a character’s fears from them being a major part of a story’s plot (a character is forced to confront their fears to succeed on an epic quest of going to the supermarket to get milk) or sparking the plot (a character is confronted with bee, freaks, and accidentally assaults and officer of the law) to just appearing once or twice (possibly as a gag) over the course of the story.
So what does your character(s) fear? This is something that should be asked fairly early in the character creation stage, simply due to the potential impact it might have on plot. Write down the fears and then ask why or how they form (Was there a traumatic experience or just the way a snake moves?), in addition to what level your character fears these things. How do they respond to their fears? There should be a physical reaction to their fears, whether small or quite visual. Does your character merely take off their shoe to squash a spider or do they burn down the whole house to kill it and any of its brethren? Do they shake or even vomit when confronted with the object of their fear? Or do they just scream and run in the opposite direction. Or perhaps they try to bury their fear, viewing it as a weakness or shameful.
As you plot out the depths of their fear, ask whether any of their fears reach the point of becoming a phobia? Phobias take fear to a whole new level and can actually affect a person’s quality of life, by becoming debilitating or forcing a person to actively avoid anything that might lead them to confront to the object of their fear. For a good article on difference between fear and phobia, read this one posted on HuffPost.
A great character with a phobia, besides Monk who has a phobia of about anything, is Sabrina from “Raising Hope.” While most people are afraid of spiders, very few people would actually think of wearing pantyhose over their head while sleeping to prevent swallowing those thousands of spiders that we do on a regular basis each night — after all, spiders do like dark, moist spots. Does your character also take extreme steps to avoid what they fear? If yes, they just might take their fears to a phobia level.
With your characters fears written down and their levels of tolerance written down, consider if these fears will have any impact on plot. Will the impact be favorable, e.g., open up unique possibilities and great opportunities for character development? Or will their fears overwhelm and derail the plot? If the latter is your answer, you will need to scale back the level of your character’s fear or select another, because once a character’s fear is embedded in your story, there cannot be a miraculous: “Bam! You’re cured from this fear!” You will need to be consistent with the fear or phobia throughout the course of your story; it can’t just suddenly disappear.
Fears, however, can be conquered, but this must be done over the course of your story in order to be believable. And sometimes, no matter how much a person wants to vanquish their fears/phobias, it just isn’t meant to be. As the writer, it is up to you to determine which scenario will be the outcome for your character; however, both scenarios (and several in between) can be touching for a reader to see.
No matter what don’t leave fears/phobias out of the character creation process; they can easily become a very memorable feature of your character that endears them to readers and fans. Also know that your characters will be in good company, because there are many great fictional characters with memorable fears like Indiana Jones, Monk, Sabrina, Neville Longbottom (Professor Snape boggart for the win), Harry Potter’s fear of the dementors/death, and many more.
- The Phobia List
- Greatest Fear: How to Find It and Run with It
- Reason’s to Know Your Character’s Fears
- Top 110 Most Common Fears
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