— Contains spoiler of a character arc in The Way of Kings
Fear has kept us alive since we’ve existed. The feelings of fight or flight are great motivators when faced with a large predator or the final exam next week. But how does this apply to your characters? Here’s how fear can make your characters stronger and your plot more satisfying.
Strong characters have a broad range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions just like us! Fear is an important layer when crafting a character because it helps define what they want. A character without wants is like a soggy bowl of MiniWheats. I was watching a video on YouTube by Sara Lubratt, when she said this: strong characters can carry a weak plot, but a strong plot cannot carry weak characters. I couldn’t agree more.
First, figure out what your character wants. Some examples include: love, acceptance, closure, the mystery solved, and personal achievement. What your character wants drives your plot because the character should act towards their goals.
Do you know what your character wants? Good. Take it away. Or more specifically, put obstacles between them and what they want. This is a great way of creating conflict in your plot, and how your character reacts to this conflict will tell the reader more about them.
When we threaten all is lost, your character’s reaction, for lack of a better word, characterizes them. How do they react when the thing they want or care about the most is in danger? Or when an unscalable obstacle is put in their way? What would they risk to get back what they want?
How does your character deal with fear? In the moment of fear your character will have an immediate gut reaction, commonly boiled down to fight or flight. You should also show the reader your character’s body language, whether they seek comfort, and the progression of fear.
The novel I’m writing has two main characters Luca and Julian, and they react differently towards fear. Luca often feels his emotions physically and internally. When he is afraid, the first person perspective drops into his head, giving the reader direct access to his thoughts (without personal pronouns). His heart thuds and his hands shake, and he blames himself. From these reactions, we know that Luca is an anxious guy and that he feels guilty for being afraid. He is empathetic and feels emotions strongly.
Julian on the other hand tends to ignore his fear. When he is afraid, he thinks his way out of it. It is a deflection technique. He keeps going and pretends everything is fine. He would rather suffer in silence than let other people know. From this reaction we know Julian is withdrawn and rational. He thinks he can handle things on his own, even when he can’t.
Obviously both of these characters have negative tendencies towards their fear, but their fear doesn't crush them. Readers want to find out how characters make it to the other side. Your character getting what they want is ultimately more satisfying if your character overcame difficulty and grew along the way.
To give an example from a published work, in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, a main character Kaladin experiences the death of someone close to him. Because of this, Kaladin makes it his mission to save those who cannot protect themselves. But in attempting this mission, he fails over and over again. Kaladin wrestles with the choice to continue on or give up. For a period he is overcome, but we as readers are invested in the battle Kaladin wages with himself. Defeat, guilt, fear of failure—these are familiar to us. Kaladin’s character arc in The Way of Kings feels earned and more satisfying because of this personal struggle.
How else can fear add to a story? Fear is a foil to the character’s wants, similar to how sadness balances happy bats of the plot. Highs and lows are what affect readers most. Would you read a story one emotion all the way through? A good plot is a balanced one with a variety of tones, conflicts, and resolutions.
Fear may be the most relatable and primal emotion. Seeing a character going through it not only makes them feel real, it also connects reader and character. We all have fears, sometimes the same ones as the characters we read. In truth, it doesn't matter if a character’s fears are the ones we experience. If they got through it, so can we. That’s why we like reading horror stories or watching scary movies. I mean I don’t, but you do you!
So when you write a character with wants and goals, make sure to throw some conflict in the way. Show how they react and how that reaction leads to other actions. Fear can express itself physically and mentally, and the combination you choose should support your character.
To end, here’s a list of physical and mental fear responses. Have fun!
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.