Writing What You’re Afraid Of

ID-100128350 grim reaperAll writers are afraid of something. Why wouldn’t we be? We’re afraid of a tonne of different things — ghosts, the Big Bad Wolf, emotional rejection, being alone, Pennywise the Clown, spiders, commitment, losing someone.

Many of those fears are easily overcome, but others will be with us til the day we kick the bucket.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. As humans, we are always living with fear. We’re always running from this, avoiding that, shuddering at the thought of X or being terrified of Y.

But what if fear could become writing?

As writers, the silver lining on the cloud is that our fears are transferrable. Fears can jump from us, onto our pages – and into our characters.

A lot of the time, this happens whether we like it or not. Suddenly, some character we’ve created or some situation we’ve described ends up being a reflection of some real fear, deep inside us. It might be masked and no reader might ever pick it, but we know it’s there.

Is fear too real for us writers?

This, I believe, also gives rise for many writers (myself included) to a fear of writing in itself.

We’re constantly afraid of the blank page, of what will come out and whether it will work on the page. Even though most of us conquer it and put something down, the fear is still there. It rarely goes away.

All of this tells us that what we’re suffering from issoul bearing fearIt’s the confronting, overwhelming notion that some part of ourselves, some deep, dark, hidden secret will end up – splat! – on the page for others to read.

In everything we write, something about ourselves is always revealed, whether we want it to be or not.

Can fear become character?

Yes! In this way, fear can become empowering, rather than limiting. It can bring characters to life and give them dimension and weakness, and make them more human.

Ask yourself: What is your darkest fear? What are you most afraid of in life? 

This doesn’t mean that if you’re terrified of spiders, your character should be scared of spiders too.

But it’s these other fears, the ones only we know about, that can be useful when it comes to creating and deepening character. In the children’s novel I am writing, my main character is afraid that he’ll never really have a place in the world. Which is something I was once afraid of, too.

  • Does your character share any of your own fears?
  • You might be in control of your fears, but what if your character isn’t?
  • How does your character react to this fear? In the same way you would or differently?
  • How do fears give rise to your character’s goals and narratives? What is he/she running away from?

All of this is essentially prompting us to assess the fear that lies at the heart of our story. It’s what drives character and creates the journey.

In, the Wizard of Oz, for example, Dorothy is afraid that she’ll never get home and yet is desperately trying to do so.

In the Harry Potter novels, Harry’s greatest fear (in my opinion) is losing someone he loves to evil yet again, prompting him to come up against Voldemort.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Marlowe is perhaps afraid that the seedy world in which he lives, works and breathes will rub off on his moral character.

And in Use of Weapons (an awesome novel by Iain M. Banks), the main character is terrified that (*spoiler*) he’ll never be forgiven for the horrible things he’s done. Which drives his redemptive narrative.

Fear – and the triumph over it (or not) – lies at the heart of every story, every character, every writer. The trick is not to avoid or ignore your fears, but to use them in everything you write.


(Image courtesy of bandrat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net) 


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