Storytelling

Depicting Characters Held Back by Fear

Edvard Munch's painting The Scream.
While it may look different for each of us, living life to the fullest is what we’re all striving to do. This universal desire for happiness is what causes us to follow our passions, develop rewarding relationships, and seek out experiences that help us feel fulfilled, optimistic, and at peace. Even if it means facing new situations, embracing challenges, and making sacrifices, we do it.

Powerful stuff, right?

How fitting, then, that an equally powerful emotion can derail us completely, shaking our faith, stealing our hope, and eroding our will to succeed: fear.

Fear is a familiar companion, one we’d rather not share the road with, but it’s not up to us. This primal human response prepares the body to react to danger, so despite how awful it makes us feel, it quite literally helps to keep us alive. The problem is the psychological tug-of-war that fear creates between reality and possibility and whether we choose to mentally fight through the phantoms our mind creates or concede the battle to them.

This tug-of-war is something each one of us faces every day. Small fears, big ones. Paralyzing self-doubt, trust issues, control issues, and the inability to make decisions are all by-products of fear. Sometimes we can fight through the cascade of anxiety and embrace courage; other times, it’s impossible. Our struggle will directly impact our ability to problem solve or achieve meaningful goals, and it will ultimately decide whether we find the fulfillment and peace we seek.

This struggle appears in fiction, too, in the form of character arcs. Our protagonist starts the story one way, and to achieve what they want most, they must grow and change as they face adversity. How they do this is to become self-aware and shed the dysfunctional thinking and behavior caused by painful past experiences. This allows them to see the situation in front of them more clearly. Once free from anticipatory fear (fear of what may come to pass), they can better focus in the now and apply their personal strengths to overcome the barriers in their way.

To craft realistic fiction, our story world should mirror the real one in meaningful ways, so understanding how fear affects us as people will help us build realistic characters who behave and think as we do. Let’s dig into fear, looking at the different ways it may alter a character’s state of mind, sour their worldview, and create problems that will affect their ability to push forward toward their goal.

Fear Can Lead to Bias

Imagine if our character, a young single traveler named Mike, was mugged in a foreign county. He loves to travel and has never encountered a problem before, but this experience leaves him mistrustful of the people living in this country. When he moves on to the next town on his route, he finds that the trip for him has changed. He’s unable to immerse himself in the culture by exploring the city to its fullest. He no longer trusts the people around him and worries they see him as a target to take advantage of.

A negative experience like the above always leaves a bad taste in the character’s mouth. If one was victimized, mistreated, maligned, or humiliated, it’s often human nature to hold anyone associated with that experience in contempt. But the biases that form are destructive and can create untold problems as the character moves through life.

For example, what if Mike is struggling with directions or suffers a travel snafu and really needs a local’s assistance? Maybe there’s a bus breakdown as he’s on his way to the train terminal, and passengers are left to fend for themselves. Mike’s traveling on a nonrefundable ticket, and his train leaves soon. He has no idea how to find the terminal from where he is, cabs are nowhere to be found, and he has no data on his phone to search for an answer. A local is loading up construction supplies at a nearby store, but Mike’s feet are cement. With his bulging backpack and a now-deserted street, he’s a perfect target.

Indecision could cause this opportunity to pass – the local could drive off, leaving Mike stuck. Or maybe he spots someone who is clearly another traveler and, due to that fact alone, immediately trusts him and explains the situation. The traveler quickly offers to take Mike on his motorbike. Mike gets on, and even though his new acquaintance starts driving in the opposite direction the bus was going, he ignores his internal radar and assumes this guy simply knows a better route. Ten minutes later the traveler stops in a deserted location and demands a steep extortion payment if Mike wants to get to the terminal. If Mike refuses to pay, the guy will leave him, and the train will depart without him. Just like that, Mike is taken advantage of again because he let one bad experience with a local taint his opinion of everyone living in the area.

