Last Thursday I attended a 3-hour writing workshop on characterization. David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, led it, and if his book is even half as good as his presentation, it’s well worth reading. David reinforced many of the things I have learned from other writing teachers, but he also gave me some new directions to explore. Such as fear.
David insists that a huge part of writing complex characters is getting to know yourself. He spoke about many facets of the self that are important to examine, but I think the one that intrigued me the most as a writer was fear. And a recent book club discussion of Divergent got me wondering: What would be in my fear landscape? Besides spiders. Lots of spiders.
Well, creepy-crawlies in general. Though it seems to have to do with how many legs a creature has. Anything with more than four legs just creeps me the hell out. And I hate sticky, suctiony things, so you can guess how I feel about octopuses. ::shudder:: My other big fear is of heights. I’m the only person I know of who has been reduced to tears by balcony seating. I also fear left-hand turns, suffocation, public speaking, and getting stuck while trying to get into or out of a dress. Which makes for one bizarre fear landscape. (I’ll let you picture it yourself. It’s too scary for me.)
As I was trying to think of my moments of greatest fear, though, it occurred to me that there are many times when I really should have been much more scared than I was. I have walked alone through central London in the middle of the night. During a war, no less. I probably should have been scared out of my wits. But would I have actually been in more danger if I had been in fear of everybody I encountered? Or was I just being incredibly stupid and naïve? There was also the time I almost died. The doctors still aren’t sure why I’m alive now. By all rights, I should have just keeled over instead of regaining consciousness and dialing 911. But I distinctly remember my inner dialogue at one point going something like this:
Me: Ohmigod, I’m going to die!
Myself: Oh, don’t be silly. Nobody dies of a dizzy spell!
And then they carted me off to the ER and informed my family (but not me) that I most likely would not live through the night. If they had told me what dire circumstances I was in, would I have been scared? I suspect not. After I proved them wrong by clinging to life for a few more days, they decided to try a treatment that was just as likely to kill me as to cure me. And I nonchalantly signed off on the order, daring them to do their worst.
So I think perhaps fear is an area where my judgment is sorely lacking. Am I Dauntless? Alas, no. Try serving me calamari that hasn’t been FUBAR (Fried Up Beyond All Recognition) and see what happens. But I see this as a way to better explore the characters I write. In addition to asking what they’re scared of, perhaps I should ask what they should be scared of. And then find out why they aren’t.