October 7, 2015

Developing Deeper Characters : Fear

It's October so I figured it would be a good time of the year to talk about the darker side of human nature and using fear to develop your fictional characters. 

Fear can be a powerful motivator for characters. It can prevent them from taking new opportunities, going to new places, meeting new people, or even just getting to know themselves better.

Fear can pull people in a million different directions, making them doubt not only themselves but also others. On top of that, it is an excellent method for increasing tension and inner turmoil. Whether you just want to increase drama or portray them as vulnerable, giving your characters fears is an excellent place to start.  

In order to develop a deeper character you should consider the following:

What is this character afraid of? And why?

Of course you can go with easy answers like spiders or, in the case of Indiana Jones, snakes. But this is really just scratching the surface when it comes to character development. If you dig a little deeper you'll hit abstract fears which can stir up your reader's emotions and maybe even help them sympathize with the character. This includes anything from fears of being forgotten, death, pain, losing a job,  

As a character, how often does this affect them? 

Obviously a fear of snakes affects the character on special occasions. But a character's fears don't have to be reserved for plot devices or humor ("Why does it always have to be snakes?!?") they can affect the character in their daily life. You can use your character's fears either way depending on the kind of fear you choose to give them and the situations in which you place them. For instance, one of my sisters has a fear of chickens. On most days this doesn't affect her. But, if for some reason, she was forced to spend more time outside or if she decided to take up gardening, she would have to pass by our chickens everyday in order to get to the other side of the yard. This would make for a really boring story on its own but it might change things if we found out the chickens were mutants and by eating their alien chicken eggs the rest of us were losing our autonomy at the hands of the mutant-chicken alien overlord. Then, walking by the chicken coop takes on a whole new meaning and having to do it in order to collect some vegetables everyday amplifies story's potential for tension.

How do they respond?

When a character is faced with adversity, whether it be mutant-chicken aliens or snakes, they must decide how to react either by facing them or giving in to their natural responses (Fight, Flight, Freeze, or [for women:] Tend and Befriend). Depending on how you use fear, natural responses might very well be the case early in the character arc however, as the character becomes more developed (assuming your story follows a conventional character arc), we might expect them to start being more active. 

To use our Indiana Jones example again, he doesn't see the snakes and just give up. He's scared of them but he pushes through to complete whatever task is necessary to move the story along. In contrast, Left Ear,a character in the film The Italian Job, is actively hindered by his fear for dogs because he "had a bad experience". This is just one of many unforeseen hiccups in the character's plan but here we see the character neither give up nor face his fear (the dogs). Instead, the characters must alter their plans to account for his refusal to work with dogs. In this context, a secondary character overcoming a lifelong fear of dogs really is not necessary but if it was the protagonist we might expect a different reaction.  

The writer must ultimately decide what response and reaction is right for each character in each story. As I noted earlier in the mutant-chicken alien example, shifting a few elements in the story can drastically change the tension. the same is true of the characters' responses and reactions to their fears. If a woman was abused as a child, she might fear her parents and by extension, all authority figures. How would she react to a police interrogation or being questioned before the king? If a man has a fear of being alone, will he choose to settle down and marry a girlfriend he is otherwise indifferent towards?   

If a child has a fear of failing and displeasing their parents, will they be willing to try new things or put themselves on the line? If a young man is afraid of rejection, will he still ask out the girl he likes or will he resort to self-imposed isolation? A character with a fear of death might lead to paranoia. The list could go on and on. 

Does it affect the plot? 

The last thing to consider is whether the fears you have given your characters affect the plot or if they are just cute little quirks and personality traits that go nowhere. When you flesh out your characters some aspects are benign. (Is it crucial to the story that the MC has green rather than blue eyes? In most cases, probably not) However, giving your characters fear can be an incredibly effective tool to not only humanize them but to provide them with an opportunity and reason for stumbling as they move along through the plot and story arc.

A character's fear for her own well-being or that of her family or friends might push her to do things that she wouldn't even consider under ordinary circumstances. Again it comes down to choice. How will she react? That will, of course, depend on the character you have created and where you want to take your story. That is, if you aren't afraid to write it. 

1 comment:

Please keep it clean, mature, and respectful.