Using a Character’s Fears to Strengthen the Plot

Rain clouds are moving in and thunder and lightning have two of my three dogs curled up at my feet to take comfort by my presence, both being frightened by storms. The third dog, Juliet, my pit bull mix, is not afraid of much of anything and is eagerly awaiting the arrival of Paul, the dog trainer, who will be here momentarily.

I’ve been trying to think what to write about for today’s blog, and the dogs’ fear gave me the idea. As it happens, we were talking about things people fear just yesterday in the beauty salon where I get my hair done. One of the beauticians there is terrified of lizards.Green_Anole_Lizard Now anyone who lives or has lived in Florida knows that lizards are ubiquitous here. You can’t go outside and walk around your yard without seeing anole lizards scatter. They’re totally harmless and do a good job of reducing the insect population. At night the geckos come out, and you may well see one on the ceiling if you go into a dark room at night, turn on the light, and catch it by surprise. They, too, are harmless except to insects. Given the number of mosquitoes around, I’m always delighted to know that the anoles and the geckos are on patrol.

black snakeI had a neighbor who was terrified of snakes, even the completely harmless varieties like the common black snake, another great devourer of insects. I have a friend who is terrified of spiders, even very small ones.

Irrational fears are common, and few of us are immune to them. I’m afraid of the large flying cockroaches that we Floridians euphemistically call palmetto bugs. I know they can’t actually hurt me, but I’m terrified that they will fly toward me and (shudder) possibly land on me. Even a picture of a cockroach revolts me. cockroaches I trace the fear back to my childhood when, as I was coming out of the bathroom, a big roach flew right into my face. It scared me badly, and it didn't help that my mother was not the least bit sympathetic but scolded me for screaming and frightening her and my grandmother by sounding as if I'd been terribly hurt. I’m less frightened by roaches than I used to be, largely because we now have more effective and faster acting insect spray, and when I see one of the critters, I run for the spray can, spray it, and run from the room, not returning until I know it's on its back, helpless, its ugly little legs uselessly kicking the air.

So what does this have to do with writing? A writer needs to know what her characters fear. What a character fears, why, and how he or she overcomes or tries and fails to overcome that fear tells a great deal about that person and contributes valuable elements to the plot. Part of the back-story you develop for your characters is what has happened to them to cause some fear. It may be a near drowning that leaves them with a fear of swimming. It may be a fire in the home that leaves a fear of getting close to flames of any sort. Or it may be an entirely irrational fear like the fear of harmless lizards or my fear of flying cockroaches. In my novel Shadow of a Demon, my protagonist, India, is afraid of any fire, due to the fire that consumed her father, an incident I described in the novel’s prologue because it happened when the Terrano sisters and their half-brother were children, and I wanted the novel itself to begin when they are adults. But I used India’s fear of fire in constructing the plot.

People deal with their fears in various ways. Some conquer them by deliberately exposing themselves to the thing they most fear. The person who fears fire may become a fireman so that rather than run from the thing he fears, he can fight it and tame it. The person who fears drowning can visit a public swimming pool and watch the swimmers, then gradually lower herself into the shallow end, but may never venture into deeper water.woman swimmingYou can use the characters’ fears in many ways. The person who fears drowning my have to jump into a pool to save a drowning child. Or she may have to swim across a narrow strip of water to get away from a killer (possibly a vampire, since in some vampiric traditions, vampires can’t cross water). The person who fears fire may become an arsonist and be the antagonist. Or may be the protagonist and have to fight through fire and smoke to save someone he loves. A character with an irrational fear of spiders may be hiding from a killer and give his hiding place away by screaming when a spider runs across his bare foot. Plot points can turn on a character’s reaction to fear. The book’s climax can involve an act which requires the protagonist to overcome a deep-seated fear in order to save a child or a lover.

There are always threats that hang over the heads of your principal characters. When these threats are coupled with a character’s fear, the tension is heightened even further. Horror stories generally play on the characters’ fears, and possibly the reader’s as well. Fear can be used to trigger thrilling scenes. Please note that I’m not speaking of the fear that results from an event or situation in the story. That fear also heightens tension, of course. But I’m speaking of a preexisting and deep-seated fear that comes into play as the character copes with a situation that arouses that fear, so that the character is forced to deal not only with the immediate problem but also with that old fear. Examples might be a character who fears spiders and has to worm her way through a spiderweb-festooned crawl space. A character who fears snakes and is thrust into a snake pit (a la Indiana Jones). A character who fears ghosts must hunt through a graveyard at night where a kidnapped child may be hidden. graveyard_at_night

I'm sure you can think of many other situations besides the ones I've suggested where a character's fear can be used to increase the tension and make the reader keep turning pages. The possibilities are endless. Fear is a powerful emotion, and the overcoming of fear is an act of great courage.

Paul the trainer has arrived, and my dogs forget their fear and race to the door to greet him, as they all adore him. Wouldn’t it be great if we could forget our fears so easily?

What fears have you overcome or faced? How have you used your own fears or those of others to create suspenseful scenes in your fiction? Are there scenes in books you've read that are memorable because of the way the author used a character's fear to build tension and create fear in the reader?



About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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One Response to Using a Character’s Fears to Strengthen the Plot

  1. Character fears are so intriguing and so fun to play with! I have used a protag’s fear of heights in fun ways before. Really fun possibilities open up when we are confronting fears.

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