Yesterday, I got into a conversation about fears. With all this talk of the Rapture*, I guess it was in the air. The whole thing started with an unfortunate incident of someone finding dead chipmunks after their lawn had been sprayed and someone else mentioning how they had snakes die at their house but that chipmunks were cuter than snakes and since she was afraid of snakes, it didn't bother her has much. She admitted she couldn't even look at worms; they way they moved freaked her out. Her son admitted he didn't like snakes at all and I said snakes didn't nother me, it was scorpions that weirded me out: they didn't look like they should be real, just some movie-magic creature made out of crabs and snakes and worms and spiders. They shouldn't be real. A guy said that he'd almost gotten a pet scorpion. I shivered. We started talking about heights and close spaces, loud noises and the dark.
Fear is a great motivation. If you don't want to do something, fear can quickly change your mind! Threats of health, death, or generally wigginess can be enough to get a lazy butt off the couch, change your eating habits, get thee to a gym, or even propose to your girlfriend. Fear means that the thing you fear means more to you than the thing you don't want to do. Fear trumps.** It turns inaction into action and keeps it running for as long as the adrenal rush holds. This very thing is used a lot in movies, in music, on TV reality shows and cable dramas, in religion, in discipline, and in work and education. Grades are fear. Tests are fear. Cutbacks are fear. Unemployment is fear. It should be no surprise that a great tool in literature is fear.
Here's a great litmus test for your characters: think of the thing that they fear most in life, and then make sure to do that to them. It's motivation. It's character depth. It's empathy and reaction and instant action and resonance. We, the readers, understand what it means to be afraid of something and we wonder what would we do if we had to face it. Seeing that happen to characters *is* a concrete show of character; quite simply what is this person made of? What will be the instantaneous reaction and what will shine through? Facing a fear also preempts change and the journey of a character from one state to the next requires change. Every plot depends on it. A total freak-out guarantees it.
So here I am encouraging you to sadistically, maliciously, scare the !@#$%^&* out of your characters and your story will be the better for it. Can't think of one?*** Share some fears and let your fellow authors borrow them! Come on...
What are you afraid of? ;-)
* I'm really not sure why everyone's getting all excited about it. It was a decent book and a terrible movie, but still...that was, like, twenty years ago.
** As opposed to "Fear Trump" which is what I'd say if I could take his candidacy seriously. Which I don't.
*** If you want a great list of fears, I'd recommend NEED by Carrie Jones and PEEPS by Scott Westerfeld if you'd like some good suggestions of where to start (or gain some phobias of your own)!