The idea for today’s Twin Thursday post actually came from my real outside-of-writing life. Be sure to follow the link at the top right to Chicken-Scratch Plot for Rachel’s take!

Confession time: I’m thirty years old and I’ve never had a driver’s license. I was fifteen, about to turn sixteen, and my mother signed me up for driver’s ed. Because of course. What budding teenager doesn’t want her own car? Apparently… this one. And I’m, hopefully, going to take this and roll it into a way to work fears and phobias into your protagonist.

  1. Where did the fear come from? While in real life, there may or may not be a reason you’ve always been afraid of geese, there should be a precipitating incident in your fiction. It doesn’t have to be a deep and paralyzing trauma, just so long as there is a reason that makes sense within your character’s psyche.
    In my case, my driving instructor was a nightmare. He screamed at me constantly, nitpicked my every move. My mom was worse, always tense when I was behind the wheel, which made me panic.
    This is a pretty extreme example, obviously. For your character, it could be something as minor as they grew up in the country, so the closeness and bustle of the big city makes them panic.
  2. How will the fear affect the story? It doesn’t do much good to give your protagonist a fear of heights if they never encounter it in the course of the narrative. They must, at some point, have to square with their fear. Either the fear itself or the avoidance of it should be a source of conflict for your main character.
    You can probably see where not having a car has been detrimental to my adult life. Begging rides to work, dealing with the bus line. But the alternative is getting behind the wheel and dealing with the panic that accompanies it.
    Find ways to force your characters to face their fears or slink away. It makes the fear believable and relatable.
  3. How does your character experience this particular phobia? I mean that physically as well as psychologically. The more visceral details you can put in (without crowding the narrative) the better.
    For the longest time, getting behind the wheel was accompanied by mild panic attacks. I would get short of breath. My vision would narrow, my heart speed up. The more tense the person in the passenger seat became and the more corrections they offered, the worse I would get. Before long, I would be speeding or cutting turns too short just to get it over with quicker. Again, your character’s reaction doesn’t have to be quite so extreme. But it should be an actual impediment to their moving forward.
  4. The try/fail cycle. Your character should actually struggle with defeating their fear while making progress. If it’s just as easy as walking up to the first big dog they see and petting it and then they’re cured, that’s not terribly satisfying for the reader.
    I’ve had driving permits before. I think I’ve been issued four or five of them over the last fifteen years, with varying degrees of success when it came to actually making myself drive. I–just today–took my very first ever road test. No, I didn’t pass. But I got closer than I ever have before, and I’ll get even closer the next time I do.
    There’s no hard and fast rule to how many times a character should attempt and fall short of besting their fear, but three seems to be a sound poetic number. It gives you a sense of progress without feeling repetitive.
  5. It never goes away. Even after your character has “beaten” their fear, it should still on occasion rear its ugly head. Phobias are phobias for a reason; they come back even when there’s no logical reason for it.
    In my case, even though I’m now comfortable behind the wheel, I still have to talk myself through new maneuvers. I pulled around a restaurant’s drive through for the first time today and had to convince myself it was no big deal.
    Part of this is for character continuity. It makes your protagonist’s successes believable. The other part is that it shows growth. Both contribute a feeling of forward motion and make your story feel more dynamic.
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2 thoughts on “Five Things: Character Fears and Phobias

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