Fear is a Writer’s Best Friend

No Peeking

That’s right. That’s what I said. If we’re writers, fear is our best friend. Now I’m not talking  about all those personal fears we might have: fear of failure, fear of success, fear that no one will like what we write. No, those fears must be pushed to the side and we must carry on in spite of them, but whether we write books or screenplays, we must have fear to make each story work.

Every character must have a fatal flaw or something they are afraid of that must be overcome to complete their character arc. One solid rule in every story is that the character must change by the end of the story, and if the character is perfect, there is no room for change and nothing to challenge the character so he/she can prove what they are made of. Without a challenge, or conflict, there is no tension, and no story, or at least not a very good one.

Of course, there are always external challenges to be overcome, but there must also be an inner challenge, through which the character changes. Often the external challenge is the vehicle that brings about the inner challenge. If the character has a fear of heights, they might have to cross a log across a deep chasm to save a small child from a serial killer. Saving the child is the external challenge, but it requires the character to face her biggest fear in order to complete the task, and once the character faces her fear, she will forever be transformed. Thus, both the story arc and her personal character arc are completed.

Sometimes, it isn’t the external challenge of the story arc itself, but a lesson that is learned along the way that brings about the change in the character. In my western novel, Delilah, my protagonist has had experiences which make her feel that she has let down those whom she loves, making her afraid of getting too close to others. Her quest for revenge against the men who raped her and left her for dead, abducting her young ward leads her into Leadville, where she meets some very colorful characters, who teach her how to love again. In this case, the external challenge of revenge does nothing to help her overcome her fear of forming attachments, but those she meets along the way do.

One of my screenwriting professors had a nifty way of showing how the internal challenge and the external challenge and the character’s fear or flaw are always related. Before we could begin to write our screenplay, he would have us make a character triangle, where we noted three things. The first was the character’s want, which is usual an external thing that the character strives for throughout the story. Next, he’d have us note what the fear or flaw to be overcome is, and as I said, every character must have at least one. Last, he would have us note what it is that the character really needs, and this is usually an internal change or lesson the character needs to learn. Although the character may get what she thinks she wants, like Delilah, who thinks she wants revenge, achieving what she needs is what causes the internal change within and she must face her fear to do that.

So, go on. Get busy writing. What are you afraid of?

One Comment on “Fear is a Writer’s Best Friend”

  1. […] were reflections of my own writing experience. These included: Why Writing is a Labor of Love; Fear is a Writer’s Best Friend; I’ve Come A Long Way, Baby; Writing the Way That Works For You; Creating Story Equals […]


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