FEAR is a significant motivator of human behavior. It dictates what we do and what we don’t do. Therefore it’s important for screenwriters to understand how fear works in human development and subsequently write richer characters in your stories.
Fears make our characters human. It exposes vulnerabilities and informs character backstory.
Fears are either physical or emotional
Physical and emotional fears are normal parts of human behavior. It’s only when fears are expressed to an extreme degree that they become problematic. Many psychologists believe that a certain level of fear is essential to ensure our survival. Extreme happiness is a short-term sugar rush reward to offer some respite from life-threatening situations. Lasting happiness or character equilibrium is the ultimate goal of every character.
These are the most obvious because they are triggered by external objects or events that pose direct or perceived danger. These can be wild animals, a storm, a falling building or a warring tribe to name a few.
For example, a movie character may see a fight break out at a party. They may step aside to a safer place to observe the fight and monitor the threat or leave the situation entirely if there’s a veritable chance of bodily harm. Someone would not go on a rickety bridge or a leaky boat.
Veritable fears linked to specific events such as being bitten by a dog as a child. or almost drowning can give rise to phobias. These give your characters added dimension because they inform the rationale behind their decisions.
These are more complex fears. They often stem from a trauma. Emotional fears can be conscious or unconscious. If your film and TV characters carry conscious emotional fears, they often avoid certain situations to protect themselves. For instance, a bride left at the altar or a husband discovering his wife is having an affair may cause these characters to avoid intimate relationships, friendships, or even human contact altogether. Consider what causes “friends with benefits” behave the way they do. Focusing on one’s career to have a regular relationship isn’t gonna cut as the sole reason to avoid emotional intimacy.
Their entire stories are built around these fears. If left unaddressed, such characters patch up their issues and create a veneer of a perfect life by failing to acknowledge the wound created by a traumatic event. Think about how characters who have buried these feelings for prolonged periods of time behave. Do they become cantankerous old people, or have a quarter/ mid/ three-quarter life crises?
Unconscious fears may be a little trickier to address. Consider characters with obsessive or addictive behaviors. These are often linked to immaturity or loss of control during their formative years.
If your characters decide to deal with emotional scars, they can provide a fascinating and compassionate storyline in your screenplay. Something your audience can really engage and empathize with.
Traumatic events can’t be undone. Your characters can either confront the person causing it (such as an adopted child asking their biological parents why they gave them up), they can accept a situation they no longer have control over, or they can make a conscious decision to release the emotional pain.
Think about how emotionally-damaged characters interact with other characters. How do they treat other people? Are they bullies, mistrustful, too trustful, paranoid or promiscuous, to name a few outcomes.
HOW FEAR CAN BE GOOD
Overcome a fear helps us evolve and grow emotionally and spiritually. In screenwriting parlance, this is referred to as a satisfying character arc. Stories rely on the main character overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve a predefined goal. This is your superficial story; a spectacle if you will. It’s the emotional storyline that sells the most movie tickets.
Overcoming an emotional fear creates a character metamorphosis and ultimately a satisfying movie for your audience. This causes characters to do things they didn’t think they could previously do such as win an unwinnable boxing match, defeating the aliens or dating someone totally out of their league.
It’s about characters realizing they were their own worst enemies holding themselves back. They always held the answers within them in order to live a more authentic life.