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.