This may come across as an odd topic at first. I mean, why do we need to worry about our characters’ fears anyway? Does it matter that much what they’re afraid of? Do we even need to know?
As I talked about in my post 10 Signs of Underdeveloped Characters in Your Novel, knowing what a character is afraid of IS important. It’s part of good development, and today I’m going to go over a few reasons why it is important to know what your character is afraid of.
Reason #1: EMPATHY
Everyone is afraid of something. As I mentioned briefly before, reading about characters who show absolutely zero fear in any situation really pulls me from a story, personally. I can’t relate, and suddenly, all the events seem mediocre; like perhaps they don’t really mean as much as they were made out to be. They say the end goal is only worth as much as the struggle it takes to get there, and if your character doesn’t struggle with anything (including fear), it will automatically cheapen the goal.
Empathy is a key factor in any novel. As readers, we want to be able to care about the character. We want to see things in them that we can identify with. We want to see that they are human, and imperfect. We want to know that they have fears, just like us. Basically, we just want proof that they’re not puppets on a string. Giving your character something to fear is a good way to show us that he or she is human.
Reason #2: DEPTH
Fears are something that most people don’t care to admit to. At least, not the really deep-set ones. Those are things we often keep secret. But just because they’re secret doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. In fact, it means quite the opposite. Deeply-rooted fears are some of the most vivid ones a person faces. Giving these fears to your characters not only allows the reader to empathize with them and say, “Hey, I know what that feels like,” but it will add depth to their personality. We’ll see inside of them, and that alone will add reasons to the list of why we should care about them. Not to mention that readers are naturally intrigued by characters who have things to hide.
Reason #3: DREAD
When a reader is able to empathize with a character’s fears, we almost systematically begin to dread the things that they dread. We enter the story on a deeper level, and have the ability to place ourselves in the character’s shoes. As authors, we like to write compelling plot twists and super suspense scenes. (Let’s be honest – who doesn’t like to pull off a zinger when it comes to those?) But it can be difficult, and nearly impossible without the key factor of dread. Giving your character something to fear will increase your ability to pull off suspense, because there is already a reader/character connection and bond centered on the fear. What the character dreads, we will dread.
Reason #4: HOPE
This one sounds a little strange, doesn’t it? How is hope tied to fear? Well, by giving your characters fears that they are forced to face, by default, the reader will hope for the character’s sake that they avoid situations that will cause them to fear, even though we know it is inevitable. And when they happen, we will hope for the character to get out alive and unharmed. A character who has fears is often a character we will root for because we sympathize with them. This is another reason for the reader to form an emotional investment in the character. Hope through fear is a powerful way to draw someone into your story world.
Reason #5: STRENGTH
Fears give the hero a chance to be a hero. I’ve heard it said that “Courage doesn’t mean being without fear. It means doing what’s right, even when you’re afraid.” And isn’t that true heroism? A character who does something amazing, but has no fear will seem good, but he will not seem great. However, a character who does something incredible despite his fear will feel like a true hero.
Knowing what your character is afraid of is important because it will give them something to overcome throughout the story. It will provide them with battles to fight that the reader can empathize with. We all know what it’s like to fight fear. We also know what it’s like to overcome fear. Watching a fictitious person fight the battles that we ourselves fight every day is powerful, and it shows strength of character. It shows us that this is a hero worth investing in. He’s not perfect, and maybe he’s afraid, but he’s going to do what needs to be done, regardless.
Reason #6: DRIVE
It’s realistic that fear is often a driving factor in a person’s motivation. Often, we do something because we’re afraid of something else happening, or something going wrong, or something not happening. Perhaps it’s pessimistic, but it’s human. Everyone does it. Giving your character personal fears will without a doubt help to motivate them in their goals (large and small) throughout the story. Why does the knight rescue the princess? Probably because he’s afraid that the dragon will kill her if he doesn’t. He’s afraid of losing her, and so it motivates him to fight. And his fight will be all the more powerful and engaging if he has a paralyzing fear of dragons. It is through that, that we will see how much he truly values his princess. His fear of dragons will be outweighed by his fear of losing her.
A character’s fears are a powerful part of their personality, and often, it’s a part that many authors don’t want to focus on. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid of putting pieces of themselves into their writing; into their characters. Writing is like that, though. If you don’t allow pieces of yourself into your characters and into your stories, there is a piece of them that will always seem dead. As an author, it is your job to breathe life into your story people, and in a strange sort of way, knowing a character’s fears is part of what creates that life.
