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Wacko Wednesdays: Phobias

Since it is Halloween, let’s talk FEAR.

When idiosyncratic anxieties come to the surface, automatically a character is more interesting. The reader wants to know when and where your main character learned the life-altering fear of deli counters or water balloons. Was she born that way? Was she kidnapped by evil clowns and made to drink through latex?

We’ve all heard of phobias like Arachnophobia (spiders), agoraphobia (being unable to escape), and acrophobia (heights). The Phobia List grows daily. An expert can place a New Latin prefix onto the ending “-phobia” and a new diagnosis is born.

But before you dive in to making your character truly off their rocker, let’s take a minute to look more closely at the difference between mild anxiety and function-freezing fear.

Phobics-awareness.org uses this defintion of a “phobia:”

A specific phobia is an extreme fear of a specific object or situation that is out of proportion to the actual danger or threat. In addition, an individual with a specific phobia is distressed about having the fear, or experiences significant interference in his or her day-to-day life because of the fear.

Ok, that’s poorly worded. In layman’s terms, phobias are fears that cause overreactions to the extreme. What’s extreme? Professionals would qualify a reaction as extreme if it interrupts the regular flow of a person’s life. A total wack job would sell a brand new house if he saw a spider got into the kitchen. Most of us who are merely afraid of spiders would yell for someone else to kill it and just avoid the kitchen for a few minutes.

You may want to give your character a mild case of phobia. Mild phobias are believable for any character, e.g., many children are afraid of thunderstorms, but they are willing to come out from under the bed when the storm subsides.

Extreme phobias are more rare, e.g. the child or adult that refuses to ever leave their basement because a thunderstorm may pop up at any minute. Giving your character a phobia this serious will take over the premise of your book. In fact, this type of “phobia-induced shut-in” character is practically an archetype: the shut-in that has to go out on their front stoop or else the world will end, the murderer escapes, their cat will die, etc. The inherent conflict between inner fears and lofty morals is a time-worn (but awesome!) story premise.

Sidenote: Be aware that a lot of the labels for phobias change and disappear as new science and data collection surfaces. Just be prepared to do a lot of research on that particular diagnosis; start with this article, check out the DSM from the local library, look over the APA’s site, and when googling, click on url’s that are from the .edu or .org domains. Read up, then go for it!

Lots of famous characters in literature and media have specific phobias, some justified (behavior learned from a previous bad experience, eg Superman and kryptonite), some irrational (like Tony Shalhoub’s TV character Monk – obsessive compulsive about germs). Real people like Howie Mandell of “Deal or No Deal” admits that he never shakes hands due to his concern about the spread of harmful substances (a.k.a. “germs”!); Howie does the fist touch instead. Holly Hunter’s new show, Saving Grace, has a character who is very afraid of small birds. Small birds? The rest of the fictional police department and all of the viewers are dying to know how that one came about.

Give your main characters a little chink in their superhero armor: give ’em an irrational fear of stuffed fuzzy bunnies. When the opponents come for them, they won’t be armed with semi-automatics, they’ll have raided the local toy store for enough fluffy cuteness to make even grandma gag. Now there’s a scene I’d love to read!

Please comment! Tell us about your fears *ahem* your character’s fears. We can give each other ideas. With Nanowrimo starting on Thursday, ideas are gold. If you do write something for this meme, please return here and leave a comment with the link to your blog or website where you posted your excerpt. Thanks!

UPDATE:  Take2max had the subject of phobias in her Sept. 21st Friday Meme that has one or two links for examples (I discovered her entry after I

had written this post.  Just goes to show you, a little wackiness makes for memorable characters!) 

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