"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." -Franklin D. Roosevelt
At some point in life, every human feels fear.
At some point in life, every human feels fear.
As toddlers, our gift of imagination and make-believe creates characters all around that we must fear - monsters, the dark, being chased, losing our parents. During adolescence while we fight to find the balance between independence from our parents and acceptance from our friends, we fear inadequacy, loneliness. As adults, we fret over whether we are making the best career decisions for ourselves and our families and fear the mistakes we make will never be forgiven. As the years slip away, we may fear death, or in the face of death, we may fear that our legacy will not survive the generations and we will be forgotten.
One common thread of these fears is that they exist in our mind. A toddler does not fear monsters after falling victim to an Elmo-led hi-jacking; we can not know that whatever may or may not exist after death is frightening. This type of fear preys on the unknown with our vivid imaginations and has the power to stifle decisions.
As humans seeking to function in regular society, it is important that we face these fears and quiet them as best we can. However, as writers, it is equally important that we face these fears and feel them with every molecule of our being, for it is precisely these fears that will allow us to create a character who is worth getting to know.
I admittedly seek a certain level of stability in my friends; I like a little crazy and value vulnerability, but constant self-criticism and I may run for the hills. However, if I'm reading a novel, I want nothing more than to peel back the layers and feel what frightens the man or woman I'm on the fast-track to understanding; I want to know the struggle and craziness and conflict and all that juicy stuff.
Give your character the gift of fear, and you give them the gift of humanity.
writing exercise: Think back to a personal fear, not fed by any specific (frightening) external event. Write an account about yourself in that situation - what was going through your mind? How did the world appear to you at that time? Walk yourself through the fear.
(Click "read more" to see the writercizer sample response.)
writercizer response: (from a preschool-age memory of a visit to a haunted house at Enchanted Forest - the witch towards the end may well be left-over figments of my imagination - to this day I can't say with certainty whether she was a machine or an actress)
We file into the dark house, one at a time. There is no light. There is no sound. I begin to doubt which way is up and which way is down. I know that my feet generally signify ground and down, but who knows if the world's compass has flipped in this darkness? Right could now be left, up could now be down, and I wouldn't know because I can't see any proof. Maybe the other kids are upside down with me. Maybe I'm alone - I can hardly hear any of them; I think we're all holding our breath but maybe when I walked through the door into the pitch-black, no one else followed.
I can't be alone. I followed my Momma in; I can't see her now but I know she has to be here. My Momma wouldn't just disappear. Nothing bad could happen when my Momma is around because she's a good person. Bad things can't happen to good people. I'm okay. I just have to keep walking so I can stay close to her.
I shuffle my feet and turn a corner. I don't like the dark and the quiet, but at least I know I'm safe. This is kind of like that time in Sunday school that we had to cover our eyes with a bandanna to know what it felt like to be blind. It was different, but it wasn't so scary once I got used to it. I'll just pretend I have a bandanna over my eyes, or my eyes are closed. I'll pretend it's really light in this room; I just don't see it because I'm closing my eyes. That's not so bad. Keep walking and I'll be back out in the forest before I know it, back where it's light and I can jump back on the potato-sack slide. That's the best part of the day.
I shuffle a few more steps. Some of the kids are getting a little antsy; they're making scary sounds. Some of them are crying from the dark. I'm pretty much the youngest; they're all in kindergarten or first-grade so they're big kids. I'm in preschool but my Momma teaches them so I got to come on the field trip today. I have to be big and show that I'm old enough to be here with them. I can't be scared.
I shuffle around the second corner. A sudden flash of light emerges from the corner. There is a woman there! She has a big pot and she's stirring it. She's cackling now, chanting spells, blinking. Her skin is wrinkled and gray and sagging. She keeps laughing and the light is flashing on and off. Cackle, cackle, cackle, light, dark, screaming. Now I can see that for sure my Momma is there too. Nothing bad can happen to my Momma. I'm really scared, but my Momma looks brave.
I watch the witch stir her pot, stir, stir, stir, but then she stops. She looks directly at my Momma holding my baby sister and reaches out to throw my sister in the pot!!! I jump to save my sister, I am running but I'm not moving. I'm screaming but it's not helping! I'm shaking and screaming and running and not getting anywhere and not making a sound. I really need to pee. I really need to save my family. The witch's finger is inches from my baby sister. She wants to make her into witch stew!
Finally my scream comes out and my legs start to work. I grab my Momma, still holding my baby sister, turn around and run as fast as I can away from the darkness and that baby-stealing-eating witch back out the front door into the safety of the woods and the potato sack races. I don't know if that witch was real. Everyone told me that haunted houses were only pretend scary because everything inside was a fake machine, but I don't think I believe them. I don't think machine witches stop to steal babies. I think that she is real, but she's so bad that she's stuck in that haunted house forever and ever. She can't get out of the house to where the good people are. So long, witch. I'll warn the other babies at the park to stay in the light and not become your baby stew.