With Halloween around the corner (and my house infested with creepy, itchy little fleas – UGH!), I wanted to spend some time talking about fear, and how writers can use fear in their work. For writers of horror, suspense and thrillers, the use of fear is not only overt, it’s an essential part of the story. But what if you write contemporary romances, or satirical fantasy? Fear plays a minimal role, right?
I’d like to challenge you to re-think that perspective. Knowing what your characters (and readers) fear most is absolutely critical in writing good fiction of any sort. Fear is the shadow side of drive; you can’t have one without the other. Most of us could say what drives our main characters to do what they do – perhaps the pursuit of love, prestige, money, or power. But what keeps your characters awake at night? What are they desperately trying to avoid?
Maybe your fashion-focused heroine is afraid of becoming irrelevant; perhaps the brooding hero can’t stomach the idea of being vulnerable, or disappointing his father, or you know, spiders. While we may or may not share those fears explicitly with the reader, they guide our characters’ actions and thoughts just as strongly as their movement toward the goal of the story. Sometimes, more. Ignore fears and insecurities, and your characters can fall flat.
In my work as a therapist, I have often invited anxious clients to play out their worst fears by imagining the worst case scenario in vivid, horrifying detail. Too often, we are ruled by what we cannot see and dare not name, but when we cast our fears in concrete details, we begin to be able to evaluate them more rationally. This can be helpful as a writer, too, knowing what you’re afraid of and becoming the master over it. You can take your characters on that same journey as the story progresses — whether they succeed or fail in overcoming their fears is up to you!
Fiction Prompt: Pick a character you know and love (yours or someone else’s) and write their worst nightmare, in excruciating detail, right up until the point when he or she wakes up in a cold sweat. How does it impact the character’s behavior upon waking?
Non-fiction: What scares you the most as a writer? What is the most painful result you can imagine from your work? Describe it in detail. Then ask yourself how much that particular fear limits your writing or guides what you do. Is it worth it? How can you take ownership of that fear?