Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fear as an Inhibiting Force

Since I got such interesting responses from my post, Hope as a Driving Force, I thought it might be helpful to look at it from the opposite angle:

Fear as an Inhibiting Force

As much as a character's hope drives her forward, her fear keeps her from budging from the safe zone. This is where the trope of the reluctant hero comes up again and again in popular literature. Bilbo Baggins is practically dragged from the Shire by seven dwarves (er, I may be confusing him with Snow White). Anyway, the fear of the unknown is a classic one--universal within all of us. But people also have very specific fears that hold them back, keep them from facing their adversary or their potential or their own flaws.

On Monday I talked about hope in the context of my character Tapti Singh in a YA time travel/coming of age novel. Today I'm going to switch WIP's and talk about fear in the context of Graylyn Stephens. 

26-year-old Graylyn Stephens, a quality assurance customer service rep, knows all 112 ways a toaster can malfunction, and that 11 of them involve electrocution. She's also the unluckiest girl on the planet. Tired of landing in pot holes and hospital beds, she takes up extreme sports in an effort to chase the bad luck away.

Graylyn is pretty much afraid of everything. She isn't cursed with agoraphobia, per se, but she goes into every situation in her life fearing the 'three things that will go wrong before breakfast.' Self-fulfilling prophesy dictates that three horrible things do happen to her... every day of her life. These bad things range from the annoying (dropping her towel in front of her high school crush) to the tragic (her parents dying in a car accident during her first year of college, leaving her to take guardianship of her teenage sister). And everything in between.

Graylyn's fears keep her from doing anything she really wants to do, because--well, if you can't even walk out the door without tripping, why would you want to risk failing at your lifelong dream?

You may be wondering, if her parents' untimely deaths didn't pry her fingers from the safe zone, then what possible inciting incident would?

It's not too much of a spoiler to tell you it's her own car accident/near death experience.

Being unable to move a single muscle without incredible pain does something to you. Having the very real force of instant pain holding you back requires you to face those intangible things that have been holding you back in life. This I can tell you from personal experience. Some parts of Graylyn's story are embarrassingly autobiographical.

When Graylyn makes the switcheroo from unlucky to in charge, the story gets massively more interesting. She still has fears, but she's keeping them at bay. Of course, it isn't until she faces those fears thoughtfully--taking responsibility for them--that her character arc is complete.

Here are a few of the fears she lives with every day:

  • She's afraid she'll never find love, thanks to the competition of her little sister, the chastity vow she took at her father's request in high school before he died, and the behavior of a couple first class jerks.
  • She's afraid she'll never have meaningful employment, thanks to having to drop out of school to take care of her sister, and the fact that she's been at the same company ever since.
  • She's afraid her best friend might be in love with her, and she's afraid she might love him back, threatening the solidity of her one consistently good thing: his friendship.    
  • She's afraid to speak up for herself in mixed company, sure everybody is judging her before she even opens her mouth.
As you can see, many of these fears are strapped to blame

Most people go from fear to blame pretty easily in an effort to avoid responsibility for their own choices. 

Think about your own fears and how you may be blaming something/someone else for what's holding you back. Heck, I even do it with my writing. "I can't finish this story because I a) have no time with three kids, b) don't have the knack for structure other writers seem to have."

Your characters will probably do that, too. 

What do your characters fear, and who/what are they blaming for their failures? Once you know that, you'll know exactly what they need to grow as characters.

Happy writing!

Katrina's blog pic


  1. This is so funny--I read your post AFTER I sent that email full of my writing doubts and fears! Shows how much they go hand in hand with writing--with the real question being, do we let them stop us? Not so far!

    1. Yep, we writers are perfectly poised to write convincing fears, since we have so many of them trying to hold us back, ourselves! We will not be stopped! Woot!


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