The Power of the Greatest Fear in crafting a novel!

The Power of the Greatest Fear

Want to build a powerful climax to your novel? Harness the Power of the Greatest Fear to bring your character to an external plot climax, as well as an internal crisis.

We talked last time about the power of the Dark Moment Story in building that layered character. The Dark Moment story is also used to create the capstone of your novel: The Black Moment Event. This moment is not only the climax of the story, but the point of change for your character and sets up the epic finale of your novel.


The Black Moment Event hinges on understanding your character’s Greatest Fear.

Every character has a deep and abiding fear, based on his Dark Moment Story that has molded him as a person and helped established motivation for all his decisions and choices. This fear, as the novel opens helps determine what your character wants (namely, not ever repeating this fear) and guides his personality.

The key to having a greatest fear is that you want to create something that could possibly happen again, maybe not with the same people, or even the same event, but to create the same painful, emotional scenario.

This is how an author goes beyond a stereotypical, cardboard character. You, as the author, get to build your own person with his own wounds. Your character’s reaction to their dark moment story might be different than another character’s reaction to a family fight.

More, every dark moment is going to surface different kinds of fears. You can pick any fear you want out of that Dark Moment Story. It just depends on what you want to do in your story, and what story you want to tell.

The interesting part is that much of the time, authors pick a fear we relate to, which means that we will have truth in our past that we can then apply to the story. So now we’re creating characters that we can tap into in an authentic way.

In My Foolish Heart, I created a heroine who was agoraphobic. It was based on a talk show host, who’s never been in love and was trapped in her home. The reason she was trapped in her home is because she had panic attacks as a result of seeing her parents die in a horrific car accident right outside their home.

I did not understand my character. I knew her Dark Moment Story and her Greatest Fear but I couldn’t relate to her . . . or so I thought. See, I’ve always been a “brave” person–even living overseas and raising four children in Siberia. I looked at Izzy, my character, and thought she was weak.

Until . . . I started rooting around my past. I went back to a time when I myself was struggling to leave my home. I wasn’t afraid to leave but rather–overwhelmed. When I was in Russia, I had four children under the age of five, so young I had to carry two of them when we left the house. We lived in a high rise, on the ninth floor. We didn’t have a phone. We didn’t have Internet. We didn’t have running water. I didn’t have a car. And we had to walk two blocks to the little grocery kiosk. There would be times when my husband would be gone for two or three days and we’d have saltines and peanut butter in the cupboard. I’d stare at the empty shelves, wanting to conjure up anything to eat. I would think . . . I don’t know how I’m going to leave the house to buy food. I wasn’t afraid but I felt trapped, and that was enough for me to relate to Izzy and say, “Yes, this is what it feels like to be trapped in your home.”

From that emotion, I was then able to create a scene where Izzy actually was out of food and she had to go to the store. More, I was able to accurately portray her struggle.

If your character’s Dark Moment Story is something you can related to, something you can pull from your own life, you’ll create authentic situations and authentic emotions as you build that character’s story. So, don’t pick a greatest fear you can’t wrap your brain or emotions around. However, the beauty of the Dark Moment Story is that you can pick whatever greatest fear that you want. So choose wisely.


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The Greatest Fear is going to be helpful in two ways.

  1. Recreate it in the Black Moment Event. Using the Greatest Fear as a template, you’ll find an event or situation that resurrects this fear in a tangible, believable way, played out in the Black Moment Event. This gives you plotting fodder! You don’t have to set the Black Moment in cement, but you can brainstorm a number of fantastic ideas to help in the formation of your plot.


  1. The Greatest Fear adds both motivation and behavior to your character from the first page. Characters are wired to stay away from things that are going to hurt them, especially their greatest fears. So as your character walks on the page, he’s already going to be making decisions that will protect him, and keep him from getting into that dark place.


e.g. In My Foolish Heart, Izzy never wanted to leave her house. So she rigged her life so she never had to leave. She knew all the delivery numbers by memory, paid someone to deliver groceries and had a work-at-home job.


