Friday, 16 November 2012

Ready Made Flaws - Phobias

“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 applied successfully to a character, it can lift that person right off the page and make them seem so real and relatable and 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 the phobia is something that a main character is struggling against then that makes it all the more desirable as readers will root for the character and want them 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 really irrational to the sufferer - only to other people who look on. Phobias do not just pop up from anywhere. They are generally 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) in my first book "Insight" had 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 even help to bring your characters to life on the page.
Have you ever thought about using a phobia in your stories? 


  1. Now I think about it, I have used phobias in stories quite a lot. I think it can help to empathise with a character - even if we don't share the phobia, most of us know what it feels like to be phobic about something x

  2. Great post! I've used phobias before. Fear of heights, and in my NaNo novel, the protagonist fears insects. Though, I have to say, they're are gigantic insects, so I'd be running too! :)

  3. I like phobias because they are intriguing and say much about how complex the human psyche is. I haven't written a book where one of my characters has a phobia, but I do have one; I'm arachnophobic. Huge. I detest spiders with all my fibers and can't watch them in tv, pictures, movies, nothing at all. If one touches me I go into full breakdown. I cry for hours, I tremble, I yell... not a pretty picture and quite frightening if you're my 6yo. I'm ashamed to say I've scared my kids with these episodes in at least one occasion. The thing is, I wasn't always arachnophobic, I went to see Arachnophobia to the movies, for crying out loud! Still, I can remember when the fear took over, nor what caused it. I know I could go to therapy and get it over with it, but since I can live my live very well, as long a spider doesn't get on me, I'm not attracted to the idea of exposure therapy... Anyway, just felt interested by your post and wanted to share with you that phobias not always have a traceable origin or neat explanation.

    Hope you have a sweet Thanksgiving!

  4. Sorry, I meant I *can't* remember. Stupid fat fingers...

  5. I have a phobia iv had it since i was 5 years of age and it has progressed through the years, my phobia is thanatophia (phobia of dying). I suffer with severe depression and i also got bullied during school so that didnt help. Im only 18 iv been to councelling and that worked for a while but it keeps coming back, i am obsessed with health and safety as i could die if im not carefull its the worst phobia ever. But it did save my life when i got bullied in school i felt suicidal but i could'nt go through with it for obvious reasons. Thought id share with you my story im trying to write a book but im not getting anywhere. By the way my name is Courtney