Yesterday I heard an interesting idea – that most of us run much of our lives on fear. Well, maybe THEY do, but not me. Definitely not me.
I’m not talking about the fear of spiders or snakes, but about day-to-day fears.
“I’m afraid my money’s going to run out before the end of the month.”
“I’m afraid my young kids might get into drugs.”
I have to invite my brother to spend Christmas with us or he’ll make my mom’s life miserable”
“I’m afraid I’ll never be as good as she is.”
“I’ll have to skip breakfast to catch my bus. If I’m late again I might lose my job and then I’d never be able to pay the rent.”
Many of these are legitimate fears – if my kids were still young I’d be afraid of them getting into drugs too. I’d behave in a way that minimized those chances. But when you are writing these fears are all grist for your mill. These are the kind of fears, reasonable or otherwise, that people are living with and orchestrating their lives around.
It affects their behavior. The woman afraid of losing her job is not going to set off sedately for the bus and calmly accept the fact that it left ten minutes ago. She is going to be running, panicked if she misses it, antsy waiting for the next bus, berating herself for being so stupid as to sleep in.
She will get to work ragged and unfocused, probably make a few mistakes in her flustering, and be cranky to her co-workers. You could be setting her up for something really bad to happen. If it does she will be mentally less well prepared to deal with it capably. You can write her into a serious situation with heightened conflict.
Maybe in her flustering she accidentally shreds some important papers. The stakes just got raised. Maybe the Big Boss is in town and needs the papers.
But you don’t have to go for the major conflict here. You can just show this person as a woman who nervously tries to be a really good employee even though she is a square peg in a round hole. She tries so hard to be useful and helpful that she becomes a bit of a nuisance. Perhaps this leaves her open to be bullied. and maybe she is driven to do something drastic to end the bullying.
Well, here we are at major conflict again. We look at ordinary, everyday lives and perhaps we don’t see a lot of fiction-worthy conflict. But it’s there, latent, hiding in the common fears we all have.
Common sense tells us to take small steps towards addressing any fears that start to run our lives – small preventative measures perhaps. However, we’re talking about fiction here. Sensible action is not what we’re looking for. We just want our larger-than-life characters to have traits of common humanity that everyone will recognize. Fears are everywhere – possibly disguised. Use them to give your story depth and believability.