Fear and Character

I was reading Syd Field’s Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey through Four Decades of Modern Film in the bathtub, accompanied by a cold mug of tea and an even colder but faster-to-disappear cherry milkshake, when I came across something and knew I couldn’t stay in the tub any longer.

He’s talking to Robert Towne about Chinatown:

…I asked him how he went about creating his characters, especially how he’d conceived Jake Gittes, the Jack Nicholson character.  He replied that first he asks himself, What is this character afraid of?  In other words, what is his or her deepest fear?  Gittes, a private detective specializing in “discreet investigation,” has a certain reputation to uphold, so he does everything to make a good impression.  He dresses immaculately, has his shoes shined every day and his own code of thics.  Gittes’s greatest fear is not being taken seriously.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of character goals being the same thing as character motivation.  What does the character want?  I don’t care.  What is their inner journey?  It always sounds trite when you say it out loud.  But when I size people up in person, my friends, strangers on the street, things like that–I think about how they see themselves, and what they’re afraid of.

Yes, I’m sorry.  I look at people like I’m a writer.  I do.  I judge people all the time.  I especially like judging strangers, because it means I can make up stories about them without a significant amount of guilt, but I do that for people I know, too.  A crazy flaw that gets called “talent.”

Here is something you’re afraid of.  I’m watching for it…there it is.

And there is the way you see yourself; I can tell because the same story keeps coming up, the same facts, anecdotes, favorite songs, books, movies, attitudes…yep.  If you’ve mentioned something to me three times, I mentally file it in the “how X thinks of themselves” file.  Consciously.

What you’re afraid of is usually at odds with the way you see yourself.  If it’s not, it’s because you’re depressed, usually; a certain amount of depression brings a horrible clarity, although too much does tend to blind you as much as not enough.

–Anyway, so now I’m thinking of some of the books I have sketched out for future projects.  I’m just rambling and brainstorming here; neither one of these is the epic fantasy I’m worldbuilding for.

The Earl is afraid of dying because his despicable, middle-class cousin will take over the estate if he doesn’t produce an heir: the protections of the upper class will also damn it.  His immortal soul is worth less than the idea that his desperate gamble might save a dying society for just a little bit longer.   While she is afraid of crossing the line between propriety and ruin, seeing herself as a young woman–not one of those pesky independent types–who has an innocent habit of reading lurid novels.  She thinks willing to sell her virginity to a dead man, hold an affair with his blessing, and live a lie in order to produce his heir, in accordance with her parents’ wishes–to do her duty–but she can’t; she’s too afraid of losing her chance for love, even though all decency and duty stands in her way.  Both of them, damned if they do, damned if they don’t, trapped by a false self-perception and fear.  That one’s a Regency, of course, with a plot ripped out of the Romantic novels of an earlier generation, i.e., Frankenstein.

Hm, the fantasy one.  She sees herself as soiled, evil, ruined–all because she’s infected with a curse, blood magic that destroyed France a century ago, inherited from her mother, who went mad and murdered with her knitting needles, and had to be struck down in the middle of a killing spree.  She fears that the curse will drag her down into her mother’s madness.  And so she lives recklessly, sleeping with a married man, stealing antiquities, dressing as a man in 19th-century French Algieria.  Playing with fire, almost hoping that she’ll be locked up or killed before she can do serious damage.  He’s a magician believes in tradition over all, even the idea that his branch of magic is an “evil” one, against the will of God.  He holds himself still, restrained, silent, dignified–fearing that his every true thought and feeling is heresy, even when they are good.  Allah punishes him for his pride in his skill, binding him to a demon who can’t shut up–can’t stop from saying all the things that he will not–or cannot.  He fears to be known, to be judged as nothing, before the will of God.  Heh.  They fight crime!


The Wound at the Heart of Serious Literature


New cover: Exotics Book 1: The Floating Menagerie.


  1. Years ago a friend challenged me to think about what one of my characters really wanted. I was shocked to realize this was completely at odds with what the character – and I!!! – *thought* she wanted.

    Often our conscious mind will work against the subconscious, because what we truly desire is too scary, too hard, too unknown. I now intentionally look for this type of thing in my characters, and it makes them richer and deeper.

    And now both my conscious and subconscious want a cherry milkshake. 🙂

    • De

      Yes! That’s another way to look at it. I love that contrast, but for me–being a horror reader, maybe?–when I have a good character, I’ve dug down enough to know what makes them whimper in fear, and all the defenses they put into place then reveal themselves. “I am afraid of being who I am,” or “I am afraid of what I want” seem to be common themes with me, when things are working.

  2. I work with character goals all of the time, but never thought to work with character fears. This could be really fun!

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