Fear is a basic component of the human experience and one we need to consider when developing and challenging our characters. A few years ago I attended a workshop by best-selling author and story consultant Michael Hauge. One of the questions he insisted we ask about our characters was what do they fear most. If you know the answer to that question you can use it as an integral element of the conflict of your story. Does your heroine fear abandonment? Is your hero claustrophobic? Why? How can you use their fears to help them grow?
In my latest book, Unwritten Rules, my heroine Madelyn Li left the FBI in part because of a terrifying near-drowning incident. Her fear caused her to lose confidence in herself, as well as question her colleagues' confidence in her. In a major turning point in the story, one of the villains pushes Madelyn off a ship into San Francisco Bay, bringing her face-to-face with her fear of before she's fully ready to confront and deal with it. Later, in the climax scene, she is forced to choose whether or not to dive into Lake Michigan to try to save the same villain. This time she's ready.
Here's the first scene:
Shoes in hand, she picked her way down the steps. A waiter balancing a tray loaded with empty glasses approached, heading toward the galley, so she turned sideways and pressed up against the outside rail to let him pass. She’d only taken a couple of steps when glassware clattered behind her. She started, dropping her shoes and purse. Before she could turn to investigate, a heavy blow struck her from behind, launching her into the deck railing. The metal bit into her stomach as she frantically tried to grasp it, but momentum propelled her over the side.
She barely had time to breathe, much less scream, before she hit the water and plunged beneath the inky surface. Needles of pain shot through her limbs as the cold sucked the heat from her body. Her eyes were open, but she couldn’t see. She hung suspended in impenetrable blackness, dazed and disoriented. Her lungs burned from an urgent need for oxygen.
Fear, ugly and familiar, pushed its way through the fog surrounding her brain. She’d been in this situation before and barely survived. This time she wouldn’t be so lucky. Patrick was in Chicago. No team of agents raced to her rescue. No one even knew she was gone. She was on her own.
Panic gripped her. There was no air. Tendrils of deepening cold squeezed her chest like a giant octopus as she drifted downward.
Then instinct took over. With one powerful kick, she exploded upward. Her head broke the surface, and she gasped.
As she sucked in more oxygen, the fog cleared. She registered the searing cold, the glowing lights of the ship above her, and the salt of the sea on her lips. Her arms and legs stroked in rhythm to keep her head above water, bobbing with the waves.
The yacht was steadily pulling away from her. She waved one frantic arm and called out, but the drone of the engines drowned out her puny shouts.
How soon would Carter notice her absence? Ten minutes? Twenty?Lights twinkled on the distant shore. She’d never make it to land. A wave slapped her in the face, forcing water into her nose and mouth. She choked and sputtered.
And here's an excerpt from the second scene:
Madelyn hesitated at the edge of the pier, staring at the spot where Laura had gone in, watching for a telltale stream of bubbles. At the Academy, Laura had been a strong swimmer, but what if she’d hit her head? She knew she should dive in and pull the woman out, but could she make herself do it? Could she force herself back into the same cold, black water that had nearly taken her life?
She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. No, no, no! She refused to be a victim again. Ever. She’d had no choice when Laura pushed her overboard, but she had a choice now.Before fear could stop her, Madelyn dove into the lake.
Madelyn is no longer the same person she was at the beginning of the story. She's grown and changed, and that's what we want.