Writers in the Storm

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October 10, 2022

5 Fun Ways to Take Advantage of Your Character’s Fears

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Two cartoon eyes peer fearfully out of a cardboard box in this illustration of Janice Hardy's post "5 Fun Ways to Take Advantage of Your Character's Fears."

When characters are scared about what might happen, so are your readers.

Imagine your character in a dark room, surrounded by shadows, covered in—

Thud. What was that? Is someone there?

Maybe it’s nothing. The cat chasing his tail. The ice maker cycling up in the fridge. Or maybe it’s a masked killer creeping over the window sill.

Whatever it is, your character is freaking out a bit, and odds are, so is your reader. They’re gripping the novel tight, their breath is coming a little faster, and they’re desperate to know what’s out there and how it’s going to affect the character they’ve grown to love.

So, what do you do now?

Are you milking this moment for all its worth, or letting it die before it gets to scare the pants off of anyone? Are you digging deep into your own fears and weaving them into what your character is feeling, or jumping right to the reveal of what made the thud?

Hopefully, you recognize the power of fear as a tension-generating device, and you’re crafting scenes that tweak nerves and unsettle stomachs, and create a mood where anything is possible, and the worst is very likely right around the corner.

But what if you’re not trying to scare anyone? That’s only for horror writers, right?

Nope, not at all.

If you’re not using fear, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to engage your readers.

Emotions connect readers to characters, and fear is a powerful—and useful—emotion.

Fear is one aspect of anticipation, which is at the heart of tension. Readers anticipate what might happen, good or bad, and they keep reading to discover how it all turns out.

That connection is vital to pulling readers into a story and making them fall in love with your characters. When they connect, they care. When they care, they worry. When they worry, they stay up late to finish and tell all their friends about this awesome book they just read.

Find the opportunities fear offers and make the most of them.

Look at your scenes and brainstorm how fear can make them stronger.

But remember—there are many types of fear, so you don’t need to approach every scene as if it were part of a horror movie. A parent can fear for a child on their first day of school just as much as a group of campers who picked the wrong vacation spot can fear for their lives.

Adjust as needed for your story, genre, and market.

1. The Fear of the Wrong Choice

Every scene has a goal, but what if the character is chasing the wrong one? What if they’ve made a terrible mistake and the goal they’re pursuing will only lead to ruin?

When a character is utterly convinced they’re right, and that their goal is the correct one, readers will naturally assume they’re correct. That can steal a lot of the tension and mystery out of the scene. But when we layer in a few hints that it’s not the best choice, or give the character reasons to wonder if they’re doing the right thing, we allow uncertainty to creep in.

Uncertainty leads to worry, which leads to fear, which leads to tension. (And eventually to hate according to Master Yoda, but we’ll stop before we get there).

2. The Fear of the Reason Why 

Remember I said fear was a great motivator? Well, there’s also the fear of doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, or doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. Basically, just the character worrying about why they’re acting at all and their reasons behind it.

Maybe they’re being selfish and they know it. Maybe they’re not sure if their motivations are from a good place. They might knowingly do something awful, because it’s the only choice they have and they truly believe they’ll be able to turn it all around before it goes bad.

Not every character acts from the goodness of their heart, so let them worry about why they’re so gung-ho to do whatever needs doing in the scene.

3. The Fear of What’s Out There 

Ah, conflict. It’s a given the characters will face it, and face a lot of it, before the novel is through, but the question is…how awful will it be?

Hopefully, pretty darn terrible (whatever “terrible” means in your story).

Characters will have to figure out how to circumvent the problem. They’ll need to weigh the pros and cons and look at all the options, and worry over them all. They’ll need to decide how far they’re willing to go to fix this issue. They’ll need to accept that things might not turn out in their favor and it’ll end in screaming and death.

This is a major fear every scene should have, even if the characters know what conflict awaits them—they just won’t know how it’ll turn out. 

4. The Fear of it Coming Back to Bite Them 

Which all culminates in the fear of the consequences for their actions. Characters should have a lot at stake, and worry about how their choices and motivations are going to affect their plans.

What if they’re wrong? What if they’re right? What if they’ve made awful mistakes and set terrible things in motion that they’ll barely—if ever—recover from? (Do this last one as often as you can. Really, it’s tons of fun). 

Stakes are a great way to add fear, tension, and a dark cloud hanging over the heads of your characters. If they screw up, they really should regret it.

