Greatest Fear: How to Find It and Run with It

Fear is the primal motivator. Knowing what your character fears allows you to put him in the worst situations for him. To challenge him in ways that nothing else could.

It’s tempting to find a whole list of fears, and hit every one. If one is good, more is better. Right?

Alas, no.

That’s why character questionnaires ask for the “greatest fear.” But what does that really mean?

Well, it doesn’t have to be something that makes the character react in absolute panic. When you’re looking for a fear, causing a powerful reaction isn’t as important as depth and dimension. Almost any fear can cause a powerful reaction given the right circumstances.

It does have to be something that relates to the story, and can push the plot. (Don’t worry, there are a ton of ways to channel that power.)

The greatest fear could be called the Motivator, but it might be more useful to think of it as the root fear.

Exclusive Bonus: Download The Brainstorm Spark: Deepest Fears to get ideas flowing. You can even print it to use when you aren’t at a computer.

The Fear We’re Looking For

Have you ever noticed that good books and series often hit fear after fear, but they’re all related?

The connection is the root fear.

Larry Brooks might call it a CONCEPTUAL fear because of the way the root fear can be personified by several smaller related (tributary) fears. Much like a good concept can carry multiple premises.

As readers, we need to be shown how a fear presents itself. The deepest fears, when flatly stated and approached head-on, seem cliche and unimpressive. Unfortunate, but true.

In comparison, a root fear shown through specific, hard-hitting tributary fears becomes a powerful magnet for reader empathy. Not only does it deepen the character, but it also touches more possible reader fears.

Think of it as casting a wide net with small holes.

This layering of fears isn’t about excitement and stakes. It’s simply the most potent way to approach a deep fear.

…Although it’s great at raising stakes, too.

Digging for Roots

Before you can find the root fear, you need a list to dig in. There are a bunch of places you can look to find your character’s fears. You don’t even need to look in all of them.

Depending on the route your process is taking, you might start knowing the story and very little about the character, or maybe his values and little else. Don’t sweat it. Dig where you have open ground.

  • Personality. You can find likely fears listed in the Character Therapist’s archetype posts. Or instead of archetypes, you could look at the four temperaments, or the enneatypes, or Jung’s Psychological Types, or any number of other systems that are out there. Each personality, no matter how it is delineated from other personalities, will fear the undermining of its strengths.
  • Strengths. See that line above this one? Goes for individual strengths as well.
  • Desires. What fear would block the desire? It’s alright if you have to conjure obstacles the would force the character to choose, as long as the character has to choose.
  • Values. What would threaten them?
  • Secrets. Why is he keeping them?
  • Background. Does he want to escape it? Hold onto it? Honor it?
  • Story. What out of your list fits what you’re planning to put him through? What will challenge him the most? We’re just narrowing the list, so don’t get too picky.

Side Note: A phobia can work as one of the minor fears, but it lacks depth. A phobia is an extreme or irrational fear triggered by something specific, like snakes. That leaves little room for conflict.

If you only come up with one fear that fits the story, don’t worry. You don’t have to have multiple fears and a root fear for it to work. One can be all a story needs.

Do what your story demands. If multiple fears fit, great. If only one does, you can work it.

Then, you look for connections. Ask why the character fears what he does. Ask it for multiple fears at once and often your answer will jump out at you.

The right root fear will be capable – directly or through smaller fears or through obstacles you lay – of holding the protagonist back from achieving what he desires. It doesn’t matter if the main thrust of the story is to fight the fear or achieve the desire.

What You Might Find

Here’s a short list of common deep fears. Don’t depend on it too heavily.

  • Death  — well, aren’t we being obvious today?
  • Mutilation/Pain
  • Loss of Autonomy/Control
  • Isolation
  • Embarrassment
  • Rejection
  • Failure
  • Criticism
  • Insignificance/Lack of Value
  • Success
  • Poverty/Scarcity
  • Hurting Others
  • The Unknown
  • Competition
  • Controversy
  • Ill Health/Old Age
  • Loss of Status
  • Loss of Identity (fracturing of the self-concept)

Your character’s root fear isn’t guaranteed to be on the list. But there’s a good chance.

Finally, don’t discount the fears that come out naturally during the writing process. Your subconscious is good at this. Analyze them to see if they fit, because they very well might.

For a printable (and more complete) list with tips on how to avoid clogging your creativity, download The Brainstorm Spark: Deepest Fears. It’s a simple PDF that could save you hours.

Channeling the Power

To best use your character’s fear, you have to know how your character relates to fear. That’s no simple matter.

