What is a Root Fear, and why should we care about it as character-driven fiction writers?
Fear itself is an easy concept to understand because everyone has fears. We have them as writers, as partners and parents, and as human beings. Every single character in the stories we create has fears too.
But as simple a concept as fear is to understand, it's one of the trickier Essential Core Values to concisely nail down.
Sometimes what may seem like a truly legitimate fear actually represents a deeper fear. And since our stories often depend on fear for character motivations and conflicts, we need to be able to separate Surface Fears from the deeper Root Fears so we can use each type of fear strategically.
In today's article, we'll break down the difference between a Surface Fear and a Root Fear and look at some examples that demonstrate why understanding the difference is so important.
Then, I'll show you 2 different approaches to figuring out exactly what your character is truly afraid of.
Root Fear vs. Surface Fear
So what is the difference between a person's Root Fear and their Surface Fear?
Imagine you are Mario, facing down Donkey Kong in his own booby-trapped house.
You're trying to help your friend (the captive at the top of the ladder maze), but DK keeps tossing barrels and nasty surprises your way. What do you fear?
With that first barrel speeding right toward you, the first fear that comes to mind is probably getting hit and run over by a heavy wooden barrel. That's really going to hurt.
But then you manage to jump that barrel and see your next obstacle: a slick, open-faced ladder hanging precariously from some rickety scaffolding. It's your only way up, but you're afraid it won't hold your weight. You fear that if you try to climb that ladder, you'll fall.
Both of those examples are Surface Fears. You fear experiencing a particular situation in specific ways. The fear of discomfort and fear of failure are instinctive reactions to immediate situations. These fears are at the top of your conscious mind because the circumstances make them more likely to happen.
But if you think about why you fear getting hit by a barrel or falling off a ladder, some deeper fears begin to emerge...
If you get hurt and can't move, you'll be vulnerable to even more pain and danger.
If you fall off the ladder, you might fall far below to the ground and die.
If you're hurt or dead, you can't help your friend. Your friend could get hurt or die. You could lose the person you love.
These are examples of Root Fears. In this scenario, there are layers of fears, varying in intensity and depth—fear of pain, fear of loneliness, fear of death, etc.—just like the increasing difficulty of the physical obstacles you'd have to defeat to save your friend from Donkey Kong.
Surface Fears are usually concise or specific. They exist within a particular set of circumstances and may be easy to ignore or forget about at any other time. Surface fears also tend to be physical (or "external" to the character), like a fear of a certain thing happening.
Root Fears live deep in our psyches. They represent ways we can experience loss on a visceral level. Root Fears usually have no easy or quick fix and may bring deep, long-term suffering. They are direct emotional reflections of feelings we are avoiding experiencing. Root Fears also often affect the way we make everyday decisions, so they subconsciously steer the direction of our lives.
Why do we care about Root Fears as storytellers?
In a positive transformation (a growth arc), the first decision point a character is often faced with is centered around an acute fear. This fear, along with that first important decision, sets the tone and direction of the story.
If we set up the wrong fear at that first decision fork, or if we don't understand the true root fear that decision represents, the entire second half of the novel will suffer.
You might end up with a soggy middle. Or your black moment might be meh and lackluster. Or you may end up writing a totally different story than you intended—that last one is especially a danger for pantsers who are trying to write on spec or stick to an approved synopsis.
The entire Emotional Transformation Ladder in every character's growth arc depends on correctly identifying their true Root Fear for that story.
Learn more about the Emotional Transformation Ladder and the one specific question you can ask yourself to unstick your story.
So being able to quickly and concisely nail down a character's most story-relevant Surface and Root Fear is essential to writing a clean first draft.
Examples of a character's Root Fear manifesting as a Surface Fear
Let's look at a few examples of Surface Fears and the different Root Fears they can represent.
Surface Fear: Falling in love
Ginny is afraid to fall in love. Why?
Possible Root Fear #1
She's afraid of getting hurt. If Ginny falls in love, she'll be vulnerable to experiencing emotional pain. Whether by choice or accident, the person she loves might leave her.
