9 Fundamental Fears That Motivate Your Characters

To write a great character in a screenplay or novel, it helps to have a model of human personality that rings true.

For writers of fiction, the model doesn’t need to be scientifically validated, but it does need to be useful.

To be useful as a writing tool, the model must help us to:

•    understand ourselves
•    understand other people
•    create characters
•    create a character arc

The most useful model that I have found is called the Enneagram.

1024px-Enneagram.svgThe Enneagram is an ancient symbol and system of thought.

It seems to have developed over many centuries, and has been influenced by many cultures and philosophies. Its true origins are shrouded in the sands of time, but early influencers may include the Pythagoreans, the Neoplatonists, and the Desert Fathers.

In the twentieth century these traditions were combined with modern psychology and popularized by various New Age teachers and North American Jesuits.

Given this history, or lack thereof, it should come as no surprise that most scientists and many therapists view the Enneagram with great skepticism.

Which, for a writer of fiction, is neither here nor there.

For us, the Enneagram passes the test for usefulness.

It is a workable model of human personality and behavior that can help us to better understand ourselves and other people, and can help us to create compelling characters who undergo a believable and satisfying character change.

What Are You So Afraid of?

The Enneagram describes nine core types of human personality, each of which is driven by a different dominant fear.

There are, of course, many types of fear.

We will experience most of these fears at some point in our lives.

But one deep, hidden fear will tend to dominate and control us.

This dominant fear will motivate us, and shape our personality more than any of the other fears.

As Tolkien might say:

One fear to rule them all,
One fear to find them,
One fear to bring them all,
And in the darkness bind them…

So what exactly are these nine fundamental fears?

First of all, these are not the fears that we are born with, but the fears we develop in early childhood.

Research suggests that there are only two fears that everyone is born with:

•    the fear of falling
•    the fear of loud noises

All other fears are learned in infancy.

And a human child has everything to fear.

To them, the world is a strange, new, and terrifying place. A newborn cannot feed or defend itself. On its own, a human baby is absolutely helpless. If abandoned in the wilderness, it would soon perish.

But most of us survived our childhoods, for better or worse. We were raised in families of one sort or another, by adults who did their best to feed and protect us.

And somehow we got through it to become the adults we are today.

But no one gets through childhood unscathed.

You Are What You Fear

Each of us is controlled by a fundamental fear that we are mostly unaware of.

Early in life, we found a way to deal with that fear.

A defense mechanism.

And it worked.

But to deal with that fear, we changed ourselves.

And that change continues today in the form of our personality, our beliefs, and our actions.

We perceive the outside world through the lens of that personality.

A lens long-ago distorted by our dominant fear.

That lens now distorts our view of everything and everyone around us.

It’s as if everyone is walking around with a map of the world in their heads, but not all the maps are the same. There are nine different maps, and it’s hard to tell if someone else is using the same map as you.

Most of them are not.

This can cause some major problems in relationships.

As you may have noticed.

If we could understand how others see the world, it would help us to get along with people better.

We could create better relationships, better families, better lives.

And better characters.

The Nine Fears

In the Enneagram system of personality, the nine fundamental fears are:

1. Fear of being evil

This is the fear of being bad, corrupt, or imbalanced. Characters dominated by this fear try to avoid being condemned. They want to be correct and consistent, able to justify themselves and their actions. They can be highly critical of others, and self-righteous.

This character type is The Reformer.

2. Fear of being unloved

These characters want most of all to be loved. To achieve this, they give love to others, expecting others to give love back. But no other type is as giving as they are. These generous characters may be disappointed by what they get in return. At times they may be manipulative and vindictive.

This character type is The Helper.

3. Fear of being worthless

Characters dominated by this fear want to be worthwhile and valuable. They crave attention and are eager to impress. Desperate to distinguish themselves, they strive for admiration and acclaim. They fear failure and humiliation, and can be deceitful, hostile, and even psychopathic.

This character type is The Achiever.

4. Fear of being insignificant

These characters fear losing their identity. They want to be themselves, and protect their feelings. They put their emotional needs first. They yearn to express themselves with beauty, to find ideal love, and to live out their fantasies. But they are vulnerable to self-indulgence, self-destruction, and emotional breakdown.

This character type is The Artist.

5. Fear of being incompetent

These characters work hard to master a system of knowledge or a set of skills. They are keen investigators and conceptualizers. Intellectual and detached, they can be reclusive, eccentric, and even schizophrenic.

This character type is The Observer.

6. Fear of being without support

These characters crave a sense of security, and they fear losing guidance. They often find support and guidance within an organization. They seek the approval of others. Slow to trust, they may test those around them, and they can be paranoid.

This character type is The Loyal Skeptic.

7. Fear of being deprived

These characters have a great appetite for life, and are greedy for new experiences. The most extroverted type, they are escape artists who fear being trapped by their inner pain. They may have mood swings and mania.

This character type is The Adventurer.

8. Fear of being controlled

These characters are highly independent and self-confident. They are natural born leaders, but can also be bossy and domineering. Self-driven and enterprising, they deny their own emotional needs. They can be ruthless, vengeful, and sociopathic.

This character type is The Leader.

9. Fear of separation

These characters strive to avoid loss and fragmentation. Desiring peace and harmony, they make excellent communicators and mediators. They dissociate from conflict, and possibly from themselves. They may be numb or even catatonic.

This character type is The Diplomat.

That’s a quick glimpse into the Enneagram system.

Of course, we all possess some elements of each of these types, because the nine fears are universal. But for each character, one fear dominates, and so does one character type.

It’s important to know the character type of your protagonist, and also of the other characters that your hero comes into contact with.

Because it can greatly improve your writing.

And maybe even your life.

In future posts we will explore in more detail the nine fundamental fears, the nine character types, and the nine stages of character change.

Next: 9 Character Types That Will Improve Your Story

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