How to Deepen Your Characters by Assessing Their Fears

by Jenn Walton
published in Writing

Fear is a very particular and peculiar thing. For some, it can be absolutely debilitating. For others, it can be motivating. And for others still, it can be inspiring. 

Several weeks ago, I went into the doctor’s office for my first ever MRI at the age of 29, and it was honestly a terrifying experience. But, not the MRI itself. In fact, aside from being slid into a massive tube, the whole process was really quick and largely uneventful. (There were a lot of loud noises from the machine, but I got to listen to classical music and take a nice nap.) 

The fear, however, came from everything leading up to the appointment: the scheduling, the anticipation of what the results would say, the unknown of what those results would mean for and to me after they were given. It was a lot to think about and frankly, scary. Because at the end of it all, what I feared was the examination of my mortality. Now, not every instance of fear is something quite that heavy. But whatever your fears happen to be, big or small, they can do more work than just being frightening. They can, believe it or not, be inspiring.

Take a minute and think about some of the things that you’re afraid of, whether it be a certain insect, hospitals or even being in a room full of strangers. Now, think about how those things make you feel and how you’ve responded to them. Everything you’re thinking of from the fear itself to the response is one of the many ways that we know we’re not only alive, but how we conduct ourselves in everyday life. And all of this can be extended to the characters we create in our stories. 

Sometimes in our writing, our characters can start out with a lot of momentum. But after awhile, if we’re not careful, things can flatten out and plateau. And sometimes, it’s because a character’s motivations have been lost or misdirected, and are in need of reexamination. One way to do that is by taking a look at one of their main motivators: Fear.

1) Ask you characters to name their fears, big or small

Depending on the character, asking them to name their fears can sometimes be the most difficult part of the process. Because not only are fears scary to talk about, they’re also deeply personal. And that level of vulnerability can, at times, be very hard for a character to walk into willingly. So, try starting the exercise of reexamination in an environment that is comfortable and familiar to your character(s), and you can do this either in your head, on a sheet of paper or on a computer screen.

Next, start taking them through a series of questions about how they’re doing mentally, so you can determine if having this conversation now will yield the best results or if you should have it later. Example questions could include: How are you feeling today? When was the last time you slept? Has there been anything particular on your mind lately? Etc. After you’ve had the chance to sort of assess where they are mentally, go ahead and begin asking them about their fears, whatever they may be.

With the main character of my novel, Abigail, it took years to get her to the point where she was not only able to name her fears (like isolation and not belonging), but to talk about them. When she did, I finally started to understand some of her responses to certain situations in the novel better, and it made the writing of her more authentic because I knew why she was leading me down particular paths.

2) Present a character’s fears to them

These do not need to be scenarios that end up in the final draft of your stories, but sometimes writing them out can, again, be helpful in understanding how your characters respond to being face to face with the things that frighten them. Which, can also help you better understand what motivates them. 

After learning about your characters’ fears, take one or two of them and come up with a scenario where that fear is front and center, and place your character right in the middle of it. For Abigail, it was placing her in the middle of the woods all by herself with no one or any kind of civilization around for miles. Once your character is set up, take note of how they’re responding to the fear that’s been presented to them. Have they frozen in front of it? Have they tried to run or escape? Do they even believe what they’re seeing or experiencing is real? Or are they trying to talk themselves out of it being in front of them? The information you get out of this can be crucial to your storytelling because when we as writers know how our characters respond in the face of their fears, we can better understand the ways in which they will interact with not only the worlds you’ve created, but the people within them.

3) Give a character a scenario where they have the opportunity to overcome or give in to the fear

Different from just placing the fear in front of them, set your characters up in a scenario where they have the opportunity to either overcome their fear or give in to it. And this distinction is important because what they choose to do about their fears, says a lot about them and how they handle conflict, stress, difficulty and a whole host of other everyday roadblocks. Those responses alone can give you a world of insight into how they will respond to pretty much anything you throw at them.

For Abigail, her response of fleeing danger or conflict or hard things has turned out to be a hallmark of who she is in the novel. And it has even inspired many different circumstances and scenarios in the story that weren’t in the original draft, but ended up working out a lot better in later revisions.

In the same way we learn about ourselves when it comes to engaging with our fears, so too, can we learn a lot about our characters when we give them the same opportunity to engage theirs. Whatever the response your characters have to their fears be sure to pay close attention as it can give you a great view into not only who they are, but who they can be depending on the circumstance. Because when our characters are at their fullest and most authentic, it helps us move past our own fears to make our stories the best they can be.

Jenn Walton is a writer, editor and storyteller based in Washington, D.C., whose fiction works are housed mainly in the speculative genre. She has completed her first novel project that explores, through the lens of a failing utopia, what happens when society gives in to its fear of the other. She previously wrote for a communications firm where she drafted and edited sponsored and organic content for top-tier academic institutions, Fortune 500 companies and leading philanthropic organizations that has run in The Washington Post, USA Today and the Atlantic. For more from Jenn, please visit her at her website or on Twitter.

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