Talking about scary stuff, because it’s the season. Not in the way we usually do, though...
H.P. Lovecraft once said “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” Stephen King said terror is the finest emotion. And Terror, Inc. once said “My name is my business, and business is good.”
Okay, that last one’s a bit obscure.
I’ll go one step further with this and say that fear is one of the most common emotions. Most of us live in a state of fear. I don’t mean that in some socio-political way. On a regular day, most of us experience fear on some level or another. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of injury. Fear of humiliation. Maybe even the big ones like fear of helplessness or fear of death.
In most stories my characters are going to begin things in a state of fear. Again, maybe not a crippling, hiding-in-the-corner level of fear, but that fear is going to be there. There’s going to be something they don’t want to happen—or something they want to happen—but fear of some kind is going to keep them from it. Maybe Yakko wants to ask Phoebe out but is scared she and her friends will laugh at him. Maybe Dot really wants to make detective, but doesn’t want to risk failing the test for a third time. Or maybe Wakko just doesn’t want to be torn apart and eaten by a zombie horde.
Hey, it’s a valid worry.
Now, I know a lot of people pitch stuff about “strong characters,” and it’s not uncommon for people to misread this to mean characters that are powerful, smart, capable, and confident. Being afraid of things doesn’t fit into that idea, does it?
“Strong characters” isn’t supposed to refer to physical/ mental abilities—it’s about how well they hold up to examination. Are they believable? Relatable? Fleshed out? A strong character can still be nervous about asking Phoebe out in front of her friends. They can be worried about failure to a point of near-paralysis. He or she can even be a snivelling coward... as long as they aren’t a shallow, stereotypical snivelling coward.
By having my characters begin in a state of fear, I’ve just made them very relatable. Even better, I’ve automatically set up a challenge for them to overcome. I’m forcing them to become active and do something. Better still, my characters have to change internally to overcome fear. Conquering fear isn’t an exterior challenge (although there can be plenty of those, too).
Y’see, Timmy, when people are done being scared, they have to be brave. And that’s when they shine. Because now that I’ve forced them to grow and change, they have an arc. They’ve become better people right in front of us.
Those characters who aren’t scared? Well, a few times I’ve mentioned the problem with uber-powerful characters who can deal with anything or who are utterly prepared for everything. That also ties into this idea of beginning in a state of fear. It can be summed up best with a joke I heard once...
A police officer pulls over an elderly lady for a busted tail light. He’s stunned to see a pair of shotguns and an assault rifle in the back seat, and a pistol strapped to the old woman’s thigh. She also admits to a pistol in her purse and another one in the glove compartment, as well as a few more rifles and extra ammo in the trunk. But she has all her permits and everything’s in order.
As they’re finishing up, the police officer says, “Ma’am, I have to ask... What are you so afraid of?”
And the old woman smiles sweetly and says, “I’m not afraid of anything.”
If my characters don’t have anything to fear, they don’t have anywhere to go from there. They don’t need to grow and change. They don’t need an arc. I’ve begun my characters where basic storytelling says they should end.
So, be afraid. Be very afraid. Let your characters be afraid, too. They should be scared of pain and rejection and failure. And perhaps also of zombies and werewolves and little alien worms that wiggle into their ears and burrow into their brains.
Next time... well, I won’t be posting on Halloween for religious reasons, so next time will be in November. And considering what comes out in theaters around then, I might let somebody else talk about writing movies for Marvel.
Until then, go write.