Eek!

First off, thanks to all of you who came to an event on my tour, some of you traveling impressive distances! You asked the best questions, and it was a joy to meet you!

And, since I’m just getting the hang of social media, I’ll say now what I should have said a few months ago: If you like, you can follow me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. Not much there about writing, though. At the moment it’s mostly spring flowers, and you can see some of the beautiful places I happened across on my tour, like a prairie river walk in Naperville, Illinois, or a bird sanctuary-nature preserve in Petaluma, California. And a silly selfie of my condition when I returned after a redeye from California–as a dead tree!

Now for the post!

On December 23, 2016, Poppie wrote: I have a fairy MC whose idea of excitement is a pile of books. But life in the modern “people” world is often unpredictable and full of dangerous machines and creatures… the things he avoids as much as possible. He’s forced to confront his fears when he is recruited with other young fairies to form a society, where the main object is to rescue fairies from danger.

The problem is, how do I make him cowardly, without him coming off as whiny or annoying?

Two of you weighed in.

Christie V Powell: Give him a reason: Is he afraid because he once witnessed something tragic or scary? Or does he have a big goal or dream that he wants to stay alive and well for? Was he betrayed by someone? If he has a reason, I think his fear would be more relatable.

Another idea: When have you felt afraid? Pull from that experience. I sometimes avoid conversations because I dislike conflict. If I were writing a cowardly character, I could use those experiences, probably by showing some thoughts (‘I could say something friendly, but what if she misjudges it and thinks I’m being forward or condescending? Best say nothing.”).

Song4myKing: If he knows he’s cowardly, I think it can help. Whiny and annoying characters are the ones who think the world owes them something, or think they are somehow great, or somehow exempt from doing the grunt work everyone else should be doing. Your fairy may whine and be annoying to the fairies as a front, but if the readers know that he sees his own shortcomings, they’ll be less likely to want to slap him.

And acknowledging his timidity (especially if he’s telling the story) can sprout opportunities for humor – which helps make just about any character likable.

I’m with both of you. And humor is great for likability.

Thanks, Christie V Powell, for sharing your fear. Here’s one from my life, which you can use however you like. During the year when Ella Enchanted, my first published book, was going through the publishing process, I became convinced I would die before it came out. When I had to fly during that year, I was paralyzed with terror. I know there are scientific reasons that explain why planes, loaded with people and luggage, get off the ground–but I don’t understand them. Intuition says, Impossible!

A friend whispered a Jewish superstition to me that’s supposed to keep you safe, which, while not believing in it any more than I believed that planes really could fly, I adopted. I can’t tell it here or it will stop working for me, but if you know a Jew who has a great-grandmother or if you are a Jew with such a great-grandmother, ask her to whisper it in your ear. That superstition has kept me calm on flights ever since. I haven’t used it in any additional circumstances, though there are others that scare me too, but the practice is a little uncomfortable and inconvenient and I don’t want it to take me over. If you find it out, don’t publish it! It’s secret!

I don’t think I’m being whiny to make the confession above. People’s fears are often interesting. Readers are likely to be drawn in rather than put off. Imperfection humanizes characters–even if they’re elves!

In this case (unlike mine), the elf has a real reason to be afraid. The mission of this society is to rescue elves from danger–so the danger isn’t imaginary. Not being afraid would be odd. His fellow elves are likely to be afraid, too. How do they handle their fear? This is a great opportunity for character development, because we all process, manage, and give in to fear differently. We, the writers, can experiment with lots of ways on our characters and decide which will best suit our MC. We can try to write a minor character whiny elf (probably not easy) and give the whining to him or her.

Is fear whiny if it’s just in thoughts? To me, a whine involves an annoying sound, and it needs repetition. If he rarely speaks of his fear, he’s unlikely to be whiny. But I think he can talk about it often and still not be whiny. As Song4myKing suggests, he can be funny. Comedians often turn their foibles into humor. This elf can do that, too.

His nattering on about his fears may even set his companions at ease. He’s far more frightened than they are. And they may also feel less alone.

