Writing Your Character’s Greatest Fear

This month I’m doing a series of daily writing exercises as part of K. Tempest Bradford ’s online NaNoWriMo skills class. The first was a little tough (thinking through certain fundamental aspects of my characters, including ethnicity, social class, and spirituality), the second tougher (defining the main character’s greatest want), and the third stopped me cold: what is my character’s greatest fear? So like the archetypical scholar-nerd, I decided to do some research.

First, what writers, and their characters, call ‘fear’ is often actually an anxiety , but called a fear because of social stigma around anxiety. Both cause the fight-or-flight responses, but fears are triggered by something present in the moment that could cause harm (including for example things on the phobia list ) whereas anxieties are triggered by thoughts about anticipated threats.

Second, there is how to use the greatest fearanxiety in a story. What’s the Most Important Moment in Your Character Arc? has a video and its transcript defining a story as a character change (which, according to the MICE quotient , is only one of four fundamental story arcs). The moment happens at about the 3/4 mark at the start of the third act (one of several organizational techniques): their lowest point, where all seems lost, when they need to face their greatest fear. Your Character’s Greatest Fear and How to Exploit It gives a little more context: the all-is-lost moment, followed by the ‘dark night of the soul’ with the emotional reaction to that moment, followed (eventually) by the climax where the character overcomes the fear (at least, temporarily). The fear has to be established much earlier, near the beginning. Facing the fear is important because, without that moment and its sequel, we don’t feel ‘safe’ about the character being able to handle the main story conflict.

Finally there is material on figuring out what the fear is.

9 Fundamental Fears That Motivate Your Characters uses the 9-category Enneagram to define your character (which might require putting them through one of the many online quizzes such as these two or this one ), and use the characteristic anxiety for the appropriate category. You need to do quite a bit of reading to fully use the Enneagram, but from past exposure I’ve learned it can be useful for self-knowledge, and gives a mechanism for how surface personality changes category when some starts a negativearc or a positive one.

Greatest Fear: How to Find It and Run with It acknowledges that character might have a whole list of fears, but it’s essential to focus on one: the motivator, or root fear, usually originating in a traumatic experience but not necessarily. It can manifest itself in several smaller ‘tributary’ fears. Deep fears might seem cliche; manifesting them through tributaries engages the reader’s empathy better. The article list several sources for information about fears corresponding to various personality type inventories, and gives its own list. You can look at a character’s strengths and pick fear that undermines them; fears that block their greatest wants; what threatens their values or secrets; what best fits the struggle of the story. You then need to decide how the character reacts to the fear: instinctive reaction, such as fight-or-flight, or reasoned reactions (to anxieties, in the terminology I described above); in either case you need to show the physical symptoms , which resonate with readers more than thoughts. There is a list of coping mechanisms people use, organized into primitive, middle, and mature, and areference to an article that defines them more thoroughly “Overcoming [fear] is the ability to face it without a defense mechanism for a shield or reversion to instincts. The fear still exists.” The most believable way to present overcoming fear is to take a series of small steps (‘desensitization’).

Having read all this stuff, I’m still intimidated about today’s exercise; I’ll report later, likely in an edit, how it worked out.

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