5. The Fear of the Ugly Truth

Character arcs are rooted in fear. It’s the fear created by whatever happened to them in their past that’s haunting them to this day. In a lot of stories, fighting against the fear that “the past” is right is what the book is all about.

Let characters worry that deep down, they deserve all the horrible things that have happened to them. They’re not worthy of what they want. They’re just kidding themselves by trying to be a better person. They’re everything that person who wronged them said they were.

This is what’s driving them on an emotional level, so don’t skimp out here when developing your fears.

Fears aren’t only relatable—they’re universal. 

We all have them, so we all understand how they can warp a person’s mind and behavior. Fear can make a character act in ways they never would have otherwise, and cause them to act against their better judgement. It can push buttons and ruin relationships. It can divide and conquer and leave a character alone when at the worst possible moment.

It can create situations that yank on a reader’s heartstrings and fully immerse them in the story.

Which is what we want as writers—to tap into those fears and create an emotional connection that helps us engage our readers and give them a story worth their time.

What are your characters afraid of? Do you take advantage of that in your novel?

* * * * * *

About Janice

Portrait photograph of author Janice Hardy.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author and founder of the popular writing site Fiction University, where she helps writers improve their craft and navigate the crazy world of publishing. Not only does she write about writing, she teaches workshops across the country, and her blog has been recognized as a Top Writing Blog by Writer’s Digest. She also spins tales of adventure for both teens and adults, and firmly believes that doing terrible things to her characters makes them more interesting (in a good way). She loves talking with writers and readers, and encourages questions of all types—even the weird ones.

Find out more about writing at www.Fiction-University.com, or visit her author’s site at www.JaniceHardy.com. Subscribe to her newsletter to stay updated on future books, workshops, and events and receive her book, 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now, free.

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20 comments on “5 Fun Ways to Take Advantage of Your Character’s Fears”

  1. Janice, this is a great post! My main character deals with all these fears and I find they intertwine: a fear about past events makes my protagonist question his motives or worry about making a poor choice.
    But a lot of this is head work and I feel like my protagonist is constantly processing. I have some dialogue where the fears are shared. Some visceral moments where you see the fear. But ultimately we end up back in his head. Doesn’t this slow the story down?

    1. Thanks! It's fun when they all tangle together like that.

      It can slow things down, but only if you spend more time in his head than the story itself, or have huge chunks of internal processing with nothing else going on.

      You might try mixing in some action beats during the heavy processing times, and let him interact with the world or other people as he thinks.

      You can also try spreading out the processing time so he's thinking about it over the course of a scene (where applicable of course).

  2. A fascinating post. My MC in my current WIP feels he's not good enough because of things that happened in his past. He fears it will catch up with him.
    I think perhaps I should make it sneak up on him. Mwahaha

  3. Thank you, Janice! This post helped me clarify my POV character's motivation. I hadn't thought to put it in terms of fear. She is afraid she could have prevented a death if she'd reacted like a warrior so now she's determined to avenge the death as a warrior. That is a mindset that goes against her nature so she's questioning every action and reaction.

    1. Most welcome. Ooo, I love that! What a wonderful inner conflict, and I can totally see how that would cause all kinds of problems.

    2. Thanks Janice & Jenny. I'm delighted you both like the conflict I have going on in book three. Now I just have to keep my butt in the chair and fingers flying on the keyboard.

  4. My main character is afraid her sister will die before she can mend their relationship. And she worries her sister won't open her heart and her life to let her in. And she's worried that her entire life is a lie and her past isn't exactly what she thought it was, and that she won't choose the right future for herself.

    She's got a whole lotta angst, this girl.

    1. She does! But good angst, and the escalation of it it nice, as it really builds off each one. I can see her getting into a "fear spiral" with her worries getting worse and worse.

  5. Thanks for this reminder, Janice! I tend to avoid fear. My writing group is doing a spooky challenge this month. I'd been thinking of skipping, but now I think I'll lean into it!

    1. Go for it! Fear doesn't have to be "horror" or anything. Everyone has fears, and it usually either keeps us from doing what we want or need to do, or pushes us to do more. This is a great motivator for a character. There have been some fantastic examples in the comments, too.

    1. A classic fear, and a good one. If characters never worry about that, odds are things are too easy in the novel 🙂

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