Fear is multi-dimensional. – Art Markman

The more dimensions you take advantage of, the more depth you give your character.

Things to consider: how the character handles it over time and in immediate danger, his views and assumptions about fear, what it reveals about him and his backstory, and how he can overcome it.

 How does your character handle fear?

How we react to fear is based most prominently on whether there’s immediate danger or it’s a disembodied fear. The spectrum ranges from uneasiness to stark terror.

Instinctive Reaction

Immediate jump-out-and-get-you fear is a high-emotion reaction. It causes one of four (involuntary) reactions.

You need to know which your character is most likely to use, and how much fear he can take before he gets overwhelmed.

Not every story will have a point where the character reverts to the instinctive reaction. That’s fine.

Pro Tip: If you want to show a character taking things well for a time, then losing it -perhaps in the middle of a battle, zoom in close, show the final straw against the backdrop, and show the physical effects the fear has on the character.

Reasoned Reaction

While high stress situations don’t have the punch that immediate danger does, the fear is at the front of the character’s mind. We’re not talking about corporate high stress. We’re talking about quaking-in-his-boots, make-the-right-decision-or-your-worst-fear-comes-true stress.

This is when he’s still able to reason his way through. Barely.

He doesn’t have to make the right decisions. But he does have to make them. Unlike in the instinctive reaction where there’s no thought involved.

In situations where he’s apprehensive or uneasy, you’ll have to deal more in hints.

Coping Mechanisms

You can have fun with this. Coping (aka defense) mechanisms are tricks our minds play.

Defense mechanisms are one way of looking at how people distance themselves from a full awareness of unpleasant thoughts, feelings and behaviors. — John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

You might choose to show a character arc through a progression from primitive to mature mechanisms. Or your character might have one or two that he uses throughout the story.

Here are 15 common mechanisms from the article quoted above:

  • Denial
  • Regression
  • Acting Out
  • Disassociation
  • Compartmentalization
  • Projection
  • Reaction Formation
  • Repression
  • Displacement
  • Intellectualization
  • Rationalization
  • Undoing
  • Sublimation
  • Compensation
  • Assertiveness

The last three are “mature” defense mechanisms. In other words, they’re the most constructive of the lot. The first seven are primitive, and the middle five are somewhere in between.

There’s a good chance one or more has already come up in your writing. Don’t be afraid to experiment with others. Options, dearie. Options. (In a later article, I’ll cover how to use defense mechanisms to deepen the story.)

However, even mature defense mechanisms don’t compare with overcoming the fear. That is your goal for the character, right?

Overcoming Fear

Let’s get one thing straight. A fear overcome isn’t a fear banished for all time. Overcoming is the ability to face it without a defense mechanism for a shield or reversion to instincts.

The fear still exists.

Knowing how to show your character overcoming his fear is closely tied to knowing how much he can handle before he’s overwhelmed.

It’s all about arousal. That’s what psychologists call it. The rest of us would probably call it excitement. Either way, it’s how much our neurons are firing. The more the merrier up to a point. Then we start to get overloaded. Then overwhelmed.

HebbianYerkesDodsonIt’s called the Yorkes-Dodson curve.

From left to right, the state of arousal can be described as indifferent, interested, in flow, anxious, and frazzled or overwhelmed.

The level of arousal can be controlled with practice. Conditioning. Desensitization.

The most believable way for a character to overcome his fear is for him to tackle smaller things he’s afraid of or uncomfortable with. Then move to increasingly larger things until he beats the final fear in the plot, trembling and scared though he may be.

We’ve probably all read stories where the turnaround is so sudden and complete that it’s like it’s a different character. And it throws you out of the story.

In some cases, he can reach a level of control where he’s in flow instead of being overwhelmed.

He “converts it to fire.”

There are three quotes that writers should heed when writing about a character overcoming their fear.

Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will. — W. Clement Stone

Courage is only the accumulation of small steps. — George Konrad

The hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, only the hero confronts his fear and converts it to fire. — Cus D’Amato

Despite my dislike of rules, it’s a scientifically proven aspect of human nature. So in this case, I’ll go ahead and say that you should heed them.

Because if he sat around and thought, he’d be more likely to talk himself into fear than out of it.

But while our minds move easily into negativity loops, most fears aren’t created that way.

The Birth of a Fear

Deep, motivating fears are tender from traumatic experiences. They can be part of the backstory, or included in the story itself.

It doesn’t have to be one huge thing. It can be a series of events or simply exposure to an environment over time.

(I’ll be covering them further in another post.)

Perceptions

How does your character regard fear?

