On Character Traits, Part II: Fear

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This is Part II of my character emotions series. Don’t miss Part I: Self-pity, published yesterday.

Fear is an undeniable part of human existence. We all have our personal demons to confront, and we could all rattle off a list of the more common phobias–heights, flying, spiders, sharks, snakes. What role, then, does fear play for our characters?

Fear is a motivator. It spikes our adrenaline and primes us to confront danger by one of three actions: the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. There are healthy and unhealthy ways to deal with fear, and characters can either rise to the occasion or make us want to slap them across the face. Looking back on my experience writing and reading, these are some things I’ve learned and fiction and fear.

  1. DON’T “FREEZE” YOUR CHARACTERS FOR TOO LONG. We all need time to accept and examine a negative, frightening situation. That said, nothing slows a novel’s pace down to epic stagnation than a character too afraid to ever make a decision. Now, on one hand, I know this person is me, in real life. I took a year and half to decide to leave grad school. So while this does happen to us from time to time, in fiction, it’s just annoying and distracting for too long a period and over too many pages. (A great example, for those familiar with Spanish literature: Amparo in “Tormento,” who cannot decide over the course of the entire novel whether to tell her rich suitor she had a previous affair with a priest. Hundreds of pages. She just goes back and forth. It’s maddening!)
  2. FEAR CAN BE A GREAT MOTIVATOR… FOR A VILLAIN. Fear affects us all, baddies included. Why not have a villain who isn’t truly in control of his own fate, coerced into action by a force beyond his control, a force he fears to cross? Especially in fantasy, this is a great way to humanize an unfavorable character. I use this tactic where a scumbag noble (I think that’s my favorite new term after yesterday!) in “Esclavan Adventures,” my WIP, and for a famous example, don’t forget Saruman the White.
  3. THERE IS NOBLE AND IGNOBLE FEAR. Your protagonist characters, even hero-characters, can and should have fears. The most noble of fears are fears not for our own well-being, but for that of others. This kind of fear can be a major motivator and push normal men and women to extraordinary acts of courage. It is draining, and crippling, and horrifying, and it is not a kind of fear that will bring your readers to judge your characters negatively or grow too frustrated with them, even if they bend to the fear to some degree.
  4. DIFFERENT FEARS ELICIT DIFFERENT DEGREES OF RESPONSE. One thing that annoys me is a character whose response to a minor threat would be more appropriate for a much more dire situation, or when an author puts too much emphasis on a relatively minor threat (in the grand scheme of things.) I made the error, in my first, unpublished novel, of throwing far too much emphasis on a peasant girl’s love for the knight who’s her brother’s best friend. The problem? He’s in love with the princess, and she’s so terrified to tell him she’s in love with him she doesn’t even put up a fight. That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I had pages and pages of this woman just saying nothing of how she feels and acting all sacrificial and stuff, entirely out of fear. Sure, her fear is to harm the knight, which makes it a noble fear–I guess that’s why I went so deep into the subplot–but really, it’s all pure drivel. So remember: you can go overboard even where a noble fear’s concerned, if the response and terror are not proportionate to the threat.
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3 responses to “On Character Traits, Part II: Fear

  1. Pingback: On Character Traits, Part III: No Common Sense | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  2. Pingback: What Makes Readers Invest In a Frustrating Character? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  3. Pingback: AUTHORS: on balancing personal struggles with action in creative writing | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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