What does your character most dread or fear?
In an ongoing effort to do this writing thing the correct way (and not write 46 first drafts while I get to know my characters), I’ve downloaded an extensive character-description worksheet from the Internet and I’m filling it out for each of my main characters. I’ve done it twice now, and after 3000 words, I’ve learned some things about them I didn’t know.
But toward the end of the sheet, between a discussion of the character’s goals and who s/he most and least wants to emulate (the sheet wrote it that way, not me), is the most important question on the entire sheet.
What event or occurrence does s/he most dread or fear?
There’s a question further up that’s close to the same: What (or who) is his/her biggest fear?
This doesn’t mean Indiana Jones and snakes. This means Indiana Jones and have the last possible means of escape eliminated for him. It means that there’s no back way out of the well of souls or that the window in his office is painted shut while all the needy students bear down on him.
It’s the question whose answer keeps your character up at night, if he or she dares to think about it. It’s the thing that strips away all the levels of security he or she has so carefully crafted, leaving them alone and unprotected from that object of that fear.
And it’s the one thing that your plot absolutely must include for your story to be gripping.
Corollary questions include:
- What does he/she actively work to gain, keep, or protect?
- Whom or what would s/he be willing to die for?
Whatever your plot, it has to illuminate the answers to those questions. Perhaps your character is agoraphobic. Force her outside–not because of the phobia, but because you’re stripping her of all the security she gains from the familiar surroundings–and because forcing her outside makes her deal with the circumstance that made her that way in the first place.
Maybe your character is a self-made man who derives his identity from his honor and integrity. Put him in a situation where he can’t satisfy one part of the code that gives him honor without violating another part.
Maybe she was left behind as a child and forced to live a fearful number of hours while her parents tried to find her. Have her children disappear and force her to scramble desperately while imagining what might be happening. (For double bonus points, make her the agoraphobic in the first example.)
Even if you decide to take another direction in your plot, those fears should be generated at some point in your story.
Now, get writing.