Monday, July 9, 2012




What is your character’s greatest fear?

That’s the first question I ponder when starting a new project.

Now I know common wisdom suggests you focus on your character’s goal. His or her burning desire, or rather the one thing they want more than anything else in the world. And believe me, knowing the character’s goals is important. It is the “what” that often drives your plot.
However, maybe it’s the amateur psychologist in me, but when it come to character, I’m far more interested in the “why.” Why does this particular character want this particular goal?

More often than not, the why is rooted in fear. 
I’m not talking about physical danger here – although physical danger is certainly a key element if your writing a thriller. No, I’m talking about the insecurities and anxieties buried deep inside your character’s psyche. Fear of rejection, fear of the past repeating itself, fear of being forgotten. The kind of core fears that, if your character, if asked, might even realize he has. 

It’s these core fears and beliefs that drive your characters actions. Furthermore, by knowing them, you’re able to give your characters greater depth and resonance. Tapping into common anxieties also taps into the common human experience. It allows readers to identify or sympathize with the character.

Your character’s fears also impact the conflict. As I said before, you’re looking at why a person wants a particular goal. The more that goal relates to some internal need, the harder it will be to give up with challenge. That’s because your character is faced with giving up more than a simple goal. He/she is forced to give up a core part of themselves as well. (Whether a person likes it or not, fear is part of our identity. We often cling to it as tightly as we cling to any other belief.)

Take, for example, Daniel Moretti, the billionaire hero in Weekend Agreement. On the surface, he’s rich, handsome, arrogant and a tad misogynistic. When you start looking closer, however, you discover he’s deeply afraid that he’s unlovable. That he’s doomed to be on the outside watching others find love. Because of this fear, he’s built a persona that he thinks will protect him from feeling rejected. When Charlotte Doherty enters his world, that persona is challenged, and thus the conflict begins. Letting her in could give him love – or it prove his fear correct. What’s he to do?

Now chances are your character will never actually voice his or her fear out loud. Nowhere in Weekend Agreement does Daniel Moretti even talk about being afraid of rejection. Instead, he does drop clues through his behavior. That’s the show-not-tell part of writing - the “how” if you will – and a topic for another day. In the meantime, start by focusing on the “why.” 

So again, what’s your character’s greatest fear?

1 comment:

  1. I have a hero that is terrified of not being in control due to abuse as a child and an unequal marriage when he was 18.
    I have another hero who thinks he is too messed up to be any good to a woman. He is.
    I have a hero who thinks he's too old and staid for the woman he loves. Actually I've got a few of those. My Sara Seale May-December phase.