Have you ever gotten the feeling that you’re missing something big in your writing? Like maybe you know how to tell a good story, and your plot and world are superb, but no matter how hard you try, it feels shallow? It’s probably a good indicator that at least something is lacking development – namely the driving force of the story: your characters. Today, I’m going to discuss ten signs that could point to underdeveloped characters in your novel.
Something that is key to every type of novel is description, but in many cases, it’s severely lacking. Why? Well, let’s just be honest – describing something that only you have seen is extremely difficult at times. It can be mentally taxing to try and come up with the right details. Sometimes it’s so hard in fact, that we think, “Why even bother? Does it really matter that much?”
Well, the truth is that, while description may not be the driving force of your story, it IS important. It’s what pulls the reader into the story on a deeper level than mere words can do. I’ve talked before about creating emotion with word pictures, and now I want to spend some time discussing immersive writing in general.
I’ve heard the question several times, “I try and describe things, but I can’t. Are details really that important?”
Details are part of what take a novel from being “okay” to being good, or even great. You’ve probably all read a story or scene at one time or another that really stood out to you because, for some reason, it was vividly real. While reading it, you weren’t even conscious of turning the pages. Instead, it felt like you were living IN the story. You were immersed.
And isn’t this what we as authors strive to do? Immerse our audience?
Descriptive details are what cause the immersion to happen. As a writer, you’re likely seeing the story play out in your head as it were a film, and detailed writing, like what I described in the last paragraph, will allow your reader the same pleasure.
“Karen froze, there, at the end of the hall was a figure holding a light. It was attached to a stick and didn’t bob up and down when the figure walked, it just moved steadily along the hall. The person was dressed in a white robe with white gloves and a hood over their head. The light cast and eerie glow through the hall and on the figure that held it.”
This paragraph has passable description. But is it vivid? Um….probably not. But what about this:
“Karen halted. Soft light engulfed the room in an eerie glow. Turning her head, she spotted the silhouette of a slender figure at the end of the hall, draped in white cloth that swished against the floor when it moved. The creature held a long pole in white, glove-clad hands, from which dangled the glowing orb. A flowing hood blocked the figure’s face. Shadows scattered along the walls as the creature moved with silent, even paces down the hall.”
Which paragraph creates a better image in your mind? Probably the second. But this isn’t because the second paragraph was waaaaaay longer and more saturated with details. In fact, they’re about the same length. Vivid imagery isn’t about the number if words used; but rather, the quality. Don’t settle for passive voice in description. You’re trying to pull your reader in. You’re trying to immerse them. That’s an active thing on the part of the author. You’re leading them on a journey through your world – a world that you want to be as real to them as it is to you.
Beautiful description is also not to be confused with the dreaded “purple prose.” I can guarantee you that your readers don’t want to spend the better part of their reading hours looking up words like “phosphoresce” in the dictionary. And besides, when you think about it, “Soft light engulfed the room with an eerie glow” is just nicer to read than, “Soft light engulfed the room with an eerie phosphoresce.” (And kudos if you can pronounce that.)
Description is an art. It takes practice. My own journey in learning to write immersive details led me through a few different stages:
1. The “No Details” stage.
“The man took the bundle from the trunk of the car. He handed it to his friend, and said, ‘You know what to do.’ Then he disappeared into the night.” – I think we can all agree that NO detail is lame.
2. The “Obvious Details” stage
“Bluebirds chirped in the sky, fluttering from the branch of an evergreen tree and alighting on the ground. Puffy, white clouds floated through the blue sky above.” – This is passable description, because at least we know what it looks like. But it’s not immersive because it’s too obvious. Readers expect details like these.
3. The “Purple Prose” stage
“Isaac swept his gaze across the resplendent field. The eastern horizon showed the beginnings of an ardent sunrise. Across the valley extended a glorious array of kaleidoscopic wildflowers that blossomed with lustrous fragrance.” – You probably want to look half of that paragraph up in the dictionary about now…. (Which I did.)
The key to immersive detail is the use of the unexpected. And by unexpected, I don’t mean using the word “phosphoresce”. For a reader to feel immersed, they need to be able to forget that they’re reading at all.
