Ever notice how much our fears define us? The truth is, what a character fears reveals a lot about that person, and what a culture fears is likely to change its history.
Fears come in a lot of flavors. There are survival fears: death, hunger, scarcity, physical danger, loud noises, water, storms, and the dark are some examples of fear related to the ability to survive. Then there are social fears: abandonment, betrayal, humiliation, ostracization, lonliness. There are inner-oriented fears: the fear or being forgotten, of dying without a legacy, or living a lie. And there are externally-oriented fears: the fear of not belonging to a “tribe”, of not being well-thought of by one’s peers, of being a failure.
Personally, I believe that the more social or externally-oriented one’s fears, the more likely that person is to throw other people under the bus. Take a look at the list again. Heroes may have all the normal human survival fears, but they keep on going. The tortured, angst-ridden hero has plenty of internally-oriented fears, but keeps them under wraps. Few heroes lose sleep over whether or not they’re popular or whether they’re going to be embarrassed.
I think that’s because social and external fears are ego-driven, where the survival fears are biologically imperative and the internal fears tend to be the struggle between Id and Super-Ego, or the by-product of an overdeveloped conscience.
As for kingdoms, nations or tribes, what the group fears defines their rules and government, dictates their wars and foretells their persecutions. Do they fear anarchy? The group will tend toward absolute rule. Outsiders? Xenophobia will seal the borders and promote the advancement of the group that best fits their ideal of a native-born citizen. Questions? The government or religion will take a hard line on dogma and deal ruthlessly with supposed heresy. Disapproval of their international peers? Look at the extremes to which rulers like Stalin, Peter the Great and Kim Il Jung have gone to create spectacles and “Potemkin’s villages” to win the approval and envy of other nations, even if the approval is based on a lie.
So what does it tell us when a person fears death more than anything else? Personally, I believe that makes for a very dangerous person, someone who will sacrifice any value, betray any principle and turn on anyone who poses a perceived threat to their continued existence.
As you read the characters others create and as you create your own characters, ask yourself: What are they afraid of? You might be surprised at how much you learn from the answer.