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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Know What You Fear: Using Phobias to Characterize

Fear is a motivator.  It motivates us to action and, just as often, to inaction.  Either way, the resulting choices have consequences, and consequences are integral to plot.

Think about your protagonist.  What is she afraid of?  Why does she fear it?  Knowing what she fears can give you ideas for backstory, help you define motives, and -- most importantly -- provide opportunities to give your protagonist inner conflict.

Conflicted characters are interesting.  We want to know what they'll do when confronted with fear and worry about whether they'll survive that confrontation.  You want to make your readers worry.  That means you've done your job right and awakened sympathy for your character.

Fear can also be used to create irony.  For instance, what if your protagonist has peladophobia -- an irrational fear of bald people?  Any ideas about what your antagonist should look like?  Here are a few hints: Lex Luthor.  Patrick Stewart.  Kojak.  All right, you're smart enough that you already got my dumb point.

The history behind your protagonist's fear can add interest to your story.  Consider this example from someone's very nonfictional life.  A young girl was walking down her neighborhood street when a large truck pulled up next to her and its bearded occupants tried to get her in the cab.  Years later she still suffers from pogonophobia -- a fear of beards -- and won't let her husband grow facial hair. 

I have several phobias of my own.  Some can be traced to specific events (Like that vicious spider attack!) while others seem to have come with me as an unfortunate package deal.  Regardless of their origins, they affect my choices.  In many instances, they also define my personality.

You don't have to name your character's phobia.  In fact, unless it's a very common one like claustrophobia, it's probably better if you don't.  The important thing is to show it through events and reactions.  Let it lurk inside your protagonist, paralyzing him at the worst possible moments.  What do you have to be afraid of?  Give it a try.