In characters and people, there’s nothing wrong with fear. A person or character entirely without fear is exceptional if not troubling. What one does with fear is what counts. If, out of fear, our elf lets a friend go into danger alone, the reader may not like him, and his talk of fear may then sound unpleasant.

Of course, he can let the friend go into danger alone the first time–and redeem himself later, and I believe the reader will forgive him.

I’m charmed by this MC’s love of books and wonder if that might be another tool to address the whiny factor. He can remember his favorite fictional characters and bring their strengths in to help him, with varying results. Humor may be discovered there, too.

Also, as is always true, we can fix whining–and see more clearly whether it is or isn’t whining–in revision. When we gain some distance from our story, its flaws become evident–and fixable–and so do its virtues, like the perfectly nuanced fear of the MC we thought was whiny.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your technophobic elves discover a high-tech bomb ticking away in their home, the basement of an office building. If the bomb goes off, they and hundreds of people will die. Each is struck with terror. Describe their behavior. Write the scene.

∙ Your (human) MC discovers, at the riding camp she begged her parents to send her to, that she’s afraid of horses. She knows no one at the camp. Going home is not an option. Write a scene. If you like, write the story.

∙ If we’re discussing fear, we can’t skip a haunted house. This one appears on an island in the middle of a lake where the day before there were only trees. Light burns in an attic window, and black smoke issues from three chimneys. The smoke wafts to our MC’s town. People choke. Babies can barely breathe. Someone has to enter the house, get to the source of the smoke, and stop it. Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Awesome post, Mrs. Levine! I’m very honored that you chose to answer my question. I feel much better about my character and I even got some new ideas for my story.
    Thank you so much for all your work! : )

  2. Jenalyn Barton says:

    This is a great post, although I do think that being cowardly and being fearful are two different things. As pointed out, everyone has fears. I think the difference is that the cowardly let their fears get the better of them and act selfishly in order to avoid their fears. Many times cowards are willing to put others at risk in order to keep themselves safe. Simply being afraid does not make one a coward. So if you’re intent on making this MC a coward, you’ll probably have to eventually have them redeem themselves in order to make them more likeable.

    On the subject of fear, I had an experience with it just the other day. It was late in the evening after the kids were in bed, and I had finished with the TV show I was watching, so I decided to try and find a new show to watch. I decided to give Supernatural a try, since I had heard a lot about it. To give you a bit of context, I used to watch murder mysteries such all the time, and I would be okay. But for some reason watching this episode seriously freaked me out. It didn’t help that the show opened with a mother being killed by some supernatural phenomenon when she goes to check on her baby in the middle of the night. And then to have the main ghost in the episode be a mother who killed her children and then killed herself out of grief and guilt. And I guess that just hit a nerve with me, the mother of two little boys, one of which is only 3 months old. I was so seized by fear that it took a hug from my husband and a lot of prayer and singing hymns to myself to calm down enough to go to sleep. I don’t think this incident makes me a coward. I think my sensibilities as a mother have changed, to the point where I can no longer watch some of the things I used to. Basically, I learned that sometimes fear can take you by surprise, and that is okay to be afraid of something, as long as you don’t let your fear get the better of you and you do something you will later regret.

    • Yikes! I’m not watching that one!
      I remember an article from Orson Scott Card where he said that he can read a blood-and-gore type story without blinking an eye, but he watched one movie where kids were dragged off stage to certain death while their parents were held back, and that was too much for him.
      Books can be scary too. “Brian’s Hunt” by Gary Paulsen had a terrifying bear chase scene. I will also be scarred for life after reading his “Guts”, the true experiences behind the stories in his books.

      • Jenalyn Barton says:

        I’ve noticed that as well! The scenes that get me the most are almost always ones that have children in peril. For example, The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies, but ever since I became a mother, I get choked up watching the scene when the plane blows up and Elastigirl realizes her kids are in danger and she has to protect them. I get really emotional about it, because I find that I connect with Helen and her desire to protect her kids. Before I became a mom, I just thought that scene was really cool and action packed. Funny how becoming a parent changes your perspective and your priorities.

