What makes an engaging character? One that we care about, and want to follow right to the end of the tale?
Fear. Pure, distilled, mortal terror. There’s not a living thing on the planet that doesn’t understand the language of threat and insecurity. It’s not a pleasant subject to deal with, but there’s nothing more gripping in a good story. Fear is human catnip.
Watch the news. Watch a movie. Read a novel. Join a conspiracy forum. Stare at the grinning flawless models in the ads and feel grey, underwhelming and insecure by comparison; afraid that you’re doing life wrong. We can’t get enough of fear. We’re hooked on it. It has the power to prove our instincts right… that there’s something very wrong.
We were prey animals once. We have a very powerful, very sophisticated (if slightly buried) fear response. In primal terms, it’s in our best interests to be aware of threats and the potential for things to go disastrously wrong. We’re hooked on the latest news to see whether it’s all sunshine and rainbows or if the proverbial’s about to hit the fan. It’s why we love zombies and disaster movies and prepping for the apocalypse. It’s stressful and unpleasant, but it’s also in our best interests to think about danger and avoid it whenever we can.
Harness that deep-seated fear in your writing, and you can grip people. (Think about Stephen King.) You’re not just telling a story; you’re speaking to our in-built primal mechanics. Do fear well and you’re dusting down the catnip for us, your readers.
(Just don’t forget the light relief.)