Writers in the Storm

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June 15, 2012

What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Your Character’s Biggest Fear

By Laura Drake


I read a lot about craft. Books, blogs, articles, websites. I’m always looking to improve my craft. I know you are too, or you wouldn’t be reading this. WITS is all about craft.

One of my weaknesses is Plotting. I know these amazing characters – like Athena, they are born, fully formed. I’m just not so sure what they’re there to do.

So I got to thinking about what Donald Maass, James Scott Bell and others have written about plotting:

Take your character’s biggest fear, and throw them into a situation where they have to face it.

One of these days, I’m going to remember this before I start writing a book; wow, what a powerful plot that would be! (Hey, there’s a reason it took me 13 years to sell, okay?)

To see how very powerful this is, I started thinking about great stories (either books or movies) to see how often this technique was used. The more I thought, the more I found.

Gone with the Wind Scarlett is a spoiled, rich, entitled daughter of a landowner. What’s the worst that could happen? To lose her land, her money, her status, her culture. Yep. It happened.

The Hunger Games – Katniss is her Sister’s protector. To her, it would be worse if her Sister was sent to the games than Katniss. So, of course she volunteers.

The Wizard of Oz OMG, Baum, the masochist, does this to almost every character!

  • Straw Man? Fire – can you say, torch?
  • Tin Man – water.  Several times. Thank God for oil cans.
  • Lion? No courage. Poor thing was terrified the whole movie!

Jaws -  Sheriff of a beach town is afraid of the water. Big fish wants to eat him. Why the heck did he take a job at the beach, anyway?

The King’s Speech – What kind of Karma makes a man with a huge speech impediment King, during a critical time for the Nation?  And this wasn’t fiction! Yikes.

Disney / Pixar They GET this concept. Almost every one of these movies you can name involves this technique. Think about it:

Finding NemoThe father ‘lost’ is spouse due to a predator’s attack. Now he’s overprotective of his young son. What happens? You can tell from the title.

Lion King - A young lion watches his father die, and thinks it’s his fault. Major Self-esteem issues. What would be hardest for him? To have the responsibility of the entire pride on his shoulders. You guessed it! It happens.

Does every book or movie have to throw the protagonist into their worst nightmare to be successful?

Absolutely not.  But with examples like the above, you might want to look at the possibility of trying it!

So throw them out there – I came up with the above in 15 minutes. What plots can you name?

0 comments on “What’s the Worst that Can Happen? Your Character’s Biggest Fear”

  1. not only is it powerful to put the character in their greatest fear, but it becomes inspirational when they are “transformed” after overcoming the fear.

  2. Oh the joy of plotting! Not! i've just recently figured out how to add conflict to make the story stronger. It's taken many attempts at writing novels to do so. I'm not published in book length fiction - yet - but I'm getting there. This approach highlights clearly how to deepen the meaning of the story. Thanks!

  3. Wonderful post and idea! For those of us who have struggled with finding a balance between character and plot this really does bring them together in a way that empowers the story and it happens to be realistic. The King's Speech was the perfect example. It also seems like some stories build up a specific fear in the audience that something's going to happen to the main character and then low and behold ... it does.

  4. Warrant officer Ripley in the Alien (Ridley Scott's): finding herself alone - she thinks - on board the Nostromo, all her companions dead, to discover the Alien is also there. Excellent post which I will certainly use in my work. Thank you.

  5. Sisy - That was edge of your seat, wet my pants scary! But - was it HER fear? I don't remember. Now, if her biggest fear in life was the idea of getting stranded, alone, or if she had alien aversion - then it would be spot on! 😉

  6. I thought everyone would have a bunch of movies I hadn't thought of, by now! Come on guys, make me feel dumb (which, admittedly, isn't tough!)

  7. North by Northwest - Roger Thornhill fears any kind of commitment and enjoys having a dull life, so he falls in love and has to prevent microfilm with vital national secrets being smuggled out of the country. He has to climb down Mount Rushmore to do it.

  8. MIB3, J's greatest fear was losing K who had become a father figure to him. Bam K is killed. This propels the story and J uncovers the truth abou this past.
    Laura I loved that line about throwing your protag into the middle of his greatest fear!!! Am so going to use that....

  9. Fine, Laura Drake ... I saw this early in the am and couldn't think of one single movie ... drat on that !!
    Actaully Ripley in the sequel Alien(s) ... knows very well what is out there and goes anyway. Maybe Melvin Udall in As Good as it Gets when he has to overcome his OCD to get the girl. No, I still can't think of any. Probably one day next week five of them will find their way into my frontal lobe when I least need them 🙂

    1. Oh Florence, As Good as it Gets is a great one! I just saw that a week or so ago - I should have remembered!

      I thought of another - Hunt for Red October - The hero was afraid to fly after being in a bad accident. So he ends up in a helicopter, in a storm, and being winched down in a sling to a submarine. Yikes!

  10. I think this is a great post that is going to impact the rest of my writing. When I attended a conference by Donald Maass I recall him mentioning this fear thing. I just gave a thought to what movie is one of my favorites and came up with Bridges of Madison County, right? And I thought, fear? Well, Francesca is bored with her life on the farm and what could be more scary than meeting Robert and falling in love with him, yet knowing she cannot leave her husband and children because being a mom is more important to her than anything in the world.
    Thank you, Laura.

    1. Patti, they say when you're ready, you hear the lesson - glad it resonated with you!
      I loved Bridges - the book, not the movie. LOVE Clint, but he was just a bit past his prime for it, and the only time the emotion really hit me was when they were following each other in the cars, right at the end.

  11. Just finished reading Jodi Picoult's Lone Wolf last night, in which Edward, the son who left home after a terrible fight with his father, is called back home six years later to make a life-or-death decision about his father, resurrecting the conflict he could not face.

  12. Great movie examples, Laura! OK, I'll bite...

    When Harry Met Sally... ~ The worst thing would be if the two of them were no longer friends. And so it goes...

    Indiana Jones' movies - he has to overcome everything from feeling inferior to his father to his huge fear of snakes.

    The Matrix ~ Neo fears that Morpheus sacrifice his life for him, thinking he's "the one." (Side note: He doesn't really want to BE the one.) In order to save Morpheus, he must act like "the one" whether he feels it or not. In faking it till he makes it, he discovers he IS "the one."

    Let's see if this pushes the guys to go there. I used mostly dude movies on purpose. 🙂

  13. I think you're right, Jenny -- guy movies throw in the kitchen sink, don't they? Hey, I thought of another - Avatar! The worst that can happen is if the planet is harmed, or the tree (symbol of life for the planet is damaged. Man, loved that one...

  14. My latest heroine was raised by an alcoholic and spent her life trying to stay invisible. Her player-bf decides she can sing... Yep- he enters her in a live contest w/huge payout rewards (his motivation). At a bar.

    The hero? he's a producer for the contest. I'm still working out how that ties in. 🙂 Suggestions welcome.

  15. [...] a throwdown about their fear of not succeeding vs. fear of success. Two weeks ago Laura wrote about letting your characters deal with their worst fears. Now is the time to share yours, if you haven’t already. Or if you’ve discovered more. [...]

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