A Mother's Greatest Fear
The Great Motivator
Fear is a great motivator both in real life and in fiction. With every character I create, I ask, What is his or her greatest fear? The answer to the question leads to the character's goal in the story--to avoid the feared object or outcome--which then leads to the character's actions, which then drive the plot.
The concept of fear is a thread that runs through all of my writing, perhaps because I love that kind of tension. I enjoy writing and reading the dark torment of someone struggling to overcome their internal fear. I prefer internal fear to external fear for the same reason I like psychological horror movies over monster movies. My imagination creates a much scarier scenario when left to its own devices.
In Mother's Nature, Raven is afraid to learn the truth about her sister's childhood death and her journey, her goal is to face the fear and recall her memories through her art. In The Orbiter, Ethan is afraid to live without Carrie, the grounding force of The Pull, and it drives him to find her over and over again.
Fear Takes Center Stage
In Broken Blue Willow, fear took center stage in two forms. The most obvious insertion of fear was through the use of Em's superstitions and her constant battle to control a perceived fate through certain superstitious behaviors, sometimes with the opposite effect. When developing the story, I needed to invent a reason/motivator for Em to avoid the dishes as an adult, since we rarely hold on to such beliefs past childhood.
As a child, her worst fear was that something horrible would happen to her mother. Now an adult, Em has a husband and a baby on the way. What is her greatest fear now? Obviously, a mother's greatest fear is for harm to come to her child. Or even worse, death. Right? But what if I could amp up the tension? What if I could think of something worse? This is when my brain goes to very dark places.
I thought about different types of childhood accidental deaths. The story had no room or reason for the violent murder of a child, or the legal aftermath. Then I decided to focus on infant deaths--SIDS, illness, choking, shaken baby (although this too seemed too violent for the story). All of these seemed to reliant on happenstance for Em's fear of the curse to drive the plot forward.
What could be a greater fear than the death of your child? What if you caused the death of your own child? What if Em's actions were driven by the fear that she might somehow cause the death of her child? Wouldn't she do anything to prevent it? Wouldn't you?
Almost immediately upon deciding the direction of Em's greatest fear, I remembered an article by Gene Weingarten I read years ago, on the advice of my husband. Originally published in The Washington Post in 2009, the title of the piece is Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?
I remember what struck me about the article back then was how easy it is to become distracted. It has happened to me. It has happened to all of us, whether we admit it or not. And it seems everyone is even more distracted these days. This was an actual, real world, plausible scenario I could use in Broken Blue Willow.
As I wrote what I call the "hot car scene", I recalled the article, I dove deep into the worst, most gut-wrenching feelings of agony I could imagine. The horror, the panic, and the guilt would certainly drive a mother to desperate thoughts and actions. Thankfully, I only had to imagine.
A Recent Case
I listen to a few true crime podcasts, and one of them, Sworn, recently covered the case of Cooper Harris, a toddler who died in 2014 when his father forgot him in a hot car. The father, Justin, was found guilty of malice murder and sentenced to life in prison. The case is far different from one where the parent was distracted, but the horror is just the same.
The Challenge Ahead
I am not making light of these tragedies by using them as inspirational source material for my writing any more than authors who write stories about murder, rape, and terrorism are making light of those subjects. However, I do take time to think about the victims in such cases.
Now that I've tackled the absolute greatest fear, now that I've gone that dark, I'm not sure if there is a deeper shade of black. Then again, I bet I'll think of something...something vantablack.
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I write novels and poetry and this blog.