“From the base, the Old Metro Tower looked uninviting – even sinister, with gaping holes in the walls and shrubbery spilling through the yawning windows. Making a last sweep of the area, I ducked inside. Sweat soaked my back, making my t-shirt cling to my skin. I shivered, hating the idea of climbing to the top.” –Project RENO
In this excerpt from my dystopian novel, Project RENO, I was attempting to create a sense of foreboding through my details, which are far from purple. Rather than focus on something obvious, for example, the dizzying height of the skyscraper, I chose instead to draw attention to the greenery adorning the building. It’s a simple shift, but I think it makes a considerable amount of difference to the scene, and the mental image that the reader creates in their mind. To put it simply, draw your reader’s attention someplace they don’t expect, and yet which makes sense with the scene. Ask yourself, “What might be different about this scene?”
So to answer the question, “Are details really that important?” I would say, to be honest, a story can get by on very little detail, if the plot is still compelling. But this poses another question; do you want your novel to just “get by”, or do you want it to be great?
It was early morning when the Little Girl left. I could barely see her mother’s car over the cardboard walls of my prison. The rising sun glinted off the back window before it turned out of sight down a side-street. I didn’t expect I’d ever see her again.
A bird twittered and perched on a telephone wire above the box where my four siblings lay, still huddled together, fast asleep like a silky mass of soft ebony. I was the smallest, and so maneuvering amongst the others wasn’t difficult for me. Each wore an identical bow around the neck; all of them the same color. I guessed that people had a name for it. It made me think of sunsets. The summer kind. The Little Girl had put them there. I remembered her pretty little face, lit with a dazzling smile when she hugged me and stroked my fur. But the Little Girl was crying when she left.
In the box around me, rustles of movement caused scratching noises against the cardboard as my siblings began to stir. A whine here, a yawn there; slowly they awoke, eyes droopy and tongues hanging out with sloppy nonchalance. The largest of my brothers stood, yawned once more, and stared in the direction that the Little Girl had gone. He looked at me, his chocolate eyes large and shimmering in the first rays of the sun.
He knew, I realized, but I shook my head.
A rumbling sound caused my ears to perk a little, and I turned my head in that direction. A little car—much smaller than the Little Girl’s—came puttering over the hill to the right of our box. A cooler was strapped to the top with bungee cords, and a man with a beard and sunglasses sat behind the wheel. His lips moved. The car rolled to a stop at the curb, and I heard a door slam.
“Puppies, gramps! Free puppies!” squealed a boyish voice. Red sneaker-clad feet scampered around the car, and the freckled face of a boy appeared over the box. When he grinned, I stared at his mouth. He had missing teeth. Two of them, just like the Little Girl. A moment later, the man came into view.
“Well, would you look at that?” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder, smiling.
“Can we take one home, gramps? Please!” Reaching into the box, the little boy brushed his fingers through a white spot in my fur before moving to my brother and lifting him out. “How about him? He’s perfect! C’mon, gramps—please?”
The grandfather laughed and ruffled the boy’s hair, and the boy stroked my brother’s head. His smile made my heart glad. But then I remembered the Little Girl. Why were some people happy and others sad? Why was she crying? Would she miss us?
When the grandfather nodded his consent, the little boy let out a whoop and a long twitter to my brother about how happy he was going to be, and how he was going to take good care of him. He promised to play with him every day and buy his food. He even told him that he could sleep in his bed. The Little Girl’s mother never let us do that.
The car door slammed shut again, and the grandfather started the engine. It popped twice, and then the car rumbled away. I stared after it. The grandfather turned a different way than the Little Girl’s mother. Maybe he and the boy would not ever come back.
I thought again of the Little Girl; her round face and bright eyes. Then I thought of the little boy. His eyes were bright too, but they were like grass, and hers were like the sky. The sparkle was something called happiness, I think. It was what made my heart glad when the little boy smiled. I wanted to make someone happy, just like the little girl and the little boy. Maybe the next car would come for me.
Nestling between my other brother and my sisters, I waited. Time dragged. Soon the sun was above our box, shining into it. Once, a woman walked by on the sidewalk and pushed it into the shade, but she didn’t stop and she didn’t smile.
As morning passed into afternoon, the small town came alive. Before long, I heard voices coming in the direction of the box. Lifting one ear, I listened.
