Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears... Oh, My!

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893.

Knowing Your Characters By Uncovering Their Fears



I once wrote a manuscript that involved a complicated plot and four “main characters”. When an editor asked me what my characters wanted, I was stumped. I had created them to advance the plot - why else do you create characters? I then spent a lot of time placing those characters on the therapist’s couch and asking them what they wanted and why. It got really boring. Until I asked them what they were afraid of. Then things got interesting. 




Everyone has fears. From fear of spiders, heights, leaving the house, or audibly farting in yoga class to being abandoned, unloved, insignificant, poor- our fears color our actions. Regardless of why we have those fears, everything we do in one way or another is shaped by our ability to deal with what we’re afraid of.

Fears create internal challenges. Paired with external ones like graduating on time or surviving a tsunami,  they can help a writer shape a very real, flesh and blood character. If the heroine of a story is charged with saving the world from a race of hostile aliens, it really doesn’t matter if she has blond hair or blue eyes or eats too many cheesy fries.  If she is terrified of spiders and the aliens resemble daddy long legs on steroids – she has a problem. Not only will she have to leap tall buildings in a single bound and uncover 13 confusing clues to find the Magic Stone of Power, but she’ll have to deal with the fact that her worst nightmare is very much tied up with her destiny and that of the planet.

So how can you uncover a character's fears? You might start by looking at your own. I have an entire catalog of them, past and present. I'll give an example by starting with the letter "D" for Drowning.


As a child, I was terrified of going in water that was over my head. When I was seven or eight, my parents enrolled me in swimming classes at the local YWCA.The last class of the session involved jumping into the deep end of the pool. No one explained this would happen. No one said you would do it while your parents and the parents of other children were seated in the bleachers. When it was my turn, I gripped the edge of the pool with my toes, stared into the  water and froze. I couldn’t do it. My parents re-enrolled me in the class. Now, I had the disadvantage of knowing what was going to happen in the last class which haunted me all week long. When the big day arrived, I froze yet again. Bless my parents for limiting my humiliation to two tries. 

Later that summer, they sent me to camp. As fate would have it, on the last morning, we were awakened to the sound of camp counselors shouting, “Polar Bear Swim! Up, up, up!” Like bright, shining lemmings we ran toward the lake. Twenty-five little girls jumped off the dock. I was filled with such determination as I plunged into the cold water: I AM going to DO this!  Down, down, down I sank. Like a stone. My feet finally touched the lake bed which was muddy and mucky and sucked me in. There I stood at the very bottom, trying to calculate how long it would take the counselors to do a head count and realize that I was missing.  I started to panic. Lakes don't have ladders. But as I looked up through the murky water, I saw twenty-four pairs of legs kicking for all they were worth. So I decided to kick, too. I rose about three inches out of the muck. I tried again and again. It took all of my strength but I finally reached the surface. On sheer adrenaline and fear of death, I made it back to the dock. I jumped up and down with my fellow campers in jubilation, water spraying from my nose, black leeches clinging to my ankles. I had done it!


As a writer, what did I take from that experience? I learned that fear can have a  taste (bile in your mouth), a color (why is this water so green?), a vibration (is it possible to feel your heart beating in your knee caps?) I learned that momentum is a powerful thing; you can run straight toward your worst fear and scare it before it can scare you. I learned that the way we deal with the things that terrify us, says volumes about who we really are. What we don't want can lead us to find what we want. 

So, if you want to get on a cellular level with your character, try to examine her fears.  The next time you’re stumped about what she really wants, lean into her and shout, “Polar Bear Swim!” Then stand back and gather the treasures that come to the surface of the water.
In memory of Gus, beloved polar bear at the Central Park Zoo.


21 comments

I LOVE this! And it's exactly what I need for my main character right now. Wonderful, Robin!

Robin, you nailed it! And you made me laugh while you did it.

It's not often that one can just decide what a character is afraid of from the get-go, based on the premise of the story—for me, it usually takes an entire first draft for their true fears to emerge—but, boy, when they do, you have the very essence of what makes that character tick.

Thanks for the entertaining post. I shall have the image of you just standing at the bottom of the lake going, "Huh?" for a very long time!

I'm terrified of OTHER people drowning, Robin (especially children) so this post definitely got my heart racing. Thank you for reminding me that fear is such an incredible (and visceral) motivator.

I really enjoyed this post. As I read it, I thought about a character that's been taking shape in my head. He's been there for a while, real quiet-like. Every now and then he mumbles something but I don't know a lot about him. Reading about fears got him to mumbling more. By the end of the post, I've gained a bit more about this character. Thanks for the inspiration :-)

Awesome post, Robin! I'm bringing the "fear" to my characters today :)

Thanks Robin for this wonderful post! Fear gives you such incite into what really drives the character and forcing a character to face their fear is a wonderful way to create tension.

Characters may advance a plot, but this essay may just advance my writing. I was stuck.

Ooh, something I can use RIGHT NOW. Thanks, Robin!

I'm thrilled if this post is helping us to look at our characters in a new light. The combination of our voices on this subject is so helpful to me. Thanks, all, for the comments and your individual posts.

The "farting in yoga class" part really spoke to me. :)

Your jumping in the lake story was very scary! Your post excellent advise. Thank you.

Thank you, Cheryl Ann, my pleasure. I've had some scary things happen to me in my life so far, but that one really sticks with me. I still always look for the edge of a pool or the low end of the lake when I'm swimming!

Thank you, Cheryl Ann, my pleasure. I've had some scary things happen to me in my life so far, but that one really sticks with me. I still always look for the edge of a pool or the low end of the lake when I'm swimming!

Love this!! Will post on my writing wiki.

FANTASTIC post, Robin. My favorite part: "you can run straight toward your worst fear and scare it before it can scare you." 'Brilliance.

Aaron: Like the good lady said, sounds like you just might have to run straight for that fear and scare it before it scares you.

Aaron: Like the good lady said, sounds like you just might have to run straight for that fear and scare it before it scares you.

Thanks, Bret. I do make the best scary noises when I'm most afraid!

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.

Search

discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers

Translate