by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
There are a few base emotions that have driven human beings since we’ve had any form of consciousness. Most important to our survival has been fear. We wouldn’t have lasted long on this planet if we hadn’t learned to run from things that threatened our existence. One goal of good writing is to construct characters that feel as human as we do. The most well designed characters respond the same way we would. They rejoice when we would rejoice. They cry when we would cry. And they are afraid when we would be afraid.
Here are six things your character should tremble at the thought of.
1. LOSING WHAT THEY LOVE
Most of us can handle whatever comes our way, as long as it only affects us. Our weakness shows when trouble hits those we love. Determining what (or who) your character loves before you begin telling your story is essential. Knowing what they love will also reveal their weakness. Sure, we can pitch our heroines against the most powerful forces in the universe and that can be exciting. However, the audience may or may not care. Audiences tend to invest more deeply when a character is fighting for someone else – when we can sense that they are afraid of losing something they love.
In Carol, the protagonist is afraid of losing her daughter, who she adores more than anything, if she gives in to her feelings for Therese Belivet. Over the course of the story, Carol must choose between living an authentic life and losing the thing she cares about most. We can relate to the difficulty of such a choice. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel Hillard is also afraid of losing his children. Half of Mel Gibson’s films deal with this same theme. These stories work because we know how people feel about their kids. The thought of losing them is literally the worst thing many members of the audience can imagine.
2. BEING ALONE
There is a moment in the 1985 film, Young Sherlock Holmes, when Holmes is asked what he wants to be when he grows up. He looks across the courtyard, sees his girlfriend and replies, “I wish never to be alone.” Just as with losing a child, the fear of being alone is one of the oldest, most base fears we experience as humans. Even the staunchest introverts need people.
Films such as As Good As It Gets play up this tension as the central conflict in the film. Most romantic comedies have the fear of being alone at their subconscious core. The 40 Year Old Virgin revolves around this theme. The central characters in Almost Famous, American Beauty, and even It’s A Wonderful Life all struggle with this fear.
3. NOT ACHIEVING THEIR GOAL
Many people derive their worth from their work. What they accomplish in life professionally or in the arena they love seems to define who they are. Many characters are driven by the same desire. In life, we often have so many goals that our existence becomes confusing. We are comforted to see a character on screen that has one singular goal that will complete them. We long for the same.
In Creed, Donny Johnson fears he will be seen as a punch line if he doesn’t accomplish his goal. He becomes willing to do anything to keep this from happening. Many sports themed stories revolve around this fear. The Karate Kid, Friday Night Lights, and Million Dollar Baby are just a few. Of course, this fear works in every genre. In Misery, Paul Sheldon’s fear that he won’t be able to achieve his goal by escaping Annie Wilkes becomes so visceral that we find our selves clenching the arms of our chair, imagining our own fear in a similar situation.
4. BEING NAKED (or REVEALED)
It’s a common feeling. A person gets a new job and fears they will be revealed as a fraud and unqualified for the position when they first begin. Sometimes these fears play out in dreams where we show up at school or some other social function naked. Many of us experience great anxiety about being seen for who we truly are. We go to great lengths to avoid these revelations.
In Spotlight, Robby Robinson ironically works to reveal corruption while simultaneously being afraid his own shortcomings will be seen. In Brooklyn, Ellis has her friends teach her how to eat spaghetti without making a mess, because she fears she will be seen as unfamiliar with the Italian culture of her boyfriend’s family. Sometimes, however, the stakes are much higher than spaghetti. Josie Geller fears blowing her cover at the high school she is writing about in Never Been Kissed. And in The Departed, Billy spends the entire film trying to avoid being revealed to the crime family he works for, fearing it will cost him his life.
5. HAVING TO LIVE WITH THEIR MISTAKES
Our pasts have a way of catching up with us. At least we fear this to be true. We all fear having to live with the mistakes we have made. We know that mistakes will be unavoidable. We hope the consequences of these mistakes will be short lived.
A History of Violence centers on having to deal with the mistakes of one’s past. In Secret in Their Eyes, Ray spends the course of the story trying to atone for not meeting a friend at a bakery – a decision that might have cost her life. He feels if he can bring her killer to justice, he won’t have to live with his mistake. The driving tension of the story is the fear that he will. Schindler’s List, Shame, and Unforgiven all feature characters dealing with the fear of having to live with their mistakes.
6. NOT BEING WORTHY
We’ve all felt like we weren’t good enough. At times, we feel like we aren’t good enough for our spouse. Other times, we feel unworthy of an opportunity. Deep down, we all hold fear about our value and worth. This causes one of the greatest epidemics the world today faces – insecurity. When we feel insecure, we say things we wish we hadn’t. We do things we regret. We present a version of ourselves that is inauthentic. Great characters are no different.
Even after escaping Room, Ma fears she is unworthy of her child and her new life. In Trainwreck, Amy fears she is unworthy of a healthy relationship. Sam fears she is unworthy to be president of the house in Dear White People. And Cady Heron fears she is unworthy to sit with the “cool girls” in the lunchroom in Mean Girls. We relate to all these scenarios because we too fear we may not be worthy. Someone once said the best stories are actually psychotherapy. We experience this when we see a character overcome their insecurities. If they find themselves to be worthy, then maybe, just maybe – there is hope for us.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.