Drive Your Story With Fear


What does your character fear?

We all know that when moving our stories forward we’re supposed to make things worse for the protagonist.  Is he lost?  Let the sun set, let the rain come. Is he alone?  Find someone to stalk him.  Is she being hunted?  Take away her defenses. Does she need to find a cure? Have it fall into the hands of the antagonist.  This is all something fundamental, though many of us forget about it or fail to take it far enough. You know those books where the hero is having enough trouble as it is, and the next obstacle in his path makes us cringe?  Then ten pages later it gets even worse? Sometimes we forget that things can always get worse.

So let’s try again.  Is he lost?  Let the sun set, make it a moonless night.  Then let us know that as a child he was locked in a closet and darkness became his biggest fear (or set this up earlier in the story).  Is he alone?  Find someone to stalk him.  Then twist his ankle. Make the stalker someone he knows, and let him drop his guard. These twists aren’t terribly exciting – they’re overdone at best – but you get the picture.  Making things worse for your character increases tension, and playing on your character’s fear to do so is a great technique.

But fear is more than just a driving force in the main plot.  Fear is a part of character – my character, your character, the hero’s character, your mom’s character, your really attractive 6th grade teacher’s character.  It factors in to a lot of our decisions, even the everyday ones.  So knowing your character’s fears is important.

Fear can be a main part of your plot or it can be part of a side-plot.  It can be a theme that carries through your book, it can change a decision during a defining moment, it can even be something you keep to yourself in order to know your characters a little better, make them a little more real, help you understand them so you can explore other parts of who they are.

Remember that everyone is afraid of something.  I can stand a thousand feet in the air and look over the edge without blinking, I stare out of the window of an airplane like an eight-year-old during takeoff and landing because I think it’s cool, but show me a spider and I’m out of the house and down the street ten seconds later.  These things are a part of human existence, so putting them into your book, whether the reader is afraid of them or not, can make it a little more real.

When making character sheets we focus on physical appearance, tags, traits, what they want, what they need, habits.  But we shouldn’t forget fear.

So I’ll ask you again.  What do your characters fear?  What keeps them up at night? What do they think about when all the lights go out?  Figure it out.  Write it down.  Use it, or don’t.  Either way your characters will be a little better for it.  And who knows? Maybe it’ll become an important part of your story.

Do you use fear as a driving force in your writing?  What do you think about knowing what your character is afraid of?  How do you use it?  How do you think you can use it in your future writing?


The above photo is from a great post about how to find and use your character’s fear. Here’s the link –

20 comments on “Drive Your Story With Fear”

  1. This is a great advice! Thank you once again. One thing I’ll definitely keep in mind for future stories of mine, you are really talented with this, if I may say that. And would it be cheeky if I’d ask you to give one of my stories on here a read and tell me what I should do better about it, where I can actually make my stories more tense and exciting? If you do decide to give it a read, that it’s not too much to ask for your help, then thank you in advance. Massively.

    1. Thanks for the kind response! I absolutely wouldn’t mind reading your story. I’ve put it in a separate window and when I have some time later I’ll make a comment on the page to let you know what I think.

  2. First…just want to put this out there: the fact that you are not only funny but also make a lot of great points in your posts makes me really glad I follow you.

    Now – commenting on the actual stuff here. While I agree that fear drives the plot and builds a believable character, I think at some point the whole “what else can go wrong” can also be TOO much. I used to watch Stargate sg-1 a lot when I was younger and something my mother HATED with the show was how they had their main problem…and they’d solve it only for that solution to either set off another problem or for something else to go wrong. This was guaranteed to happen at least 3 times per show and it drove her mad. The same thing can happen to a reader so I caution, keep the fear but don’t pile it on too much that the reader feels..trapped or aggravated.

    Secondly (technically thirdly) all of my characters have a fear or something that makes that pause, because I want them to be relate-able, but I am not sure if I use the fear well enough to drive the plot. Sometimes I think I get too caught up in the fear that i and my character get frozen by it.

    1. Yes! You’re so right (I should have put in a little disclaimer there). Haha sometimes all of the complications in a problem are so ridiculous I make myself take a step back from caring and just watch it and laugh. That’s for TV or movies. If it’s a book I might just put it down. There’s definitely a balance between making it too easy or simple and going so far that people start yelling at the pages or screen because it’s frustrating or unbelievable. Also I’m glad you think I’m funny – my mom tells me I am but she also laughs at knock knock jokes and 10 year old youtube videos. So thanks.

  3. I think the writer has more fears than the characters “I cant say that”, “I cant go there”, “I dont want people to think bad of me”.

  4. Thanks for the post. You point out a lot of good stuff to keep in mind when building characters. I think something I’ve also noticed about fear is that in a way it can be a character’s motivation. it can explain why they are the way they are or be their driving force behind and action. I think you may have already touched on this, but it just goes to show how mutli-faceted fear can be when it comes to characterization and life.

  5. I read this and it got me thinking. I am writing a short story and it’s a series of snippets about a man committing suicide and his reason for doing so. It also includes his random thoughts as he’s dying. There is a section where he perceives that he is going to hell, and I thought about what you said. What does this character fear the most, and it’s being alone. So his perceived hell is a void of darkness. I think it fits his character much better than the stereotypical presentation of hell, which is fire and brimstone. So thank you for this. That helped me quite a bit 🙂

  6. What an interesting angle to approach your characters from… I’m thinking about it and I guess Portia (my protagonist) is scared of not fulfilling the legacy of Baker Street that she has inherited from her grandparents. I think she is also deep-down scared of being truly alone despite the fact that she is an introvert.

  7. David, this is some really sound advice. In my own writing, most of my work deals with grotesquely imperfect people that keep making horrible decisions in life. The negative actions they take are largely a result of their fears. I always keep fear in the forefront when I’m working on my fiction.

  8. Good advice! I never thought of it that way, but every challenge a character faces should have some element of fear, even if it’s just the fear of uncertainty.

  9. Great column – I had a friend tell me a few years ago that one of the keys to good fiction was vulnerabilty; not sure that’s quite the same as fear but all the ideas you’ve talked about feed into that so well. I have a character who can climb massive trees without ropes but fears how he couldn’t handle himself in a street fight with some of the people who don’t like him. This column resonates with the way I write so well.

  10. I love creating problems for my characters…not too outlandish, but every day kind of inconveniences that everyone of us have in our lives. Fear is also an underlying theme, from out and out phobias, to the inner fear of loss and of being alone. I read somewhere (can’t remember who said it) that when things are going too smooth, send in some flying monkeys to mess things up for the characters! Thanks for this post! 🙂

  11. I love the idea of not just focusing on a character’s strengths but their weaknesses also! Even so, fears are innately engrained in us as humans – I think it would be fun to play with a character’s fears, exploring the idea that fears are not always a setback and could potentially be one’s greatest asset.

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