Ginny's Root Fear is this scenario is being alone. She's afraid of falling in love because she's afraid of being left on her own, with no one to share her life with.
But that seems counter-intuitive, right? Wouldn't falling in love fill that need for companionship? Why assume her relationship will fail?
Fears—both Surface and Root Fears—are often based in our personal histories. For our characters, that means backstory. Ginny fears opening herself up to the vulnerability of true love because something happened in her past to hurt her in a specific way.
Based on that logic, you might say, 'Okay, but doesn't that mean Ginny's actual Root Fear is being vulnerable?" And you might be right. Surface Fears are usually easy to identify, but Root Fears are complex, and they can be represented by more than one Surface Fear.
Making your job as the storyteller even harder, Root Fears are story-specific. So whether Ginny's true fear is being vulnerable or being alone is up to you. Which Root Fear sets up the growth arc you want her to experience in your story? Which best fits the time frame, the setting, and the end crisis that Ginny will have to overcome?
So with that extra wrinkle in mind, consider these other reasons (Root Fears) why Ginny might be afraid of falling in love (her Surface Fear).
Possible Root Fear #2
She's afraid of losing her independence.
Perhaps she comes from an abusive home life or is recovering from a marriage to a controlling spouse (lots of juicy backstory to explore here).
Possible Root Fear #3
She's close to achieving her career dream and believes splitting her focus will derail her success. She fears professional failure.
Maybe her need to prove herself professionally is greater than her need to feel loved (likely also based in backstory).
Surface Fear: Guns
Jacob is afraid of guns. Why? And what does that mean, exactly?
Is he afraid of seeing a gun? Holding and using a gun? Having a gun used on him? Being near a loaded gun?
This is an example of a Surface Fear that is not specific enough. Without defining the details of Jacob's Surface Fear regarding guns, we can't dig deeper to understand what that fear represents.
Possible Root Fears #1 and #2
Let's assume we investigated Jacob's backstory a little more and learned that he's afraid of a gun being used on him (Surface Fear) because he lives in a neighborhood where gun violence is common and his father was punished for disloyalty with an intentional gunshot injury.
In this case, Jacob's Root Fear is losing his mobility. If someone shot out his kneecaps, he would no longer be able to work and provide for his child.
Or, your story might go even deeper and set up loss of mobility as Jacob's Surface Fear and decide that his Root Fear is being unable to support his family.
The story's crisis events for each Root Fear—loss of mobility vs. being unable to support his family—would need to be set up differently so that Jacob can face and conquer the right Root Fear at the right time in the story.
Pro Tip: A character can have more than one Surface Fear in a story, but it's best to focus on a single Root Fear. Unless you're writing a long series centered on multiple stages of growth for one central character, like in urban fantasy.
So then, let's look at a few other possible Root Fears that Jacob's original fear of guns might represent.
Possible Root Fear #3
He fears holding a gun (Surface Fear) because he's a retired assassin and believes that picking up a gun will tempt him back into the violent lifestyle he's trying to walk away from.
Possible Root Fear #4
He fears being in the general vicinity of a gun because guns represent death. Their loud reports make him flinch, and Jacob can only keep his trauma repressed if he doesn't think about the people he has lost to gun violence.
Can you see how all these different Root (and Surface) Fears would change Jacob's on-page story in vastly different ways?
In order to create stories that resonate, you need to know up front what type of transformation your character will need to undergo so you can set up the right series of trials and challenges to get them there.
Use these 2 techniques to identify the right Root Fear
Our creative minds are wonderful, sometimes maddening things. People think and process information differently, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to craft a story.
So, next we'll walk through two different approaches to get the same result: How to isolate and derive your character's Root Fear from their Surface Fear.
#1: Ask yourself (or your character) what the Surface Fear represents. Then keep asking.
In Ginny's example above, I gave a few different possibilities that her Surface Fear of falling in love might point to: emotional vulnerability, loss of independence, or damage to her career. Choosing any of these answers requires at least some knowledge of Ginny's backstory.
