What do your fears say about you? About your characters? How do your characters react when they’re afraid?
This past week, I had to go to a restaurant in San Pedro for a work event. San Pedro is the hub of the Port of LA/Long Beach, the largest port area on the west coast and home to the Vincent Thomas Bridge. I freaked out a little on the way there when I saw the words “Vincent Thomas Bridge” on the directions.
I’m not normally afraid of heights, but this bridge FREAKS ME OUT because it is so high and so curved. It feels like you’re looking over the edge of the horizon into nothingness. It is 185 feet up at its highest point (egads!!! That’s like 15 stories!). I avoid it. Avoiding it is not usually a problem since I rarely go down there, but I couldn’t skip this event. I told myself I would get in the middle lane and grit my teeth and be done with it. Fortunately, when I looked at the directions more closely, I realized I was just passing by the bridge. At the event, my coworker A, who is more afraid of heights than I am, told my boss R and me (only half kidding) that she was going to turn around and not come if she had to drive over that bridge. R, on the other hand, said he’d been really excited when he thought he might get to go over the bridge (at this point, A and I both gave him looks of horror).
This got me thinking about fear and how we react when we’re afraid. My coworker A, my boss R, and I all had different reactions to the same event, having to drive over this crazy bridge. A was planning to turn around and go home; I was going to grit my teeth and push through; and R was going to enjoy it. How someone reacts to something shows us more about them than if we were just to say, for example, she’s afraid of heights.
In Jurassic Park (spoilers ahead, y’all), Michael Crichton uses fear to reveal traits about nearly every character. Early on, after T-Rex shows up, the lawyer runs away and leaves the 2 kids all by themselves. This underlines for us that the lawyer is a cowardly punk, and it also makes it more impressive when Dr. Grant comes to the kids’ rescue. Crichton used this T-Rex experience to not only show us more about these 2 characters (the lawyer and Dr. Grant) but also to use the lawyer as a foil for Dr. Grant. Later on, we see how greedy creep Dennis becomes impatient when he’s afraid – talking too much, driving erratically, and eventually bringing on his well-deserved demise. We also come to find game keeper Muldoon is calm and collected in the face of fear; it becomes even scarier for us as the audience when the raptors have trapped Muldoon, the consummate tracker.
How can we apply this? We show our characters taking action in the presence of fear. What actions are they taking? What does this show us about the character? How is their objective influencing their actions in the presence of fear?
First off, it cracked me up that you called the lawyer a punk lol. I think it’s easy to have your character to react in the same way you would, but it can be a pitfall since I’m boring and not much of a risk taker so readers might find unclimactic. I always have to remind myself to give my characters flaws and its ok to fail and do stupid things. And do wildly unpredictable things unlike me.
The key, perhaps, is making our characters do wildly unpredictable things that make sense in the context of the story. I haven’t quite achieved that yet.
Good post! Comics aren’t quite the same as novels, but I like to consider this stuff when I’m writing scenarios. I have a raging desire to do character exercises to see how my characters react to fear now! This isn’t the first time your posts have got me thinking about my work, so thank you for that. ^_^
PS. That bridge looks terrifying. Have you ever been on the Mackinac Bridge, in Michigan? It’s the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere (thanks, Wikipedia!). It’s built to withstand high winds, but it sometimes gets closed down if the storms are too fierce, particularly winter storms. In high (but not dangerous winds), cars must form convoys with large trucks on the outside to help shield smaller cars to get across safely. XD Scary bridge.
I’m so happy that the post got you thinking! Chicago, or perhaps northern Indiana, is the closest I’ve ever been to Michigan, so I haven’t yet experienced Mackinac Bridge. It sounds super scary.
I enjoyed your post. I was entertained by your direct and indirect experiences with the VT Bridge, and also appreciated the fear theme. Fear is an excellent catalyst for revealing a character’s true spirit. Thank you!
I like that you called it a catalyst — that’s a great way to put it!
Response to fear is a great way for a writer to show instead of tell. Well, hopefully the writer is showing. It would be rather dull to read: “The bridge scared her. She drove over it and was glad when it was over. She wondered how she made it at all.” Zzzzzzz…..
Another great post, and I’m with you–had I had to tackle that bridge, I would have had to use the middle lane. I would want no part of looking over the side while driving.
If I’m looking for a dull read, my intro to accounting textbooks always put me to sleep in college, no matter what time of day it was.
I probably would have freaked out crossing that bridge! And I also laughed at what you said about the lawyer. Great post! One of my characters has a fear of snakes, because I was afraid of them when I was a kid. I tried not to give my main character that fear however, to make her seem stronger in that scene. But this post has caused me to think on a deeper level about what her fears are.
Maybe making our characters seem stronger is more about helping them overcome their fears than having them be without fears, like how Katniss in Hunger Games overcame her fear of the woods because she was motivated by starvation and by taking care of her little sister (if you haven’t read it, I’m not giving anything away — this is revealed right at the beginning of the book).
I was thinking about this just the other day, having recently written a scene where a character was in fear for his life, and his first reaction was to place himself between the danger and a stranger he’d just met. It almost struck me as contradictory of him, because this character is *not* a nice person; however, as his reaction showed, he is a *good* person. One can be a hero and a jerk. X)
A fine, make-you-think kinda post,Christi. And good on you, being willing to face that bridge, if need be!
You’re absolutely right about your character — one can definitely be a hero and a jerk. Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones is a great example of that. Once we understand his motives, we as readers don’t really hate him anymore.
Great post…this comes from someone with the same fears…whenever I cross those types of bridges I go in the middle lane and look straight ahead!!! My parents lived in San Pedro for a time so I know that bridge and agree with you.
I like your Jurassic Park examples too.