The Greatest Fear is the single most powerful ingredient you as the author can pull from the Dark Moment Story to help you build motivation, behavior and the essential Black Moment Event that builds the external climax and sets up the character change.

Next time we’ll talk about creating a powerful Internal Journey by understanding the Lie your character believes.

Until then, Go! Write Something Brilliant!





Susie May

P.S. Need help crafting a novel?  Check out our Brilliant Writer series in kindle! 







Do I like you? (creating LIKEABLE characters!)

I’ve been on quite a few planes lately as I travel to conferences, and one of the blessings is meeting new people. And every once in a while, I get lucky and sit next to something not only unusual and fun, but who is a hero.

Such was the case last week when, travelling from Minneapolis to Dallas, I sat next to a guy named AJ.  Who was a. . .firefighter!  Not a volunteer, but a professional, full-time firefighter for a town in New Jersey.  And, he was willing to talk about his profession and give me a plethora of great story ideas.

It wasn’t just his profession, however, that made him heroic. . .that was just the foundation. It was his quest.  AJ was flying down to Dallas to pick up a DOG of a friend who had passed away and driving that dog to a new home back in Jersey.

Sweet, I know.

We’ve been studying the Character Change journey over the past few weeks (  We started with understanding the steps, and building the Story Equation, staring with the Dark Moment Story.  Then, we added a Goal, fueled by the Why and the What.

But it all starts with the WHO.  Who are you and why should we like you? 

When your character walks onto the page, this is the first obstacle an author must address. . .making a reader LIKE your character.  Often, a reader resists going on a journey because they simply don’t like the character.

It’s a delicate balance because the flip side is that your character must have a FLAW.

The Flaw is key because it is through the flaw that we understand your character’s change.  A flaw is the outward, behavioral expression of a character’s fear.  We avoid relationships because we are afraid of getting hurt.  We are overprotective because we don’t want our children to be killed.  We make rash decisions because we fear losing opportunities.

(I’ll bet if you look at your flaws, you can trace them to either a past fear or a future fear).

Because a great story confronts a hero’s greatest fear, and offers an epiphany, which then heals his flaw.  It’s a visible character change.

But if we don’t like the character enough in the beginning, if his flaw is too great, we’ll never stick around to see the change.

Which brings us back to likeability.  Often authors start too strong with the flaw.  They know their character has issues, and they start with him in that dark place.  Danger! If he’s too much of a jerk, the reader immediately thinks:  why should I hang around with this oaf of a guy (or gal.) They’re suddenly looking through the free books on their Kindle.

Let’s fix that.

Enter, AJ.  I am sure the guy has flaws – I didn’t hang around with him enough to know, however.  But he made a great profile for a character. Someone who, at the core, was heroic.  And that core propelled him to a heroic purpose.

When you’re creating a character, you must start at the core of your character – WHO he is, drilling all the way down to the Dark Moment Story.  But don’t stop there.  Ask your character his Happiest Moment Story as well. This is the opposite of the Dark Moment Story, but it functions on the same way.  It is something in his past that produces a greatest dream and helps cement his WANT.  (You can also use this to determine his happily ever after ending.)

AJ’s father was a firefighter.  There’s a story there, I know it.  (I didn’t want to make the guy ask for a seat change, so I didn’t pry that deep.)  But something in his past – probably good – propelled him to be a firefighter.

The Dark Moment and Happiest Moment stories comprise his core.

Now, everything he does emerges from that core.  Like saving people  (as AJ mentioned, he’s not there to save a house, but to save the lives in that house).  And, saving a dog.

So, how does this translate onto the page?

  1. Start with the core of your character. (Dark Moment Story/Happiest Moment Story).  Who are they at the core?  Teacher? Healer? Rescuer?
  2. How does that translate into a Noble Quest? (saving the dog!)
  3. How can he SHOW that core element at the beginning of the book, just a little (for example, as I was putting up my bag, I saw AJ glance my direction, as if willing to help. . .in a book, the hero might take that step, even if it might be reluctantly.) I call it the Boy Scout moment.  (James Scott Bell calls it Pet the Dog, or Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)).

