Our topic this month is scary things, and boy is that a broad topic. A narrower one would be, what doesn’t scare me?
I’m not the sort of person who rushes out to challenge all my fears, to overcome them by sheer force. I’ve faced some of them. I’ve climbed mountains that scared me (Gothics, in the Adirondacks, I’m looking at you). I had a panic attack on the second plane ride I ever took (not the first, but the second, which caught me off guard), and yet I’ve continued to fly. I once explored a cave despite claustrophobia. I go to the doctor even though needles don’t thrill me. But thousands of other fears go undefied because the reward isn’t great enough, or I am just not willing to put the time and energy into chasing down the endless parade of fear triggers.
Scary things are good for writing, though. They provide built-in conflict and reader investment (hence the perennial popularity of scary stories). And the page provides a great way to pin down a fear, dissect it, even control it. The story provides a safe distance. We can immerse ourselves in the fear, or—step back and close the book. We don’t have to respond immediately, as in a life-or-death situation. We can think out the possible responses. We have the thrill and challenge of high stakes, while the real-life stakes are low.
An excellent thing to do as part of developing characters is to identify what scares them the most ... and then throw it them. (For the most blatant example, see George Orwell’s 1984.) Not only does that provide the highest stakes, but it gives characters their biggest opportunity for growth.