by Chad Morris
Heights, spiders, snakes, public speaking, Lady Gaga in a meat dress . . . we’re all afraid of something.
When I was four or five, I remember being terrified that someone would sneak into my house at night and kill me while I was sleeping. So, I used my little five-year-old brain to outsmart them. I would lay down as flat as I could in my bed and draped the bedspread across my neck in a perfect line. Then I’d try to sleep very still. That way, if a murderer came into my room, he’d look down at me and think “Oh, that kid’s head has already been chopped off. I can leave him alone.”
I know. The logic is flawless.
Though our fears may make no sense at all to someone else, or even to ourselves, they are very real to us. Using fear in your writing can bring tension and relevance.
I’m not talking about horror. I’ve never been a horror fan. (For example, I’ve never seen "The Ring," and I really have no desire to.) I recommend using fear as part of your story, not the goal of your story. The fear I think is best used is one of two types.
The first type is a specific fear for a specific character. This can give a character a nice weakness. Indiana Jones had his snakes. The main guy in "Davince Code" (no I didn't want to look up his name) had his claustrophobia (only in the movie, but frankly, I thought it was a nice touch). This gives you some play. They can run from it, face it, find a clever way around it. Though readers may not be able to relate to whatever particular fear a character has, if done right, they can empathize with being afraid of something.
This can also be very fun in a side character. My favorite example: Aunt Josephine in Series of Unfortunate Events.
"Come away from the fridge. If it falls it'll crush you flat."
"I could never, ever sell this house. I'm terrified of realtors."
More common is playing with general fears most of us have. Though it may not be a phobia, to a certain degree, we all fear failure, being alone, and facing a horde of rogue ninjas in the night. Sorry about the last one, but you get the idea. A teenage girl may fear that she isn’t beautiful enough. A teenage boy my fear that people will think he has fears. They are stereotypes for a reason. If they are approached in a fresh way they completely work.
I have a 15-year-old neighbor who loves to read. I ask him for recommendations, and his favorite series is starts with The Last Apprentice. I’ve read the first three, and though they are darker than what I usually read, I really quite like them. Tom Ward has to learn to face what is terrifying (bogarts, witches, demons . . etc) and not let the fear control him. It propels the story forward rather nicely. However, Tom also deals with fears we all can understand, leaving his family, his father dying, losing a friend. And those are even more poignant at times. Of course combining them makes for some pretty good tension.
Just another great tool. Don’t be afraid to use some fear.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.