Developing Characters Through Fears

You can give your character a history, style, idiolect, and driving purpose, but until they have fears they’ll never feel quite real.

Our fears often direct our actions whether we realize it or not. They shade our decisions and determine what we like and don’t like by pushing us away from certain activities or situations and drawing us toward others.

A person or character begins to feel genuine when they reveal their vulnerabilities. You know a relationship is going deep when someone opens up to you about their fears.

And you as a writer can create that same sort of depth of connection between your readers and characters.

There are “simple” fears, which you can make as little or as big of deal of as you want.

  • Fear of spiders, rats, snakes, bugs, horses, etc.
  • Claustrophobia
  • Fear of heights, crowds, silence
  • Fear of large bodies of water
  • Fear of getting lost
  • Fear of the dark
  • Financial/survival fears

There are also “complex” interior fears.

  • Being left out/alone
  • Disappointing others or self
  • Getting heart broken or being betrayed
  • Fear of being vulnerable or feeling emotion
  • Losing control
  • Fear of death/what’s beyond
  • Not making a mark
  • Social anxiety
  • Being “discovered”

For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet main fear is that her daughters won’t get married, which motivates so much of her ridiculous action as a side character that it defines her. Elizabeth, however, fears being trapped in an unhappy marriage. This is clear but is not said outright, and it is so powerful that it drives her to buck the unshakeable social order because, unlike most of society, she fears this more than social acceptance or financial comfort.

My point is, this classic would only be a shadow of itself if fears had not been so thoroughly and powerfully woven into its characters.

So here’s your challenge.

Poll your friends to find out what they’re afraid of. Do some investigating of your own fears. Then give your characters one fear from each category (simple and complex). Only one or two fears need to feature predominantly, but just knowing those will color the way you write your characters and lend a roundness to them.

And don’t worry, fears can often be empowering, driving forces, so you aren’t going to cripple all your characters by making them afraid. Fear conquered makes us stronger and when used well, can drive us to greatness.

So go forth, find your fears.


-Abigail signing off-

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