I find it amusing when people say they aren’t afraid of anything. I have to wonder if they’d maintain that notion if they were alone in a diving suit down in the Marianas Trench. Most people I know would be unnerved by the very notion of being entirely alone with nothing but angler fish for company in total darkness. The point is, I’m of the opinion that everybody is afraid of something.
Those fears could come from something outside of our experiences. One of the reasons science fiction is an effective setting for horror is that the depths of space can contain all sorts of nasty and overwhelming experiences for unwary travelers, and that’s before the twisted creativity of humanity gets involved. It’s the notion of being trapped in a floating metal box with something that wants you dead that drives many a ghost story in space.
But other fears exist that have nothing to do with carnivorous alien beings or horrorterrors from deep beneath the sea. Our own anxieties can do a number on our confidence, motivation and self-esteem. We can and often do fear failure or pain or death, be it ours or that of someone we love. The unknown is terrifying to us, and so it is with the characters we create.
Fear can cripple a character or drive them to extremes. An otherwise heroic or kind person, faced with something that terrifies them, may find themselves unable to act or behaving in uncharacteristic ways to deal with what’s in front of them. It’s for these reasons that invincible heroes can be boring. What’s there to be afraid of if nothing can really hurt you? The possibility of failure needs to be palpable, possible and immediate to be effective. To that end, you should know what your characters fear the most.
Take a moment to think of a favorite book or movie or video game. What do the characters fear? Heroes and villains alike have doubts and unacknowledged terrors, things they will do anything to avoid dealing with. And when unknown fears do arise, how do they handle it? Who remains calm, and who loses it? It bears thinking about, as seeing characters come face to face with their fears and struggling to overcome them is crucial in making your story a compelling and memorable one.
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