Phobias – The Fear Factor
“There is nothing to fear if you refuse to be afraid.” Ghandi
One of the most useful plot devices I’ve found is to give a character a phobia. It doesn’t have to be a major phobia – although many premises have used the more common phobias such as agoraphobia, (fear of open spaces) claustrophobia (fear of closed spaces) or arachnophobia ( fear of spider.
Everyone knows and understands that a phobia is simply an irrational fear of something. But when a phobia is applied successfully to a character, it can lift that person right off the page and make them seem so real and relatable and it gives them a ready-made flaw. Sympathy is easily engaged – as most of us have some irrational fears at some point.
That is not to say we are all irrational but - depending on circumstances - we all have the ability to act irrational under extreme duress. If a phobia is something that a main character is struggling with then that raises the stakes as it is yet anouther obstacle for the protagonist to overcome and it heightens tension and supense and makes the reader want the character to win that battle as well as succeed in the main story goal.
Phobias also give the writer the opportunity to twist and turn with the plot and have largely unexpected outcomes. In my first book, my main character had a phobia of mist, steam, fog etc. Mainly stemming from the fact that she was scared what the mist could be hiding… I had great fun with that one!
Although we talk about irrational fears, they are not truly irrational to the sufferer - only to other people who look on. Phobias do not just pop up from anywhere. A phobia may well be rooted in a character’s past. Sometimes so deeply hidden that the person has little insight as to where it came from in the first place. But dig a little and it will come to light. For instance my protagonist (as a very young child) discovered her mother dead in a steam filled bathroom – hence her abiding fear. But she barely remembered the incident as being in a steam filled room as she had been so traumatised by discovering her dead mother that she had suppressed the memory.
So, phobias – big and small - can definitely add spice to your story and can even help to bring your characters to life on the page.
Have you ever thought about using a phobia in your stories?