“Aww, Josh, look at the puppies!” This was a girl’s voice, but she was not little. Peeping above the cardboard flap, I saw a couple approaching, hand in hand. The girl’s hair was long, flowing about her shoulders and arms in a silky, chocolate cascade. She pointed in our direction, and the sunlight made something glint on her finger like a little star. The two came closer and knelt down on either side of the box. I guess she was more of a woman than a girl.
“Oh, just look at them! Aren’t they cute?” She touched my sister’s nose, and my sister licked her fingers. She laughed.
The man smiled, his chiseled face softening, and his dark eyes shimmering when he looked at her. I knew he was happy when she laughed. She laughed more when my other brother sniffed at her hand as well. She scratched behind his ears.
“They’re so sweet!” She strung together a bunch of high-pitched words that were too fast for me to understand. But she was smiling when she said them, they way people often speak to babies.
“Black labs.” The man reached down and lifted the flap of the box. “Free.”
“I know we’ve talked about getting dogs at some point…”
He nodded. “Couple of dogs wouldn’t hurt when we move to the county.”
“You wanna take a couple?”
“Your pick.” And he smiled too.
The woman brushed hair from her face and surveyed all of us. My heart quickened, and I hoped that she would pick me. I liked her smile.
“The little one’s kinda cute,” she said, rubbing my head. I beamed.
“Eh. Kinda small, don’t you think? And look at that white spot on its back. Wouldn’t show well.”
The woman shrugged, and my ears sagged.
“How about those two?” the man pointed to my two sisters. “They’re beautiful.”
She nodded, smile returning, and lifted one out in each hand. She handed one to him, and they stood without giving me a second glance, walking away down the street, her hand finding his again.
I huddled into the corner of the box, ears drooping nearly over my eyes. My brother looked at me and wagged his tail. I turned away.
They didn’t like me? They didn’t like me because I had a light spot in my fur? I didn’t know that was bad. And I didn’t know that being small was bad either. Was there something wrong with me? Maybe I couldn’t make people happy.
As it began to get later in the day, I heard the bell on the door of the ice cream parlor dinging periodically across the street as people sought to escape the afternoon heat. Children rode by on bicycles once school let out, and cars continued to pass by our box. Nobody stopped. My brother had lain down and was sleeping again, but I couldn’t.
What if nobody wanted me? What if they didn’t want me because I was small and weak? And because I wasn’t pretty? What if nobody ever wanted me? Did that mean I couldn’t make anyone happy?
Amidst the frequent hum of motors and people walking to and fro, and my own mental turmoil, I didn’t notice when a bright red car stopped beside the curb. The click of the door opening caught my attention, and I raised my eyes just in time to see a middle-aged woman step out of the driver’s seat. A little girl with corn silk hair climbed out of the back. She was even littler than the Little Girl.
I looked away.
“We can get a puppy for Toby’s birthday?”
“Mhm. If there’s one left.”
Squeals of delight followed that statement, and a few seconds later found the tiny girl by our side.
“Mommy, there is! There’s two!”
The woman stood behind her daughter, looking into the box. “Which one do you think Toby would like?”
“Toby’s a boy, so he would want a boy dog,” the little girl said without hesitation.
The mother laughed. “How about this one?” She lifted my brother and placed him in the girl’s arms. She giggled and kissed him on the head.
“I like him.” After a few seconds, she said, “Mommy, can we get both of them?”
Instantly, my ears perked.
“No, sweetheart. Just one.”
“But why, mommy? That other puppy will be alone then.”
I watched the two of them, trying to avoid betraying my hope. Because if what the man had said was true, I couldn’t make anyone happy anyway.
“Because we can’t take care of two puppies. And because…” the mother paused a moment and looked down at me, her crystal eyes softening; “Well, somebody else might want a puppy too.”
“Even one like that one? It’s tiny, and has a funny spot.” She giggled a little.
I moved a paw over my eyes.
“Yes, just like that one. Because you know what? I’ll bet there’s somebody special coming for that puppy. Someone who really needs her.”
Again, I looked up. Needs me?
The mother stood, taking her daughter’s hand. She helped her into the car, and settled my brother in her lap before getting into the driver’s seat. There were a couple of clicks as the engine came to life, and I got to my feet. Lifting my head, I peered over the side of the box and watched them drive away. The late-afternoon sunlight made the red paint shine. I watched until the car was gone.
And then I curled up, and waited.