What deeper fear does the Surface Fear represent? (What emotion is the hero avoiding experiencing?)
If you prefer to approach story problems head-on, sussing out the driving Root Fear for the growth arc may be as simple as looking one level deeper into the character's psychological history and sorting through possible Wounding events in their backstory.
This technique works because we're not trying to jump directly to the true Root Fear. We're simply exploring the different levels and layers of fears that live beneath the surface of our character's psyche. (Like the stacked scaffolding levels in the Donkey Kong screenshot at the start of this article.)
So what does that actually mean? How do we use this technique?
Ask the question "What emotional experience does [the specific Surface Fear] represent?" and get an answer. Then use that answer to ask the question again and dig deeper. For example:
What does Ginny's fear of falling in love represent? She is afraid of getting hurt, emotionally.
What does her fear of getting hurt emotionally represent? She is afraid of being vulnerable.
What does her fear of being vulnerable represent? She is afraid of being betrayed.
When you can't dig any deeper with this question, or when you land on an answer that feels right for your story, you've probably found the Root Fear.
In my example above, your story might have stopped at the first question. Or the second answer may have felt right. Or maybe you needed to keep going even further past the third option.
Pro Tip: Trust your gut about how deeply you need to dig, but remember that there's no harm in going deeper. You can always back up and use what you've already brainstormed if this process starts feeling heavy or goes off the rails.
But sometimes, even the most analytical storytellers can get stuck. If this open-ended technique doesn't spark any ideas, try Technique #2 below.
Learn how to Build Breakthrough Backstories for your characters that can help you bust through creative blocks and write a stronger story from the very first scene.
#2: Fill in the Root Fear Discovery Exercise and go with your first instinct
Sometimes our brains shut down from too many choices. If considering your character's whole backstory makes you feel overwhelmed and leaves you with crickets, revise the question in Technique #1 as a focused statement:
__________[Character name]_________ is afraid of ________[Surface Fear event]__________ because they're actually afraid of feeling __________[Root Fear emotion]___________.
I used a version of this technique in my second example with Jacob. Did you catch that?
He fears holding a gun (Surface Fear) because he's a retired assassin and believes that picking up a gun will put him back in the unhealthy mindset he's trying to put behind him.
Jacob is afraid of holding a gun (Surface Fear) because he's actually afraid of falling back into his career as an assassin and becoming unfeeling and emotionally void (Root Fear).
Let's look at the second example:
He fears being in the general vicinity of a gun because guns represent death. Their loud reports make him flinch and Jacob can only keep his trauma repressed if he doesn't think about the people he has lost to gun violence.
Jacob is afraid of being around guns (Surface Fear) because he's actually afraid of reliving how he lost a close friend to gun violence (Root Fear).
When you use this technique, go with whatever comes to mind first when you get to a blank in the template. By giving yourself a literal blank to fill in, your brain has to make a split-second choice, and that often eliminates the mistakes we make when we think too long or hard about a decision.
If you're unhappy with your first fill-in, you can adapt the repetition style of the Technique #1 and repeat the exercise using the new answer. Building on our last example with Jacob...
Jacob is afraid of reliving how he lost his best friend to gun violence (new Surface Fear) because he's actually afraid of feeling the crushing guilt that always comes along with those memories (new Root Fear).
When do you stop digging deeper and choose a Root Fear for your character's story transformation arc? That's totally up to you.
No matter what technique you choose, be careful not to overanalyze this Essential Core Value. Root Fears often reflect a character's Void—the basic human emotion or experience they lack—so if you find yourself sinking deeper into a quagmire of indecision, pick something that feels like a good starting point and start crafting your story around that Root Fear. You can always revise and make tweaks later.
Need a refresher on Void? Learn about Void and the other three Essential Core Values every character in your stories needs. Yes, even the characters who aren't your mains.
Keep learning: More self-study resources
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Questions or comments?
Which made the most sense to your brain: Technique #1 or #2? Have you worked with Surface and Root Fears before? How do you layer them into your story?
Let me know if you have any questions about today's article!