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Context introduction
In my story the protagonist is both curious and fearful. He wants to know what is in a forest but is too afraid to go inside. He is also distracted by his basic needs for food and water.

This is a subplot of a greater plot where the character first overcomes his fear and his biological desires that are holding him back before confronting some supernatural power.

Question
How can I write this subplot where the protagonist overcomes his internal flaws while achieving the following:

  • Make the process believable and non-contrived
  • Create some character development and make the readers sympathize the character

Attempts at solution

  • Maybe Make the character fail a few times and show that the character recognizes and accepts the responsibility of failure (instead of blaming). This may make the character likable for the readers.

  • Make the things that is holding the character back things that are reminiscent of things that holds some of the readers back in real life, so it is believable and the readers will want to know how they are overcome. (I don't have any specific ideas in mind though)

3 Answers 3

4

The trick is to link his internal flaws and deliberations to clear, concrete details. That gives him something to do, something to engage with. It gives him a way to express his character.

In this case, he's conflicted about entering the forest. That means you want one or two very specific things that he wants to find in the forest, and also one or two very specific things that he is afraid of finding in the forest.

  • If he's hoping to find a unicorn, but is afraid of bandits, maybe he'll try to hide in a bush and listen to the forest, to help him decide what to choose.
  • If he's looking for a safe place to hide from somebody but he's afraid of getting lost, maybe he'll start by edging along the forest, constantly considering hiding places and rejecting them, steeling himself (or faltering) to step inside.
  • If he's hoping to find buried treasure but is afraid of deadly forest-ghosts, then maybe he'll buy a bunch of charms and protection spells -- on credit, and then feel miserable if he's still afraid to go in.

--and so on.

"Wants to know what's inside" is a somewhat weak motivation on its own - unless you additionally provide some enticing rumors or suggestions, specifics that give your protagonist specific goals and threats to deal with. Or, maybe the specifics are in your character's personality - maybe he's superstitious, and trying to prove his own bravery. Maybe he's in love, and thinks the seldom-visited forest will undoubtedly have something strange and wonderful that would make a special present.

Any of these gives you concrete details - which gives you some immediate, concrete problems and balances for your character to deal with. Showing how your character deals with a concrete problem relating to his central tension is much more effective than simply having him waffle between to extremes which remain abstract.

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There are some common themes in literature; whether you choose to use them or not is up to you.

1. Mental illness/instability

Anxiety, depression, psychosis, and phobias are common subplots and how the protagonist overcomes them. You might look online for the medical definition of these to fill out the character's deficiency. The most common solution in entertainment is the use of a guru to overcome this, but drugs, elixirs, prayer, and self-discovery of some power are also utilized

2. Interpersonal conflict

It is also common for a man v. self problem to be secondary to a man v. man conflict. A love interest coming to fruition lending to fortitude, for instance.

3. Fear of personal insufficiency

This is most typically solved with some form of training regime resulting in enhanced physical, magical, or emotional prowess.

4. The need for a companion to complete the journey

5. Increased stress from the antagonist which creates suspense, forcing the protagonist to act, or else

6. The discovery of a talisman

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This seems to be related to this question, and my answer is basically the same:

Hurt him.

You want him to go into the wood, but he hesitates? Great, that is natural and very nicely illustrates the concept of the "Threshold Guardian". Threshold Guardians generally try to prevent any kind of transformation. They are the inertia, the fear of the unknown, the indifference that keep the hero from comitting to his journey. In order to be successful (and, in the Greek sense, to evolve into a hero), the main character must defeat the Threshold Guardian. It is his first trial - the one that shows that he is worthy to participate in the journey that lies ahead and worthy, too, of the sympathy of the readers.

However, to defeat the Threshold Guardian, the main character must undergo the first minor transformation. In your case, he must get rid of his fear. As I have argued in the answer to the question above, transformation is neither pleasant nor easy. It is painful. Hence, pressure your main character until he has not other choice but to face his fear and enter the forest. In other words: Hurt him. In agreement with @Standback's answer, you need to provide detail: Why is he scared to go into the forest in the first place? Similary, why should he go in there at all? Why not stay on the nice, sunny lawn surrounding the forest? There's food, there's light, everything is well. Unless, of course, the lawn is poisoned. Or the love interest of the main character is captured and held prisonder in the wood. Or a spectre stole his soul and hid it in the forest. And so on.

On a more serious note and in case you speak German, here is a brilliant but terrifying reportage on the fate of women that have been kidnapped by Boko Haram and held prisonders in Nigeria's Sambisa forest. (This is not for the faint of heart and I post it here for the sole purpose to illustrate what a forest can be. In the case of the reportage it is hell.)

Whatever you do, make sure that your main character has no other choice left but to enter the forest.

Concerning your sub-questions:

  • To me, a believable development is one that happens gradually and is well-prepared. You need to give me the chance to the see the character evolve. Granting him a sudden epiphany on his nice, sunny lawn would not work for me. Similarly, being shown a caterpillar on one page and a butterfly on the next would not convince me. Show me the chrysalis inbetween and explain to me why the caterpillar had to pupate to survive.
  • Character development is intrinsic to the approach sketched above. Inspiring sympathy however, is a different matter. Generally, I sympathize with characters that are in trouble. Again, by leaving your character no other choice but to enter the forest, you automatically create trouble. (Mind, creating a likable character is different from creating a character that your readers can sympathize with.)

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