Sometimes when a baby is sleeping, they pull this fantastically upset face like they’re going to start bawling, and might make a noise. Then their face fades to neutral cute sleeping baby and they might take a shudder breath before resuming quiet slumber.
When this happens, it’s easy to assume they had a scary dream. This sometimes elicits comments like, “Aww, bad dream? But what could they even be dreaming of, milk all gone?”
This sentiment that a baby can’t even have a proper nightmare has always struck me as odd. I for one can think of many things that must be terrifying to a baby – primarily, abandonment. What else is their full-on wailing cry but a fear that they have needs that will not be met because there is no mommy or daddy to meet them? And that’s not a juvenile, baby-ish fear. Who doesn’t fear abandonment?
Tyler pointed out that a baby is completely helpless. And I know of parents who observed that their tiny little ones seemed to hate that when they were awake and moving; they seemed so frustrated with not being able to do anything. I imagine being totally helpless is frightening in many ways, hand in hand with what I just said. Heck, many horror games try to work off the fear of helplessness.
Babies might not be afraid of all the scary monsters we could imagine as we grow into children and then adults, but I’ll bet they’re afraid of some of the things most worth fearing in this life.
What’s funny to me is how bad people are at determining what would really, truly scare someone else a lot of the time, and even underestanding what really, truly scares themselves. Developing this skill is important for a few reasons – it’s first of all useful in building plot arcs for any of your characters. But it’s also essential in giving your villains power. A tertiary reason is it allows you leaverage over your characters.
Taking the time to really think about the unique fears of your characters certainly does teach you plenty about them, and while I’ve mentioned it’s a worthwhile exercise before, I think it’s worth mentioning again because I encounter so often proof that people seem to be really bad at it.
An online community avatar and petsite that I enjoy, Subeta, has recently been exploring just such fears; they’ve been releasing new, thematic challengers for the battle arena on a seasonal or monthly basis for a few years now, and their theme for this year is fear. Each release period, it becomes possible to do something with an NPC to instigate them to fight you, and then the following release period, they send out a cash shop item that gives a hint and adds another challenger. I’ve really enjoyed this theme of fear; the pet shop grandma will attack you if you delete three pets you purchased from her, with the accompanying claustrophobia represented by a small prison cell cash shop item, hinting of a past where she used to rescue pets from abusive owners (and possibly attacked said owners); the zombie who runs a food store freaks out if you present him with any brewery beer, apparently because, according to the cash item, when he was still alive, he was brothers with the brewery guy who drowned him in a mash tun. You learn the name “Bubbles” isn’t ironic because it’s a cute name for a not-so-cute zombie. And the old lady who makes masks in her zepplin shop for the all-popular masquerade can’t stand it if you present your avatar without a face – which makes sense on its own, but the recently released cash item clears up that she has seen Faceless Ones and she’s afraid they’re coming for her.
In a community website like this, their ability to tell the story about the world they made around the site is quite different than writing or reading a book, but they certainly make the effort. Between site events and holiday events that might have a plot, writing site announcements from the voice of NPCs instead of just staff all the time, and adding items that tell snippets of stories about the NPCs or places or events, you get the story of Subeta. While event stories are an easy way to tell the story, this series of battle challengers is also proving effective and exciting in its own right, and it’s not just about basic fears – it’s about sitting down and thinking about what could really be scary to each individual, because staff doesn’t make it obvious. They just tell you what new NPC can be instigated, and that’s about it, and then you get the strong hint from the cash shop item. So not only did they have to think about it, but they’re making us users think about it, too.
Whether you have a dynamic where your villain thinks they know what your hero fears, gets it wrong, and maybe through trial and error they figure it out, or if they can sit and analyze it and get it right the first time, this is a skill your villain ought to have or develop if fear (and possibly suffering from that fear) is something she wants to utilize. And regardless, with how prevelant fear and facing it is, you need to learn how to do this. You need to know your characters.