What a character fears most

I was looking at some stuff on plotting and thinking about what I know about characters. One of the things that you can do to sort out a character and story is to think about what that character fears the most and then make that happen. So for instance, personally my greatest fear is that something will happen to my kids or my husband. But I got to thinking about that fear. The truth is that while that is the biggest fear I know about, it probably isn’t my biggest fear. Or rather, it is, but fear is situational and relative.

So let’s take this away from me. Let’s create a character. She’s a woman with a child. No husband. She’s about thirty. The child is about six. Amy, our character, has a job at a local bakery. She’s a baker. She hasn’t got any other family. Her greatest fear is that something should happen to her child. A kidnapper, an accident, a pedophile . . . You can imagine the possibilities.  So she is watchful and careful. But she hasn’t imagined the other possibilities. Because her greatest fears are limited to her imagination, and while she surely can imagine a lot of bad things, she doesn’t imagine everything. So here are some more worst fears come to life.

She gets in an accident and her child is left alone and helpless with no one to take care of her. Amy is kidnapped and forced to carry a bomb into federal building or her daughter will be maimed. She’s never thought about murdering someone or causing hundreds of people to die. Is that worse than killing or maiming her own child? Well, it depends on her morals and values and how horrified by killing she’d be and maybe if she’s seen what happened on 9/11. Or what if she’s asked to kill her best friend. Or blow up a school of children. You see, the worst fear can be something unimagined by the character. And there are a lot of options for that. What if she’s tortured? And everybody tends to break under torture eventually, so what if that’s her worst fear? That she breaks and causes her daughter’s harm? Or something else?

When thinking about a character’s worst fear and making that happen,  think not just about what she thinks is her worst fear, but what might be one of the worst things that can happen. Or variety of things. And then chase them out, along with her reactions–emotional and physical–and her consequent actions to fix the situation or manage it, or what must happen. This not only generates character and conflict, but plot. Think about who is doing this to her and what she’s up against.


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