Now you’re free to add in the FLAW.   Show him helping the gal with her bag, (maybe it’s about to fall on him) and when she turns to thank him, he shrugs it off . . .not willing to engage in conversation.

Characters should be complicated – because people are complicated.  But they also need to be likeable.  Start your journey with a hero (even just a hint of one) and your readers will sit down with him and hang out all the way to Dallas.

Go! Write something brilliant!

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The ONE EASY Trick to SHOWING character change  

We’re giving our characters an Extreme Character Makeover over the past month – check out these posts (Nailing the Character Change Journey, and the KEY to building character motivation for change).  But nailing true Character change is hard to SHOW, right?  Because so often change happens in the inside. . .or does it?

At MBT, we teach the Story Equation – the idea that all character’s start their journey propelled by a Dark Moment Story, or some event in their past (recent or early on) that has created in their psyche a fear, a lie and a wound.

From there, the character change begins, moving your character from the LIE he believes, toward his Black Moment (Greatest Fear) his epiphany (TRUTH) and finally that Final Battle, or the thing he can do at the end that he can’t at the beginning.

But here’s the problem. 

While all that looks like INTERNAL change, it must be displayed on the page as EXTERNAL action.

So, how to you show this change? 

Here’s the TRICK:  Give your character a FLAW.

See, we all have flaws, and if you look closely at them, you’ll see that they are most often a result of our fears.  A mother fears her children getting hurt, so she overprotects. A man fears failing in his job, so he becomes a workaholic.  A woman fears being rejected, so she molds herself into being someone she isn’t.  A man fears getting his heart broken so he plays the field fast and loose, never settling down.

Our fears create our flaws, and our flaws are visible.

However, as our fears are slowly overtaken by truth, our flaws begin to change, to be healed.

So, too for our character in his journey. When our character begins to develop skills to face his fears, his flaws will begin to be healed.  During Act 2, he makes a choice contrary to his current behavior because his is no longer afraid.  And, after the epiphany, he is able to overcome his flaw and embody his triumphant final act.  He is able to “storm the castle,” or declare his love, or take the throne – whatever action he couldn’t do at the beginning because of his fears.  

But to do any of this, your character must have that Dark Moment Story to start his journey. Without this, you have no greatest fear, and thus, nothing to build his flaw on.  You’re simply picking a flaw from thin air.  In other words, your character needs a good reason for his flaw.

Here’s a bonus trick:

  • Men’s fears often stem from the past, something they don’t want repeated.
  • Women’s fears often stem from the future, or something they are trying to stop from happening (or something they are trying to make happen, because they fear it won’t).

So, when you’re developing the FLAW, look at the FEAR and determine the external behavior motivated by that fear. Then, show your character’s change by seeing the flaw at the beginning, show him slightly overcoming the flaw in the middle, and finally stepping into healing in the finale.

And remember, it all starts with the Dark Moment Story.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

P.S.  If you need help plotting your story, starting your story, or even getting the story on the page, we have a RARE, FREE Open House this Thursday, May 7, 2015.  Get a rare sneak peek at what goes on behind the scenes at MBT, as we continue our Build-A-Book series, diving deep on the Inciting Incident and Telling Yourself the Story!

Click HERE to sign up.

P.P.S  And May the Fourth be with you.

Extreme Character Makeover: Goal Building and the secret sauce of motivation

Who are you and what do you want?

I’m reading a fantastic book right now in my personal life – Mark Batterson’s All In: You Are One Decision Away From a Totally Different Life  I heard him speak at the ReWrite Conference this past February and the book’s message and timing in my life is spectacular.  It talks about going “all in” for God – but also, the power of devotion to something.


“When your life is over, the world will ask you only one question: ‘Did you do what you were supposed to do?’” That’s not just a good question. That’s the question. Did you do what you were supposed to do? It cannot be answered with words. It must be answered with your life.”  (Mark Batterson, All In)


So, in other words, a GOAL.

