Saturday, October 28, 2017

How to Choose Character Fears

With everyone's favorite spooky day upon us, let's talk fear. Your protagonist needs a fear. But not just any fear. You can't toss in the fear of clowns because it's hot on American Horror story. You can't use spiders just because they make your skin crawl. You have to choose a fear that works specifically against your character.

Think goal.

Whatever your character's goal is, wouldn't it be interesting if she had to face her fear to get to that goal? So what is she working toward? Breakfast? Riveting goal! Your protagonist wants to make breakfast, but first...she has to do the dishes, and she's afraid to reach her hand into the murky water. She doesn't know if she'll grab the blade of a knife or worse--a slimy piece of food. Her stomach churns. And then it rumbles. But she has to do it to make breakfast.

Now let's build on goals and fear and focus on character flaws.

A character flaw will take the reader deeper into your character and world than a fear because not everyone will relate to the same fears, but we do all relate to feeling of inadequacy thanks to our weaknesses. Let's say your protagonist is afraid to ask for help. You can take that deeper by giving him the character flaw that he doesn't let himself appear vulnerable to anyone. So wouldn't it be juicy if his goal were to clean his entire apartment so he could make dinner for his girlfriend? But uh-oh! She's coming in two hours and he hasn't cleaned in two weeks. He's going to have to call a friend and ask for help. But this makes him vulnerable because 1) he's going to have to ask for help, and his friend could say no, 2) if his friend comes over, he's going to see the mess AKA what a mess he is, and 3) he's going to have to tell his friend why it's so important to him to get the apartment clean--for love, man--and love makes us vulnerable.

Deepen it even more with history.

Of course we all know not to dump backstory, but you need to know what part of your character's history caused her specific fear and character flaw. And then if you sprinkle a hint to your readers, they'll gain a deeper understanding and appreciate it even more when your character jumps that fear hurdle to get to the goal. So back to our first example. She wants breakfast--needs it. It's the most important meal of the day! But the thought of dishes make her blood pressure rise. Why?

Because when she was little, her older brother played a cruel prank on her. It was her turn to do the dishes. The bits of slimy food floating in the water always made her squeamish, but she sucked it up because it's just food, after all. She plunged both hands into the bubbly water, pulling our saucers and spoons. Her shoulders relaxed a little. She washed a knife--she hated not knowing if she'd grab a knife. Always afraid to get cut. She reached back into the water with both hands. Her right hand brushed the ridged edge of another knife. She grabbed it gently. She sucked in a breath as something slimy brushed her other hand. It's just food. Grab it out. She fished around and felt the thick slimy texture again. Her heart thud-thudded against her chest. She pulled and out came a snake. The beady eyes looked right at her. The tongue flicked in and out faster than her heartbeat. She screamed, her body tensing in panic, and the dishwater turned red with blood as she still held the knife in her other hand.

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