Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Motivator

untitled-2-1389663-mAs authors, one of the greatest factors we have to consider are the things our characters most fear, and whether those fears are more likely to paralyze or motivate them. After all, life is all about facing fears, and if our characters don’t face or at least admit theirs, our story will be lacking something.

It won’t feel like a human story. The heart of what makes us human will likely be missing.

My last post focused on fear as a paralyzing force. In this post, I hope to start a conversation about how fear can motivate a character, and where the distinction between paralyzing and motivating fear lies.

Now, I understand the distinction I’m about to make is a huge and ridiculous generalization. I don’t pretend otherwise. I do think, though, that fear is not the only thing that can be paralyzing. Writing is a daunting task, and sometimes we need an oversimplification to help us find our confidence and find our footing.

Sometimes we need to widen the “field” a bit, in order to feel comfortable there and get settled enough to get started writing. Yes, I’m talking about a starting point here.

Sometimes, a large generalization like this can help us START to get to know our characters. Obviously, characterization does not end here. But it can begin here. A stark differentiation like I’m about to make can be a place from which to whittle down: to individualize, to personalize, and to craft something large and intricate, if only through trial and error.

That said, what is this large distinction we can make between paralyzing and motivating fear?

  • Coming face to face with a fear fully formed, a fear arrived, a fear come true: that tends to be paralyzing. It is almost always paralyzing. In fact, one of the very few things that can make it NOT paralyzing is the knowledge or reflection that, if we don’t act, we may have to face an ever greater fear.
  • This is because I think, for the bulk of people and the bulk of characters, the prospect of fear being realized is more motivating than the realization of a fear. Because we fear, we feel motivated to prevent that fear coming to full fruition.

There is, of course, another great instance of fear being motivating: when you are facing something awful, but you can recognize it for (more or less) the worst that can come to pass and you have nothing to lose, so you might as well do what you can by fighting back.


Obviously, a character must have some degree of hope that his or her fears can be conquered, or at the least, that the sacrifices made as a result of confronting fear (and failing) might come to something and bear some kind of fruit.

One reason I love epic fantasy is that I feel epic fantasy, as a genre, is truly built around this paradoxical truth that G. K. Chesterton spells out so beautifully:

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.”

Fantasy literature is full of threats that have great magic, great power, and supernatural support. The typical fantasy lit villain has its drawbacks, of course. He can start to feel “bogeyman”ish and childish (as Lord Voldemort certainly would without the fully human Deatheaters to support him.)

No author requires a bogeyman villain to create an atmosphere of hopelessness, of course. And hopelessness can take varied forms. But a bogeyman villain definitely helps to promote a situation that feels hopeless.

Whatever the case, characters do need some kind of hope in order to conquer a great fear of any type. And most authors, I think, know instinctively what that hope is and where it comes from. Still, that kernel of hope that turns fear into a motivator can have multiple levels and be more complicated than it seems at first glance.

We can’t really go wrong taking a moment to ask: “What is my character really hoping for at this crisis moment? More than one thing? How does that hope break down? What’s the most important part?” I think that’s particularly true of epic fantasy and its “epic” heroes.

Characters who are able to hope that when they “fight the unbeatable foe” (to quote “Man of La Mancha”), some good may come even of defeat…. Characters who recognize that death perhaps is not the greatest evil or the greatest thing to fear remind all of us who read of that great truth.

That’s what I mean when I say fiction lacks heart and humanity if it lacks characters who admit and face their fears.

So, what do you think about fear is motivating?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”


6 responses to “Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Motivator

  1. A ‘face your fear’ scenario that I always like is the one where the character does it under pressure. Something about finding someone or something that is more important than cowering feels real. For example, an arachnophobic faces giant spiders to save his/her child gives me a sense that the fear has been thoroughly defeated. I guess, to me, thinking too much about facing a fear is a little too logical. One slip can break the logic, so a raw emotional victory would be stronger.

    • I totally agree. such moments and such triumphs are all about the moment and the emotion. You don’t really think in such a situation. You just act because you have to act.

  2. I would say losing control – when something becomes less predictable and manageable.

    • I’m definitely afraid of losing control. I have some anxiety issues because I like the security of routine and feeling as though I am in charge and that everything is secure as a result. Of course, even when things are running smoothly I am not in control. Never could be. That is a big delusion I think a lot of us chase after.

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