Character: Using Their Fears to Torment Them

Sunday, February 09, 2014
I know you’ve read it before – today, editors and agents want character driven stories. With that in mind, we spend hours and hours creating inviting, engaging, three dimensional characters.

With all that time spent together in mind, is it any wonder than that we tend to fall a little bit in love? Once that happens we tend to go easy on our characters instead of tormenting them which is what we have to do to make things interesting.

Fortunately, Elizabeth Wein is willing to torment her characters with great abandon in Code Name Verity.


At the center of Wein’s story are two girls – Maddie and Julie. Maddie is a British pilot whose grandfather is a shopkeeper. Julie is an upper class, a wireless operator, educated in Switzerland. Without the war, they wouldn’t have met and become best friends, but it also the war that tears them apart.

The setting, war ravaged Britain, is enough to make their lives difficult, but it isn’t enough for Wein. She takes what the girls most dread and uses it against them. to make their lives worse.
Early in their friendship, they discuss their fear of having to kill someone. Although neither of is a soldier, the roles they play aid soldiers in getting to battle.

Now you have a war time setting and two characters working with the military who openly fear taking a human life. Things have gotten worse for these two characters, but, for Wein, not bad enough.
During an air raid, the girls run past an antiaircraft gun. The soldiers manning it lay dead or dying. To defend the field, the girls must shoot men out of the sky.

Wein set this up masterfully. She could have had them afraid of spiders or storms, but she picked something she could work deeply into the story. At this point, you shouldn’t be surprised that Wein makes things even worse.

When the girls’ plane crash lands in occupied France, Julie is captured and tortured. Maggie works with the French Underground to rescue Julie and other captives slated for use in medical experiments. Not only does the rescue fail, but Julie demands the only rescue in sight. She calls out for Maddie to shoot her.

Maddie can let her friend be tortured or she can pull the trigger. How is that for taking things from bad to worse?

Take a look at your own story. What does your character fear? Do you use these things to make her life unbearable? If you don’t, you may be missing the opportunity to write a story with stakes that pull the reader in and refuse to let go.


Author Sue Bradford Edwards has been writing from home since her son was a new born. Yes, that means when he was a toddler, too. She blogs at One Writer's Journey.


Margo Dill said...

Thought-provoking post, Sue. On a much less serious level, I am trying to do this in one of my mg manuscripts, having the character completely scared of failing and ruining his reputation. It helped me to raise the stakes as you said.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

It really does work at all levels. I just read Lemony Snicket's The Dark, a picture book about a boy who is afraid of the dark and has to interact with the dark as an actual character. At the picture book level, it worked perfectly. Forcing your character to deal with their fear naturally raises the stakes.

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