Last week, I talked about nailing the Character Change journey ( and how a great novel is about the character, and how the plot affects him to change and grow.

We talked about the Story Equation, a tool we use at MBT to understand our character and get the plot on the page, and how it all starts with asking WHO is our character.  Which then leads, eventually, to a Dark Moment Story – that pivotal story in your character’s past that shaped him and made him into the person he is as he walks on the page.

But we’re not done.  See, to create a great story, your character needs a GOAL. Why? Because if he has a goal, then the author can create obstacles to that goal, both internal (fears, lies) and external (flaws, villains, etc.).  And it’s the intersection of a Goal and an Obstacle that make good tension, right?

Almost. Behind every good Goal is two things:  A WANT and a WHY.  See, a character without a strong WHY behind their goal will fold at the first sight of an obstacle.  They need the WHY to power up their actions.  And the WHY causes the WANT, that formless desire that then translates into an external GOAL.

WHY + WANT = GOAL vikings_2013_tv_series-HD

Our family, being Vikings (our school mascot, our MN Football team, our heritage) loves the show VIKINGS.  Yes, there are times when I have to walk out of the room, but it’s an interesting show rife with character layers.

(*spoiler alert!* If you are also a fan and haven’t seen last week’s episode, stop reading here)


In recent episodes, King Ragnar has decided to attack Paris.  Why?  Because a monk he captured in season 1, and with whom he became great friends, cast a vision about the magnificence of Paris.  Ragnar became obsessed with seeing Paris.

MonkThen, the monk was killed by one of Ragnar’s close henchmen, thinking he was securing the favor of the gods.

Ragnar was devastated, took the monk’s cross off him, and began wearing it as he marched off to Paris.

Three episodes later, the Vikings have tried, twice, unsuccessfully, to capture Paris.  Ragnar has been seriously wounded, nearly lost his son and his brother and has sacrificed over 1000 of his men.  Still, he is undeterred in his quest.

By this time, the audience (me) is thinking – dude, it’s not worth it.  I’ve been to Paris, and yes, while it’s pretty awesome, it’s not worth losing your life and your son’s life. Go home already!

The Parisians are starving, so they send terms out to Ragnar – we’ll give you gold and riches to go away.

Ragnar seems undeterred. . .and I’m baffled.  Until he sneaks off to meet with them, and we discover what’s driving all this.  His WANT and his WHY.

He’s dying.  And he, more than anything, longs to be reunited with his monk buddy.  But they have different gods, different heavens, so, in a crazy unpredictable twist, Ragnar agrees to leave Paris alone if he is. . .wait for it. . .BAPTIZED.  Ragnar wants to become a Christian (sorta. Let’s not go overboard here).

That’s what’s been driving his relentless pursuit of Paris.

In other words, Ragnar went all in to attack Paris, with the goal of being reunited with his buddy in heaven.  Why?  Because out of all his henchmen, wives, children and kingdom, (and because he’d been betrayed in some way by them all,) the monk proved to be his most trustworthy friend.

Simplified:  WHY – true friendship (something that often eludes a King).  WANT – to be reunited in heaven. GOAL – take Paris and be baptized by their church.

Now, it makes sense.


Does your character’s goal make sense?  Is it fueled by the secret sauce of Motivation: The Why and a Want?


This weekend, best-selling novelist Steven James and I chatted about about storycrafting principles on his awesome new show, The Story Blender. We talked about how to get into character, connecting with the reader, common mistakes of first time authors, and how to bring your writing to the next level. We also touched on how to create powerful tension and put together all the key pieces to powerful storytelling.

Most importantly, we talked about creating powerful character emotions and tension by understanding what drives your character.

(you can download/listen to it here:

If you want to nail the character change journey, you need to give your Character an Extreme Character Makeover, starting with the Dark Moment Story and ending up with a powerful Why + Want = Goal.  Because once you have the goal, you can really start having some fun.  (insert tension here!)

Go! Write something Brilliant!


Susie May

PS – if you liked this blog, you might want to check our our LIBRARY of free articles.  AND, get our 5 Secrets of a Best-selling novel.