You may have heard that there are two things you absolutely need to know about your protagonist to bring them to life on the page:
- What they want.
- What they fear.
This makes sense. Desire and fear are the two big drivers of story conflict, especially when desire clashes against fear, or fear against fear, or desire against desire – whether that’s between characters or within the same character.
But here’s the part you probably haven’t heard and that’s far less intuitive: One of the surest ways to craft a compelling character arc is to make what your protagonist wants and what they fear the same exact thing.
What happens when desire and fear never meet
It’s funny, really. Writers are often told to think of a compelling, relatable desire for their protagonist to pursue and a fear to turn into obstacles to that desire. But there’s usually little mention of how these two things will actually, realistically come together.
Let’s say you decided that your protagonist’s desire is freedom, which is expressed concretely in his goal of winning a big pile of gold in a deadly tournament so he no longer has to struggle with the poverty that binds him like chains. Meanwhile, you decided that his fear is that he’s not worthy of love, which is expressed as his avoidance of commitment and vulnerability. On their own, this desire and fear are perfectly usable to craft a good story. But together?
Well, I’m sure there’s some way you can contrive for his feelings of unworthiness of love to get in the way of his desire for freedom. Maybe his fear leads to him breaking up with a partner he actually loves very much, and that partner has an influential parent or sibling, who retaliates for their loved one’s broken heart by sabotaging the protagonist in his all-important tournament. Could happen. Maybe he even feels so unworthy of love because of the poverty he desires to be free of, making the cause-and-effect chain here deeper than meets the eye.
But note how indirect this conflict is.
The protagonist is never made to choose between his desire and his fear, indeed never made to interact with the desire or the fear in a meaningful way. The interaction between the two happens off the page and relies on chance.
This is the kind of thing that happens when the desire and the fear run parallel and are not inextricably connected. The resulting conflicts don’t change the protagonist as a person in any way and don’t engage readers, except to make them feel a bit sorry for this unlucky man. And while there are many ways a desire and a fear could be intertwined, ask yourself if, just maybe, your protagonist fears the very thing you know they desire (or desires the very thing you know they fear).
Let’s revisit your hypothetical protagonist from above. Let’s say you realise that the whole unworthy-of-love thing was really just you projecting your own insecurities or shoehorning in a trait of your favourite characters from other stories. But you know he wants freedom. That’s the spark of inspiration you started with, and it’s what the whole story is hinging on.
Great. Now… what if he’s also, deep down, terrified of freedom?
But that makes no sense, I hear you saying. Why would anyone want, let alone go after, something they’re afraid of, unless they’re an adrenaline junkie?
Allow me to explain…
Fear made specific and concrete
This protagonist is not afraid of freedom in general. Not exactly. Rather, he holds a specific belief about freedom that, whether he’s aware of it or not, makes him fear it.
This notion of a belief that a character must overcome to finally get the thing they want has many names in the writing world. Some writers and editors call it the ‘lie’. Others call it the ‘misbelief’. Still others call it the ‘flaw’ or ‘weakness’. But though the concept isn’t new to writers, many don’t realise that this belief-to-be-overcome is directly tied into the character’s fear, which in turn is often the same thing as their desire.
(You’re probably sensing a pattern here: The elements of character-building that show up as separate items on a profile template or in a writing book are, in fact, not usually independent things. They all work together.)
Anyway, what’s this protagonist’s belief, then? How about this:
‘I am nothing without my family.’
This is what his family tells each other all the time, maybe even as part of their culture. It was even ‘proven’ to the protagonist once, when he foolishly got in trouble with the law as a child and his family schemed and fought for his release from prison. Without them, he would be nothing but a criminal, probably a dead one.
But his family doesn’t want what he wants. They’re happy with their simple, unfree life – or at least pretend to be, due to fear-related beliefs of their own – and think he should be, too. They can’t physically stop him from competing in that tournament, but they don’t have to: the belief that his experiences with them have drilled into him starting with his arrest, fuelled by a whole life of serving his family while hearing about its importance day in and day out, will be enough to hinder him getting what he wants.
The truth is that, as his desire shows, he’s outgrown life with his family. Deep down, he doesn’t want to waste his life just because they’re happy to waste theirs.
But he believes that he’s nothing without them. And if he wins that tournament and gains his freedom, he won’t have his close relationship with them anymore… and that triggers his fear. After all, last time he acted “freely,” without his family, as a reckless child, he ruined it by getting himself arrested. Plus, having had them by his side his whole life, he loves them and can’t bear the thought of them shunning him for choosing a different path.
Freedom, then, may be the thing he wants, but it’s also the thing he fears most. If he could have freedom and his family, that’d be great. But he can’t – after all, his family, in their reluctance to strive for a better lot or even support him doing so, is the main thing that’s holding him prisoner.
Instant conflict generator
I hope you see the potential for this new desire-fear to generate more and stronger story conflicts than that first example earlier in the article. But if not, here are just a few ideas, and notice how they all bring his desire and fear together in a way that forces him to make an inner change, big or small, that he can’t truly undo.
- This protagonist is offered the chance to train with a former champion for the tournament, but he’ll have to hide it from his family, the biggest secret he’s ever kept from them. He has to make the decision then and there, experiencing intense inner conflict.
- His family finds out about the extra work he’s doing to earn gold to enter the tournament. He keeps the real purpose of the work hidden, pretending it’s to buy a present for a woman, but his father demands he share his earnings with the whole family right now, because that’s what family does.
- His trainer takes him to visit the campus of a university he discovers he would love to attend, where he meets and hits it off with a well-off girl he would love to marry. The stakes are upped – he’s imagining and hungering for a life (even a family) of his own now… but one that would alienate him from his family of origin even more than he first thought.
- The protagonist tells himself at first that he’s trying to win for his family – perhaps for his sick grandmother or disabled brother – whether they like it or not… until his cover is blown and they inform him that not only will they not accept a speck of gold from his winnings, but that he’ll never be invited to see his grandmother/brother or the rest of them again if he competes. Now, he must not only face the possibility of cutting ties, but also admit that he still wants to compete – which means the person he’s really doing it for is himself. He has to own that he’s not nothing without them.
- Of course, his belief that he’s nothing without his family will also give him a whole host of insecurities that are not going to serve him well in a competitive environment like the tournament. If he wants to have any chance of winning, he must overcome his fear.
In the end…
Is this how all character arcs work? Do a character’s desire and fear always boil down to the same thing? Not necessarily. There are many types of stories out there.
But when you have a character face the thing they want most in the world and the thing they fear most in the world in the same scene again and again, which is most feasible when these two things are the same, sparks will inevitably fly and grow into roaring flames of conflict. And not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict that drives your character to make choices and change. In other words, this approach all but guarantees the kind of conflict that great stories are made of.
This article explores just one example in depth, but I promise you that it works with other protagonists (and supporting characters) with different desires and fears, though you may have to be patient, and let go of rigid ideas about your protagonist-in-progress, as you feel your way toward a concept (like ‘freedom’ in this article’s example) that can capture both the core desire and core fear of your character. Give it a try!
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