Saturday, March 7, 2015

Make Them Run! Fears and Phobias for Characters

I'm sure you could make a small (or large) list of things you're scared of. Whether it is a small fear, like being scared of bees, or a large fear, like dying, you're going to have at least one fear unless you've got a abnormal brain (topic for another time). So clearly our characters should also have fears if we want them to feel real.
However, not any old fear will do. You must be cunning with this and choose the best (or, for them, worst) fears for your characters to hold. The most debilitating, inconvenient, crippling fear you can think of. In this way you shall make life as hard as possible for your dear charrie, and we all know that characters with hard lives are the ones that make good stories.
Good fears to choose are ones that enhance tension in the book. Choose ones that directly interact with the setting and conflicts in your story to enhance character reactions. Are you writing a story about a boy trapped at sea? Give him a fear of drowning or of fish. If he's scared of fish then he's going to have to overcome that fear at least in part to stay alive. What about a girl falling in love with a guy for the first time? Hmm, I wonder what conflicts would arise if he tried to kiss her and found out she had a phobia of germs. And if she didn't explain at first? Boom. Major conflict because of a misunderstanding. 
If possible, make the character's backstory tie into the fear. Some fears aren't really rooted in anything we remember but others began from something in our pasts. Look at the backstory you've already got to find potential fears. If you feel like a certain fear would make the plot better, then work a reason for the character to have it into the backstory. That way it feels less like an add-on and more like a developed part of the character's personality. A real life example is my fear of yellow-jackets, bees, and wasps. Seriously, I'll start shrieking if one gets too close (I have gotten better over the years). I couldn't figure out why I was so scared of them, but then I remembered a small incident back when I was really young (like four or five). I had been having a picnic with my mum at a park and she was stung when swatting at a yellow-jacket. We had to pack up our picnic and go to the park's administrative building, looking for a first aid kit. My child brain got extremely worried for my mother - was she going to die? What had happened? What did she need to make it better? Would the park people have it? Although my mum was just fine in the end I still developed a big fear of getting stung that has been with me for over a decade now. Getting stung a couple times myself and understanding that it isn't anything to get really worried over has helped diminish the fear, but it is still there. 
In addition to the big, plot-changing fears, give your characters a sprinkling each of small fears as well. For instance, a character could be a bit scared of dogs. Just enough to make her keep her distance when visiting her best friend's house, but not enough to send her screaming unless the dog leaps at her. Smaller fears can grow if needed, as well, which can be useful. They also make the character feel more human. 
Browse the following list of fears for a few ideas or brainstorm a few fears of your own. Then choose a scene and rewrite it, giving a character a fear that ties into that scene. Does it come out more tense?
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Now look over your whole story. What things would naturally cause fears in the backstory you've developed? Which scenes could use some more tension? What could cause the most problems for your character? Tie these together using fears.
You also, as mentioned somewhere above, have the option of kicking it up a notch more by turning the fear into a full-blown phobia. Did you know that there have been as many as 500 phobias categorized by psychologists? There are some pretty strange ones, too. Like pentheraphobia, the fear of your mother-in-law, heliphobia, the fear of sunlight, or genuphobia, the fear of knees. Or how about this one? Phobophobia, the fear of having a phobia! If you want to hear a few more ideas, check out this list of one hundred weird phobias.

What fears or phobias have you given your characters? Have you been able to make them play into the plot? Is there a scene that could use a little more fear? Tell me in the comments!

Also, if you're not too busy, PLEASE pop over to this post and leave a question or two for Keir. His interview will be the next post and I'm still in dire need of questions! Be a kind soul!


  1. Fears are very important for characters. Everyone has them. I have a character who is scared of hospital because of his past of growing up as a lab experiment. This actually escalated to PTSD. Good post. :)

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    1. Haha, torture the characters! xD Thanks for reading!

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