We all have skeletons, secrets, and phobias in our lives—scary things that have the ability to cripple us or change our lives for better, or for worse.
Superman fears Kryptonite. Mermaids are afraid of being too far from water. Vampires, at least the old-fashioned ones that turned to ashes in sunlight instead of sparkling in it, fear the sun. The unwilling werewolf dreads the coming of the full moon. Adventurer Indiana Jones hates snakes. The Wicked Queen is afraid of not being the fairest of them all. Peter Pan doesn’t want to grow up. Gizmo is frightened of water or eating after midnight, because it turns him into a gremlin. Bruce Banner never wants to get angry because he turns into the Incredible Hulk. All these characters’ fears and secrets are basic to their core behaviors. They act and react, just like we do, because of life’s skeletons, secrets, and phobias.
Our fears are part of what makes us who we are. They shape us, influence us, and affect our actions and the outcomes of what we do. When we give our characters secrets and phobias we give them depth. If you want to make your character grow, one of the best ways it to have him face his fears. Give him something more important to face, some reason to conquer that phobia, secret, or skeleton he fears so much.
Catherine is not crazy about heights. She approaches the edges of railed canyons with trepidation, if at all. She never looks down when descending ladders. She won’t dive off of a board any higher than twelve inches off the pool edge. A climb onto the kitchen counter to get something off the top of the cabinet, which she’ll only do if no one else is around to do it, leaves her sweating like she’s got dengue fever. As for bungy jumping … you’ll never see her do that. If she can avoid any height, she will do so.
Yet one year, when we were putting an addition onto our house, Catherine had to conquer that fear. Before starting the building process she told Donald she would do anything but get on the roof and shingle. She’d haul anything he needed, work as long as he needed, do whatever messy, dirty job came her way. But she was NOT going to get on that roof.
He was okay with that. But when we tore the roof off to put up the knee wall an unexpected storm blew in. We scrambled to get a tarp on the open area, but the rain blew in anyway.
Guess where she ended up for the seven days?
On the roof. Reshingling.
Before the next predicted rainstorm blew into town.
As much as Catherine feared heights, when the kitchen ceiling started sagging from the water damage, she was more afraid of seeing the ceiling cave in than of getting on the roof. She managed to conquer her fear of heights in an emergency situation, much like Indiana Jones grabbed that big snake’s tail, after a good bit of screaming and yelling, when the alternative was being sucked into quicksand. That summer she grew into someone who was confident that in an emergency she could climb up a tree or on the roof, or up a ladder to rescue someone from a burning building.
That’s what facing scary things, secrets, and skeletons can do for your characters. It can make them stronger and provide a character arc that moves their story forward. So don’t be afraid to frighten your characters. Make them face their worst fears. Rattle a few closet skeletons and blab a few of their deepest secrets and watch them grow. Because, as Catherine’s mother used to say, if it doesn’t kill you it can only make you stronger.
What are you or your characters afraid of? How did you use that fear to grow?