A Little Phobia Goes a Long Way

comic guy panicking phobia

“Eek! A mouse!”

People are emotional creatures – they get caught up in things and act irrationally (and don’t realize it until later). If you’re having trouble working that into your writing, adding a phobia can help because even though phobias are irrational, they follow certain rules.

A Little Background on Phobias

A phobia is an irrational reaction of fear to something that is not dangerous (generally speaking). “Irrational” being the key word and the reason why they’re useful for having characters behave irrationally in believable ways.

Most people think that phobias start because of a traumatic experience – someone who has a near-death experience because of a fall becomes terrified of heights from that point on. And, yes, that can happen, but it’s actually less common. Many people are afraid of heights, spiders, or even the sight of blood with no real cause. It simply is, often for as long as a person can remember.

Interestingly enough, people who experience trauma may develop phobias that are completely unrelated to the trauma (true story). Which just underlines how completely illogical and irrational phobias really are.

Varying Degrees of Phobias

Any condition can have varying degrees – from mild to extreme, and the intensity of the person’s reaction is going to depend on how strong the phobia is. For a more mild phobia, a person might experience some discomfort dealing with it or become a little nervous. For an extreme phobia, the person could have a full breakdown and physically be unable to approach the object of the fear.

Both options and anything in between are completely plausible, but even though it is an irrational fear, it should follow rules. If someone has a complete meltdown from a little spider one day, he or she is not liable to get only slightly nervous because of a smaller one the next day. Unless given a reason to change, phobias are fairly consistent (or more likely to get worse than better).

Using Phobias in Your Writing

There are three basic steps to using phobias in your writing:

  1. Pick a phobia for a character.
  2. Set the rules
    • for what is included in the phobia
    • for how the character reacts to whatever he/she is afraid of
  3. Establish and follow the rules as you write.

Pick a Character & a Phobia

A phobia or discomfort with a topic/thing adds characterization and can make for interesting/different plot twists. If it’s a common phobia (public speaking, spiders, snakes, heights, etc.), then it can create empathy with the readers who have similar feelings.

Ron Weasley from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books is established early on as being afraid of spiders (which many of us can empathize with). This lends comic relief and motivates his actions off and on throughout the series. If you think about it, it also makes his actions even more brave (facing Aragog would be scary enough without the phobia).

If it’s a less common phobia (cats, kids, slobber, etc.), then it counts as a character quirk that makes the character stick out and seem less stereotypical. It’s also a useful way to humanize an overly tough character.

Lieutenant Eve Dallas from the J.D. Robb In Death series is a tough, no-nonsense cop who will bravely dive into just about any kind of fight you can imagine without a second thought. She’s also a bit phobic of socializing, children, heights/space travel, and a hairdresser named Trina. It makes for an interesting mix.

A person can be phobic about pretty much anything, so the field is wide open for what the characters can be afraid of. But if you need inspiration, here’s a vast list of phobias.

Set the Rules of the Phobia

Making a phobia believable is all about consistency about stimuli and reactions. That’s why it’s important to define what exactly makes the character feel the unreasonable fear, anxiety, or fight-or-flight response. And defining the stimuli means more than saying, “spiders.” There are a lot of different ways to interact with spiders (or not. Preferably not).

Here are some examples of what I mean by interaction.

  • Seeing one far away (Is seeing it enough to cause a panic?)
  • Seeing one within arm’s reach
  • Seeing a fake one
  • Seeing a picture / video
  • Thinking about it / Remembering it
  • Talking about it
  • Hearing someone talk about it
  • Touching one (if it’s a physical thing)
  • Performing the activity (if it’s an action)

As a rule, the more intimate or prolonged the contact with the object of fear, the stronger the reaction. So you’ll want to decide what level of interaction a character can deal with, what level makes him/her uncomfortable, and what level makes him/her freak out (that’s totally a scientific term).

For example, let’s say that Joe is afraid of going to the movies.

  • The thought of going makes him instantly tense although it fades quickly once he stops thinking about it.
  • Drawings of it don’t bother him (they don’t look real), but photos do because they make him picture himself there. He’ll get tense quickly and look away.
  • People trying to convince him to go with them makes his heart pound too fast and his mouth get dry. His muscles knot, and he’ll finally yell to change the subject or leave rudely because he doesn’t want to think about it. It takes a while to come down from that.
  • Passing one in a mall makes him shake in addition to those symptoms, and he picks which mall he goes to by the layout and whether he can avoid the movie theater.

See how that could affect the plot?

That’s why setting rules is really useful. They let you allow for a range of responses, and by setting them up in advance, you make the character more consistent, which in turn, makes the phobia more believable.

The responses you choose should also be fairly consistent – variations on a theme, as it were. If the character is prone to freeze and be unable to move, he/she is unlikely to suddenly get up and run away. On the other hand, if something only makes the character a bit edgy, it would be out of character to scream and run away.

If you research common symptoms for phobias, you’ll find that specific phobias have more typical symptoms. Some of the more universal ones are…

  • Hyperventilating
  • Shakes
  • Cold
  • High heart rate (or the feel of one – AKA an adrenaline spike)
  • Throat closing up
  • Screaming
  • Crying

The symptoms are generally uncomfortable, embarrassing, or both, so it’s no wonder most people try to avoid whatever their phobic of.

Establish & Follow the Rules

Like any other characterization, the phobia should be established early on – or at least the 1st time the stimulus is introduced. You don’t have to have a character confess to a strange phobia early on when nothing has brought up that topic (please, don’t). But a reader shouldn’t be able to look back and say, “Rita wasn’t afraid of dogs in Chapter Two…” or “But Rita was terrified of dogs two paragraphs ago!” unless there’s a reason for that.

I’ve blabbered on too long already to go into detail, but suffice to say that phobias don’t disappear quickly. They can weaken slowly over time (usually because of repeated exposure to the stimulus), they can stay the same, or they can suddenly get worse due to stress or other pressures (like slight nerves becoming a full-blown phobia).

Phobias are like fat: infuriatingly quick to put on and agonizingly slow to take off.

Fortunately for our characters, they’re made up. That means that we can subject them to these uncomfortable things for our convenience and amusement. If a character is being too logical or tough, we can throw in a little irrational behavior by giving them a phobia. Then, instead of having to try to get caught up enough to figure out what an overwrought person would do, we can simply follow the rules of the phobia – a little phobia goes a long way.

Convenient, yeah?

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