  • A sign of weakness
  • Just a fact of life
  • Something to be reviled (thinking he’s immune)

Does he hide the fear?

How do other characters react when they learn of it? Does it alter their perception of the character? Is there a way to make the character overcome that perception?

What does he believe about himself or the world because of the fear?

When you’re writing a character, you have to realize that he probably isn’t self-aware enough to realize his root fear. But he might know about others. (In The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters, I outlined the layers of fear surrounding most characters.)

Back to the Writing

What does your character fear? Do you know how to USE it?This is a case where showing rather than telling is a huge deal. A character thinking about how scared they are isn’t effective. Neither is thinking to overcome it.

How you reveal it depends on the character’s awareness and acceptance of it.

You might hint, you might blatantly toss it around.

However, no matter what…

When your character is feeling it, you need to show the physical symptoms of fear. When we read a physical description, our brains react as if we experienced it. That’s the way to connect your reader with your character’s fears, even if  the reader doesn’t fear the same things.

Fear is a Writer’s Friend

In this one aspect of character, we have the power to shape a character’s story. It’s not just a blank to fill in on a questionnaire. It’s a world of new dimensions to discover and exploit.

However…

Your ability to use your character’s fear is dependent on your understanding of that fear. Tweet It!

It’s not just what a character fears, but how they handle it, why they fear it, how they see it in themselves and others, and what it reveals about them as a character overall.

You have to empathize. You have to know the fear inside and out. And now you’ve got an advantage. You know what to look for.

 

Really, I’ve skimmed the surface here. If you’d like updates for new posts and my upcoming book (which will take it deeper and give examples), you can sign up here.

Fear is one of The Four Cornerstones of Strong Characters

A huge thank you to Art Markman for answering my questions and pointing me in the right direction.

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About MJ Bush

Developmental Editor.
Founder of Writingeekery with 10,000 monthly readers.
I help writers like you master the craft.

Comments

  1. A very good an comprehensive look at fear. I was almost afraid to read it but glad I did. Well done.

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  2. MJ, this is a wonderful post. Right now I’m writing a novel about a woman who’s filled with fears so this came at an extremely useful time. Thank you so much for making sense of it all. Can’t wait for your next one.

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    • Carol, thank you. Your encouragement, among others’, is what’s going to keep me publishing. And to be honest, I love wrestling an unwieldy subject into submission. :)

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  3. An excellent article, MJ. More useful than what I’ve found in most how-to books. Thanks for posting.

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    • You’re welcome and thank you. It helps to know when I hit a home run and I can angle later articles to have the same amount of helpfulness.

      On this one, I really focused hard on how it affects the writing. And that’s what I need to do. :)

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  4. Interesting piece… And I’ve always thought a phobia is a minor fear, but it does have some depth. “Phobia is an extreme or irrational fear triggered by something specific, like snakes…” But it does leave considerable room for conflict.

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    • Oooh, interesting. I’m all ears. Why do you think it does have depth and room for conflict? :)

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  5. This is exactly what I needed to read! In my recent fantasy novel, I’ve had issues figuring out the motivation for characters, and how to create conflict within my group of characters, and focusing on their fears really helped. Now I know how underdeveloped they are because they didn’t have any fears. (Whoops!)

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    • Coryl, I’m glad you figured it out. It’s a mixed feeling when you suddenly get where you’ve been going wrong, isn’t it? :)

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  6. Hi MJ,

    Thanks for a great article! I can see several applications to my current WIP. Thanks for including sections on coping mechanisms as well as overcoming fear; many articles I have read about character fear skip those aspects and zone in on creating a perfect fear for the character’s plot and arc. A handy tool.

    My only suggestion is to amend the tend-and-befriend being females-only to imply that women are more likely to employ this tactic than are men, but not exclusively. There are great critiques of the study included with it, and I identify with the second writer who states that she does not tend-and-befriend, but knows several men who do. Personally I tend to freeze or fight, and know many guys who hash out problems with other men rather than fighting or running. The second critique makes excellent points that one’s response to stress is not simply a product of biological determinism, but also sociologically and psychologically imprinted from upbringing, innate personality, etc.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.

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    • anonymous says:

      just wanted to second this WHOLEHEARTEDLY. I tried reading the study and I found it very oversimplified on several levels (ignored role of socialization, culture, personal history; glossed over the implications of the fact that hormone levels can vary greatly between individuals even within the same sex; etc).
      so I would definitely suggest amending the statement from “female only” to “generally associated with females” or “linked to high levels of oxytocin, a female sex hormone” or something along those lines.

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