Developing Your Characters: Part 2 – The Fear

As I mentioned last month, developing fictional characters can stray into great detail. Writing pages of likes, dislikes, hobbies, and backstory can be helpful, but it can also swamp you with information that doesn’t really have a place in the story, and still leaving you wondering about how to distinctly portray the character in question.

There are three main questions, powerful, yet short, which an author should answer for each of their characters. The first question is, what does your character want? What does he desire more than anything? What will he give anything for and what is he striving for? Coupled with this question (if the character is a major one) is what does he really need, and is it what he wants?

Today, we’ll move to the second major question which can be asked of all characters:

What does your character fear?

Except in rare cases, your character is bound to fear something. If he doesn’t fear anything, then you can probably glean quite a bit of information about him by figuring out why they don’t fear anything. But generally your character will have some fears.

There are two type of fear. The first one is situational fear. As your character is hiding in a dark closet or running from wolves or in the middle of battle, his or her fear is natural. And, while some characters will be afraid to different degrees, in different situations, and of different things, if they aren’t afraid sometimes then they’re probably not human.

You can learn a lot from situational fear, but other kind of fear, the fears you want to find for this question, are the ‘great fears’ of a character’s life. Unlike ‘what does your character want’ the question about ‘what a character fears’ may have more than one answer and will likely have several layers of answers. A man may fear breaking under torture, but he fears for the safety of his family even more, while the topmost rung consists of his fear of failing his nation or his God.

Still, there will probably be one culminating fear, coupled with several others, which may or may not be related, but which also shape the character. These fears will tell you quite a bit about your character: what or who he cares for most and where his deepest loyalties lie. It also gives you another weapon to torment your poor character with, by making them choose between two fears or prodding them to see what will make them face their fear, if anything will force them to allow the fear to come to pass, or what they will give to keep a fear from coming true.

So, discover what your character wants, what he fears, and be on the watch next month for the last main question to ask of your characters.


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  1. Yesssssss. This one is fun, precious. *evil chuckle* I have way more fun with this than is probably good for my sanity.
    At least, what little I have left…. 😉

    Great article. Nice and concise, but pithy.

  2. Pingback: Developing Your Characters: Part 3 – The Dependence | Writing in the Light

  3. This is very interesting. I love it. Unlike the first part, I never directly thought about this question. It makes complete sense though because usually want they really want will relate to what they fear. The MC in my 2nd book wants to protect the girl he is falling in love with and his fear is that she will be harmed by her current abusive boyfriend so they go hand in hand.
    I personally feel that sometimes writing out character sheets is helpful for me in the long run. The more I write, whether or not a single word is read by other people, the more I personally get to know my character. And sometimes, when you write out seemingly insignificant information on a character sheet, it can seep into your WIP and create a more authentic character with different quirks, likes, dislikes. But also, while writing sometimes those little quirks, likes, dislikes will develop organically over time throughout multiple drafts of the WIP. So ‘shrugs’ characterization can grow in different ways.

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