    • I agree with what you are saying about being cowardly and fearful. In my mind they are different.

      That must have been a really scary experience!

  3. Hi guys! I have a question. When I was little, I loved writing princess fairytales and stuff, and my family said I was great at it. But now that I’m a teenager, I’m really starting to enjoy writing more edgy mainstream stories that deal with some darker themes – I have a dead secret obsession with dystopias and I love anything with vampires or zombies *laughs evilly*. My parents are in general very freaked out by mainstream YA stuff: they call it “desensitized and barbaric” and they don’t even know what it is! I know they would kill me if they read what I’ve been writing lately. But I don’t feel like a princess-story kind of writer anymore. Do you guys have any tips?

    • Hmm, I can in someways relate to that, Enchanted. I think you should try to respect your parents, but I think you also can indulge yourself in the things that you believe. I think you should probably try to tell your parents, but also try to respect them.
      I don’t know if this is any help. I’m sorry.

      • Hey, thanks. I do really feel like writing the stories; they’re a lot of fun. I think I’ll get my first story done and see what they say then.

      • I love the Lunar Chronicles! that’s a great idea! My stories usually do have a touch of fairytale in them, maybe I’ll try that. Thanks!

  4. I have a question – My MC in my WIP has a fear of flying on airplanes and heights in general. I have no experience with this fear what-so-ever because I adore heights. Do you have any tips on how I should go about writing this fear? Or any fear that I don’t have? Should I try to ask people about having fears of heights? I have a really good friend that I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me asking…but I still feel a little funny about it. Should I just take experiences of my own fears and put them into the scenes? Does anyone have any tips?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I think you can ask your friend, while assuring him that you’ll understand if he doesn’t want to talk about it. I’m not very afraid of heights, but I am a little. When I get scared, I always imagine falling. Anyone else with mild or strong acrophobia, who would like to describe what happens when confronted with a height?

    • Asking your friend is a great idea if you think they’d be comfortable with that! I also like your suggestion of taking your experience with your own fears and applying those symptoms and side effects to a fear of flying. You can draw on what you know to be a very real fear response, and tweak it if necessary to match your character’s specific fear. Both are great ways to create verisimilitude in your scene.

    • Song4myKing says:

      My acrophobia (glad to know the word now!) doesn’t include airplanes. I feel safe in an plane – I’m encased in very solid perimeters. On top of a tall building, I’ll walk right up to the railing and even lean on it if it seems strong. But if there is no railing, I’ll crawl to the edge, then lay down to look over. I know it sounds silly, but it’s what I do! My acrophobia is worst when I see someone else on an edge. I have no control over them, and I can’t feel their perfect balance and control over themselves. So I’m terrified.

      I also have a theory that fear of heights and fear small spaces are nearly opposites. Someone may have one, but will probably not have both. I don’t know how well that follows through, but I’ve seen it with my friends.

