How do you write three-dimensional characters? How do you flesh them out so they feel real? In this article, we're focusing on one specific characterization prompt to help you discover who your character really is. What is your character's most irrational fear?

This Frightful Characterization Tip Will Transform Your Stories

Your Character's Fear Is Not Logical

People are complicated. I know, that's like saying, “Hey, fire is hot!” but when it comes to characterization, this needs to be said. Our tendency as authors is to stick imaginary people into tiny two-dimensional categories, forgetting that no human being fits into tiny two-dimensional categories.

One of the things that makes humans so confounded complicated is we are not logical.

Really. We're not. Take me, for example: I have an insane fear of spiders. This makes no sense. I don't live in a place with spiders that can actually hurt me. Nevertheless, they freak me out to the point that I will call for help (or maybe throw things from a safe distance) if I spot one.

But worse than that is my fear of needles. Oh, boy. Oh, boy. This is particularly relevant for me right now because my tooth went bad and I'm going to the dentist today. This fear informs how I'm behaving today. It's made me distracted and a little irritable. I can't stop worrying about it, though I know how dumb that is. It's one prick, then no pain—and yet I am stomach-twistingly afraid.

The Power of Fear in Characterization

This fear is illogical, yet it has dictated much of my day, and if I had an option that didn't involve needles, I'd take it. That right there is why you need to know your character's irrational fear.

That fear can change your character's entire direction. Fear affects the plot. Fear can change your character's decisions (which is the strongest form of characterization). It can even alter how they handle change, enemies, or whatever. And that makes it a powerful tool for characterization.

So here's your writing prompt for today: figure out your character's most illogical fear. Then take fifteen minutes, write, and make them face it.

This can be silly or serious. Your character can have a life-changing revelation, or just hide under a pillow going “La la la!” until it goes away. Write the response the way your character wants to respond.

This is very much a gut-exercise, not a thinking-exercise. Don't let yourself think too much. Trust the illogical nature of emotion and just write. I can't wait to see your responses.

How do your characters handle illogical fear? Let us know in the comments.


Have fun with this one! Take fifteen minutes and write a scene in which your character encounters their illogical fear, then share your work in the Pro Practice Workshop

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Best-Selling author Ruthanne Reid has led a convention panel on world-building, taught courses on plot and character development, and was keynote speaker for The Write Practice 2021 Spring Retreat.

Author of two series with five books and fifty short stories, Ruthanne has lived in her head since childhood, when she wrote her first story about a pony princess and a genocidal snake-kingdom, using up her mom’s red typewriter ribbon.

When she isn’t reading, writing, or reading about writing, Ruthanne enjoys old cartoons with her husband and two cats, and dreams of living on an island beach far, far away.

P.S. Red is still her favorite color.

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