Biases can cause characters to not ask for help when in need, ignore the truth when faced with it, and miss out on opportunities that could have led to happiness and growth. This is a great area to explore when you want to show how fear is controlling your character’s behavior.

Fear Alters Perception

When the mind misinterprets stimuli, it’s a hard thing to shake. Survivors of abuse often flinch at an unexpected touch even when it comes from someone they love and trust. Likewise, a character who was in a house fire as a child might experience unwanted memories whenever they catch a whiff of smoke. Situations that are triggering mean the character’s perceptions have been altered, and the response is an immediate onset of fear and anxiety.

A writer’s task is to surface character fears in this way, prompting characters to face their past traumas. In addition to hinting at important character backstory that provides context for their behavior, poking at their memories also begins the process of resurrecting an emotional wound that has long been buried. This is important because to successfully transform in a change arc, the character must deal with what happened in a healthier way so fear no longer holds them back from living their best life.

Fear Causes Misinterpretations of Danger and Risk

Characters who carry fear with them move through life ever watchful for people and situations that might cause them further pain. This means they often misread situations, seeing dangers where there are none or believing the risks are much higher than they actually are. This anticipatory fear will paralyze your characters and lead to indecision and inaction. The result? They miss valuable opportunities to challenge themselves, change, and gain greater levels of happiness.

Anticipatory fear is dangerous because it tends to grow, and as it does, the character’s comfort zone shrinks. Imagine a character who is a teller at a bank when a robbery takes place. She’s corralled at gun point, tied up with her coworkers, and placed in a dark room for hours until the police finally come. All that runs through her head is how when the robber approached her wicket, he seemed so genuine and asked her how her day was going. Then he pulled a gun and, in a low voice, explained what he wanted from her.

Understandably it takes her time to move past this traumatic event. She quits her job, never wanting to face such a risk again. But what sticks with her is how normal the robber had seemed, how he could be the guy living in an apartment down the hall, the delivery driver who brings her takeout, or even a fellow dog walker at the park. He could be anyone. This realization causes her to examine the disconcerting question, how can we really know who someone is and what they are capable of?

It’s not long until she stops dating and avoids activities where she’ll be alone with others. It becomes harder and harder for her to interact with people, even her neighbors that she’s known for some time. Her world grows smaller because the risk of not seeing a threat coming again is so large in her mind that she can’t move past it. She hates what is happening to her, but she can’t seem to stop it.

Think about how anticipatory fear might be limiting your character and, worse, how they may be completely aware of what it is doing to them. The real way to torture our characters is to show self-awareness as they struggle between what is and what could be.

Fear Encourages Logical Leaps and Over-Personalization

When fear goes unchecked, characters become used to seeing the many possible dangers around them. Being watchful helps them feel more in control of what happens to them, and therefore they feel protected. But this fear mindset means that when something negative transpires, it’s very likely they will make a logical leap as to the cause, tying it back to their fears. Personalizing a situation in this way helps to confirm their fear-based thinking and justifies their dysfunctional responses, allowing the cycle of fear to continue.

Imagine a character, Carl, who has a wife with a chronic illness of some kind, such as COPD. While shopping one day, he and his wife hear someone in the next aisle coughing and joke that maybe the guy needs to quit smoking. A few days later, Carl’s wife develops a cold and ends up in the hospital. Carl’s anxiety goes through the roof; he’s protective of his wife, and because of numerous bad experiences (emotional wounds), he believes the world is a dangerous place. He’s exhausting himself trying to figure out how he failed to keep his wife safe. They rarely go out, have few friends … so how did she get sick?

Suddenly, he remembers the cougher in the supermarket. Instantly, he’s certain this was the cause of his wife’s cold, and once she returns home, he forbids her from shopping in a public place again.

