It’s almost Halloween—the time for ghouls and zombies, vampires and mummies. But let’s face it: those things are not really scary. In fact, the paradox of Halloween is that we are immune to zombies; ghosts do not truly frighten us; we have been weaned on the modern day horror flick, and in the process have become demanding consumers of The Truly Scary. So these creatures of the night are exactly the opposite—simply signs of glee, of socially sanctioned drinking, of the possibility of being naughty.
What is actually scary is the ordinary stuff of life that hits at your deepest, darkest phobia. Freud actually gave this a name: unheimlich—that feeling of being at home, but not at home. This term is often translated as “the uncanny,” but I like this idea of being at home and not at home better, because it catches the essence of a certain kind of fear that we all experience. The fear of the ordinary is a common part of the human experience.
So in this installment, I want to suggest an exercise that focuses on fear. This will help you develop your character (your deepest, darkest fear tells a lot about you). This will also help you develop plot (it is usually your character’s fear that will help move the story’s conflict). But the kind of fear I want you to work with is actually a little tricky. So I’ll do this by giving you two examples of the kind of uncanny fear I am talking about—first, by using an example of one of my acquaintances; second, by making it more personal and using an example in my own life.
I just ran into an acquaintance who has a phobia of toxins—invisible pathogens that are in everything. So she steadfastly avoids all plastics. Anything printed on a laser printer—letters, receipts, handbills—she will not touch. This means that she cannot pay her bills. Because of this irrational fear, she has developed OCD, constantly washing her hands. She wishes she could pay her bills, but she fears the toxins more: they are everywhere, invisible eels that float through the air and threaten to destroy her. For her, a letter in the mail is the sign of the corruption of society and the trap it has laid for its victims. She recently got a new apartment—to get out of this world of fear—but she finds herself irrevocably stuck. There are so many toxins in this world that she cannot even begin the overwhelming task of moving into the apartment, so she has been paying, for the last year, rent for an empty box.
Today, I walked out of the gym, and suddenly realized that during the hour I was toning my body, a large festival had built up around me—a once-a-year event called The Cruz’n for Roses Hot Rod & Classic Car Show. It’s actually a pretty big event that the City of South Pasadena puts on to raise money for its float in the Tournament of Roses Parade. And it’s real old-timey with the old-timey downtown filled with impeccably finished cars, boosters, police officers, boy scouts, and folks dressed up like rockabillies and greasers. But this actually reminded me of one of my biggest panic attacks when I first started teaching Creative Writing in Iowa.
I had just walked out of a breakfast where I had felt I was getting such poor service that I was sure the waitress was a racist. In the time that I had walked into the diner, a car show had suddenly popped up in the quaint downtown. To suddenly be confronted with an old-timey event called, of all things, “Happy Days,” filled me with dread. I did the math: the nostalgia for simpler times suddenly meant that I would live in a world of profound segregation. And everybody in that town—a town that loved its oldtiminess—was secretly a racist that pined for the 1950’s, a time when colored people knew their place.
Of course, these fears—the kind I have been describing–are irrational. And as it turned out, my waitress wasn’t really a racist at all; she was just slow; and I was a newbie from the Big City where everything moves fast. Moreover, most likely people just liked old cars and were not secretly members of the KKK. But the fear that resides in the ordinary is a powerful thing. It grips you. It fills you with its toxins. It paralyzes you. It makes you feel as if you can’t hardly stand to breathe.
So here is your exercise: think of a fear that your main character has, and make it reside in the most ordinary object—a teacup, a pebble, a ring, a hair in the shower. Then, write a vignette where those fears reach out and grab the main character, refusing to be ignored, refusing to live in the margin. If you write a vignette like this, you are well on your way to getting a plot and you might just leave the exercise with a few supporting characters you never knew you needed.