Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Use Fear to Develop Character and Conflict

We’re all afraid of something.

That fear can shape who we are and can create jeopardy in our lives. We’ve all been to the dentist, right? For some, just the word could make you break into a cold sweat. Maybe you’re afraid of the pain, or the buzzing sound of the drill. But most realize that the fear and anticipation of that dental visit is worse than the actual procedure.

Fear of the unknown is a similar situation. For example, both my husband and my sister-in-law recently underwent chemo. We were all nervous about what to expect. What would it feel like? Would they immediately get sick? What would their reactions and side effects be? Our imagination can conjure up all kinds of “what-ifs”. But, usually, once you’ve experienced it, you know what to expect the next time, and it’s not as scary as it was before.

Use that fear and anticipation to build suspense in your writing. Suspense is about anticipation. It is about what we do not have, what has not happened, about what might happen. It’s about the process of watching events unfold. (i.e.While the victim is being stalked, suspense looms. Once the victim is murdered, the suspense disappears.) Waiting to find out builds suspense and drama.

Fear may be something our character needs to overcome, her internal conflict in the story. That takes us on her journey of development, how she reacts to her fear, how she deals with it, how she wins over it in the end or is changed by it.

As an author, you can use your fear to drive your character (and maybe overcome your own in the process).

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.    

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  1. So, '... the only thing we have to fear is ...' not fearing enough. I knew it.

  2. Fear is a powerful tool to keep the reader engaged. Using it to the full, especially to build suspense in a thriller, can elevate the story to a new level. However, it has its place in every genre from children's stories to romance to fantasy and science fiction. Even nonfiction authors use fear to make a point or otherwise develop their books. For example, cookbooks can instill an element of fear: Be sure not to overcook. Don't let the vegetables brown. Disregarding such admonitions involves a certain fear of unwanted results.

    But children's stories? Consider Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Fear that she will at any moment be discovered lurks just under the surface as she tries out the rockers, samples the porridge, and checks the beds for comfort. Of course, she ultimately is found by the bears, and the story comes to a close without her becoming the entrée served after the porridge. Fear resolved.

    Nice post, Heidi.

  3. Marianne Williamson, in Return to Love, says that there are only two root emotions: fear and love. So following your line of thinking, Heidi, we can dig deep into jealousy and envy and anger to ask what our characters are truly afraid of. Great source of conflict, as you mention.

  4. Good thoughts as I'm editing...


  5. Great post, Heidi. I know that authors usually take their experiences and incorporate them to write, but "fear" slipped through the cracks on my end :(

    Thanks for sharing that we need to consider fear whenever we want to build a layer of suspense in our stories. I'm using this method now as I edit my current WIP!


  6. It's a good way to use your own fear and give it to your character--let him or her worry about it!

  7. Excellent post, Heidi. The motivation of a fear driven character can work on many levels. Glad you brought the subject up!

  8. I enjoyed this post, Heidi. Your grandmother certainly overcame any fear she had, didn't she? I've so often found the reality is not as scary as the fear in anticipating the event.

  9. Helpful post and discussion, Heidi. Like Alice, I can use this "fear factor" in a current WIP. Thanks!



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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