This personalization (that someone coughing a few aisles over gave her the cold) is a logical leap, but it fits perfectly within his misbelief system: the only way to control what the world can do is to avoid it. Carl’s fear has led to a restrictive life for him and his wife already, but rather than see his behavior as unbalanced and dysfunctional, he doubles down and decides further restrictions are necessary.

But what about Carl’s wife? His attempt to control the situation by trying to control her will cause a revolt. If he refuses to see sense on how he’s trying to make decisions for her that he has no right to make, their marriage could break down completely. The same type of escalated fallout can happen to your characters, so if someone in your story is likely to over-personalize an event to fit their own skewed rationale, think about the repercussions of misconnecting the dots, both for them and others.

Fear Steals Contentment and Positivity

Being ruled by fear changes a person. When life is unfair, enemies abound, and those past hurts are just waiting for their chance to strike again; the filter through which a character sees the world darkens. Anxiety and fear lead to a downward spiral of pessimism, close-mindedness, and the expectation of negative consequences. Over time this can affect the character’s health, lead to destructive coping mechanisms, and, unfortunately, set them up for future failure.

Opportunities come and pass by the character because each one becomes about the risk, not the reward. As mentioned earlier, the chance to gain fulfillment usually ends up in the rearview mirror, and after too many times, the character starts to recognize it. This can lead to an emotion that in many ways trumps all others: regret.

Regret: The Catalyst for Change or Harbinger of Lifelong Pain

Regret is the emotion a character feels after a negative experience like an emotional wound. They regret what they did and what they didn’t do, because hindsight is always 20/20. More than anything they wish for a time machine to take them back so they can make a different choice, the one they believe they should have made now that they have the benefit of knowing the outcome.

There’s really nothing worse than feeling you didn’t measure up in the moment. It’s common to wallow in that space of regret for a bit, dragging the mind over what could have been. But eventually (hopefully), this leads to another emotion: determination. The determination to not let this happen again. To learn from it. To try and do better next time. It is this emotion, coupled with the courage to follow through and be willing to face whatever happens, good or bad, that becomes the turning point for growth in character arc. Learning from the past, forgiving oneself for not seeing the danger, and committing to doing something different in the future can be the character’s first steps toward evolving into someone more self-aware and capable of dealing with life’s challenges.

But regret can eat a person alive, too. It can snare them and steal their hope. If the character is unable to imagine a reality for themself where things can be different and see that each day is a new chance to let go and move forward, they will remain chained to their fear.

Final Thoughts on Fear and Character Arc

When you’re showing your character’s relationship with fear, if you want them to ultimately grow during the journey and achieve the story goal, show the little ways they hold on to hope. Even when things grow darkest, it can always light the way out. If instead you want to show how your character is unable to let fear go, show its insidious nature and how your character’s dysfunctional coping strategies are the frayed lifeline they cling to, even when there’s a lifeboat sitting a few yards away. There’s nothing they fear more than the open water of the unknown.

Portrait of middle-aged woman with short brown hair and glassesAngela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of six bestselling resources including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. A proud indie author, her books are available in six languages, are sourced by universities, and used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world.

Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers® as well as One Stop For Writers®, an innovative online library filled with unique tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

Read more about ,

 

Comments

  1. The Rambo

    This was really great! Incredibly helpful.

    • angelaackerman1

      Thanks Rambo! Very glad this was helpful. Sorry for the late response–it was a holiday weekend here in Canada.

  2. KJ

    This is an excellent resource. Thank you for sharing. Very insightful!

    • angelaackerman1

      Thanks KJ. I hope you can use this information in your novels

  3. Anne-Marie Lacy

    This post has shown me what I need to make my character more sympathetic. It was there all along, and I couldn’t see it. Thank you so much. You’ve changed my entire MS for the better!

    • Angela Ackerman

      That’s terrific! I am so glad this article came along when it did. Good luck with your story, Anne-Marie!

  4. Sylvie

    Even though I’m a screenwriter, I frequently tap into your great insight and tools. Thank you for sharing Angela!

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.