When you’re trying to get into the head of a character, there are some easy questions to ask that might help. Questions such as: “What do they want?” “Why?” “What’s preventing them from getting it?” “What will happen if they do get it?”
Good, basic, and often useful, but to my mind the question that yields the most bang for your pluck is simply “What are they afraid of?” I admit that this is standard operating procedure if you’re talking about suspense/horror, but that’s too limiting. Even a comedy works best when fear is in the mix, and I submit that no writer really understands their characters if they don’t know what gives them the night sweats.
The same could be said for ourselves. A wise man once said “Know thyself,” and this is part of it. “Confront your fears” is the cliché advice for dealing with same, though, like many clichés, it got to be that way because there’s a hard core of truth in it. So in the spirit of self-discovery, off and on over the years I’ve been asking myself those questions: “What are you afraid of?” “What’s the worst that could happen?”
At first my answers were pretty standard: Fear of losing loved ones to death or indifference. Fear of losing my health or my job, and not being able to meet my obligations. Fear of random violence in an insane world. Fear of…well, you get the drift. The usual universal sort of stuff that shows we’re more alike than different.
Not too long ago, however, I got a much more me-specific answer. I was reading the blog of an agent who was enthusiastic about a new client she had just signed. She posted the query letter that got her so revved up in the first place, and it was indeed a thing to be studied and admired. It was clear, fast-paced, told the reader everything she needed to know to make an initial judgment on the book, drew the lines and connected the dots. In short, everything a good query should be and I intend to keep it in mind if I ever am in the market for a new agent (after going through three good ones, you’ll pardon me if I’m hesitant). And yet, something about that query bothered me greatly, and it took me a little longer to put my finger on it, but I finally did and boy, was it scary.
It occurred to me that, if I was able to describe any of my novel projects, past or planned, in the same terms that this writer used, I’d either break my keyboard or slash my wrists. Everything the agent praised as fresh and witty and hip I saw as cliché and artificial and formula and obvious and d-u-l-l, right down to the name of the main character. Otoh, I have no doubt that the agent in question knows the market and knows exactly what she’s looking for and the project will do well and probably sell a lot of books. Good luck and may God Bless and all that, but ye burger flipping gods.
Now, time to confont yet another fear. In relating the above it’s possible I am being envious, jealous, petty, and snarky. Possible, but I don’t think so. I am certainly capable of all those things, but right now I am being none of them, I’m too busy being terrified. Shaking in my shoes terrified, checking my underwear terrified. Do I need to be any clearer on that point?
Am I afraid that I’m simply not good enough? Sure, always, but that’s not my worst fear. My worst fear is that this is what the market wants and all it will tolerate. My worst fear is that I’m actually a darn good, even excellent writer, but there is just no place for the type of books I want to write. Don’t point out the dozens of quirky and off-beat novels being published, because I already know that and also know they’re not mine. I can admire them, but they don’t prove anything, other than someone else found a place, a readership. Will I? The experiment is still in progress so I don’t know yet, and until I do know the fear remains. Maybe one day I can replace it with either elation as my work finds a good home or resignation as I limit myself to an audience of one, but right now fear is all I’ve got. Hello, Fear. Pull up a chair. Let me get to know you better.
Yeah, I know. But what’s the worst that could happen?