      I’m not claustrophobic, but some of my friends are: I went spelunking for the first time several years back, with a group of friends. Caves tend to have layers, and the first layer of this one was quite large. We explored, saw cool formation and tiny bats barely bigger than my thumb, then someone found the way down to the next layer, to the “slime pits.” There was no way I was going to stay behind. But when I saw the way down, I suddenly had misgivings. The cave floor dropped away, and a rope tied to a stable rock seemed to be the only way down. I didn’t want to go down, and I didn’t want to stay up either.
      And then, a few feet away, someone found a narrow hole twisting downward. One of the girls tried it, and came out below, where she could see the others coming down by rope. While some of the others couldn’t stand the thought of wiggling down the narrow chimney, I quickly stepped in. I twisted around, slid another few feet, reached and groped, down again, and soon the passage opened up. Gasp! The other girl hadn’t told me I’d come out on the edge of a precipice! A yawning chasm, probably two or three feet wide, and more importantly, eight or ten feet deep, lay between me and safety. To make it worse, the edges were sloping, and my shoes muddy and slick. I couldn’t go back up, both because I was unwilling to make a fool of myself, and because someone else was coming down. That person jumped across, no problem. I knew I should be able to do it, but oh, the bottomless pit below me! Suppose I couldn’t quite do it? Suppose I slipped? There was nothing to hold onto … But finally, I jumped. And I made it.
      On to the Slime Pits! From there, they were easy enough to get to. Several of us found ourselves in a little muddy room. It looked like a dead end, all except for a crack in the wall down at floor level. It was about a foot and a half high, and maybe two feet wide. “Is that it?” It was. It was better than I’d envisioned! Some shook their heads, but the rest of us got down on our stomachs and slid in. I pulled myself along with my elbows, laughing the entire way. Fortunately, we were slithering through several inches of mud, which cushioned our elbows from the rough rock. After 8 or 10 feet, the passage opened up, to a space big enough to turn around in, but I didn’t turn. Then it went on again, another 10 feet or so, and opened into another room, this one large enough for half a dozen people to sit up. We filled it up, laughing at the mud covering each other, and helping out if someone wasn’t dirty enough. Then people started to wonder if the oxygen levels might get too low if we stayed there. All of a sudden, they wanted to go back. I looked wistfully to where the tunnel continued, but followed the pack.
      Then I had to face the chasm again. This time, logic would say I should have no problem. I’d already done it once. Many others had done it both directions. And this time, two strong young men planted themselves on either side, to be things to grab onto. But logic doesn’t always work. And I must confess, I had to muster quite a while before I had all the courage I needed to take that tiny leap. I would come down to it, certain I would just do it, then I’d chicken out. I’d take a deep breath, and try again, and chicken out. I’d muster more courage, and try again, then suddenly, one time, I went.

  5. I’ve been dealing with anxiety regularly for awhile, and am afraid VERY often. I hated feeling like a coward, but I’ve finally come to think of courage as the willing act of going through with something that you KNOW will terrify you beyond belief, but you’ve determined that it’s worth it. Having a character feel the physical symptoms of fear, and finding excuses to avoid the danger, while justifying those excuses, would be a very human and empathetic way to illustrate a lack of courage. We expect more of our characters in fiction than we often do of actual people, however, so I think it can be a tricky balance to make him cowardly yet likable. You’ll need to find ways to compensate for this character flaw with other virtues and amiable attributes. I love the moments in stories when characters find their courage. Giving them the determination to suffer the fear for the sake of something or someone they deem important enough is so moving! I’m sure you’re figuring out what that is for your character, and it will make a great moment in your story!

  6. Just finished reading The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. I read it straight through in 3 hours (couldn’t put it down) Really good book.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’m so glad! I skipped the elves’ songs, but I used to recite (as well as I could) almost anything the orcs said! I got into the harshness of the sounds and the rhythms.

  7. Thanks to all those who’ve added their perspectives on the difference between being cowardly and fearful…that is something I’m going to think about while writing my story! : )

  8. Erica Eliza says:

    Gail, would you mind sharing the word count of some of your books? I just finished a YA fantasy (hooray!) and I know it’s short at 56,000 words (boo). I want to compare it to other MG and YA fantasy books to know just how short it is.

  9. I have a question– In my work in progress (am I right in thinking that is what WIP stands for?) that I talked about in the last post is about ice hockey. In a nutshell, my MC’s parents died a year before the story takes place and he has to struggle with life, adolescence, friends and…well his life (very specific…). Anyway, in the end his team ends up wining the series in the finals. I’m wondering if it is too dramatic to make my MC score the winning goal… I would love some feedback!!

    • I don’t think it would be too dramatic, but it is a touch predictable. I love how Pixar’s ‘Cars’ played with the archetype–you expect Mcqueen to win the race, when instead he wins in a different way. There is a whole subgenre of sports stories, but I’m afraid I’m not very well read in that genre. You might want to try to check some out and see how they end. The last couple I’ve read (about dog agility and 4H) both ended with the main characters being disqualified but reaching some personal goal or important character growth. Maybe that’s become cliche now and delivering the winning goal is new again.

Leave a Reply