Fear four ways

Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Maybe it's because Halloween is approaching, but lately I've been paying attention to the way fear drives characters (and readers).

Fear is useful. Fear can protect us from danger, which is why we look both ways before crossing the street. Fear can keep us safe, help us succeed, and act in ways that may contrast with our normal behaviors. Our brain's fear center is the amygdala, which regulates our ability to control fear responses. But what happens when we let fear take over our characters?


Does your protagonist have a fear or phobia? If so, how are you going to make her face her fear? If she's afraid of heights (like me) is the evidence of her innocence hidden on the roof of a skyscraper? If it's a fear of water, does she need to swim across a raging river to escape the bad guys? When there's a choice, what does she do, face her fear, or run away?

One way to build tension is to show her running away from her fear when there isn't a lot at stake. By adding this scene early in the story, you've planted a seed that will come back bigger and stronger later, when's the stakes are higher.

The hero

The more dangerous the task, the more fear, and the more heroic the effort to overcome the fear and complete the task. Anyone who risks her life to save someone may not be focused on fear, but it's there.

How does your favorite hero respond to his or her call to action? I'm reading The Outsiders, and during the fire scene, I loved the way S.E. Hinton described Ponyboy's reaction. He thought he should be scared, but wasn't, and added that he had an "odd, detached feeling."

The monster

Some of us like fear, and enjoy feeling afraid. But there's a big difference between someone who takes a risk by mountain climbing, and one who is turned on by fear in others. Is your protagonist on the trail of a serial killer or sociopath?

These stories can be compelling in that the need for control and power makes them strike again and again as the violence escalates. Does this character enjoy someone else's fear, or feed off it? Sometimes a sociopath lacks empathy to feel for others, and having the power to make victims suffer gives them pleasure. They enjoy the power, like the scientist with his subject, maintaining close contact, monitoring their breath, their fear as they gaze into their victim's pupils, listening to the fast-beating heart, smelling their fear, touching their sweat. These characters show no remorse, no conscious, and can raise the fear within a community.

Fear as a virus

Fear is contagious. It can pass from person to person in a room when the electricity goes off, or the sound of footsteps can be heard upstairs when no one is supposed to be there.

Fear also can spread across large areas and groups. Most of us are too young to remember, but have heard about Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, which caused mass hysteria when listeners believed this was a live broadcast of a Martian invasion.

So, the next time you are reading a story that evokes fear, pay attention to how it works.

Mary Horner has been afraid of heights and scary stories for many years.


Margo Dill said...

Nice post, Mary, and some great observations on fear.

I especially like what you said under the first point about having your character fail to face his/her fear when the stakes aren't too high early in the story, so that later, when the stakes are crazy high, they have to face their fear! That's a great tip!

Renee Roberson said...

Wonderful post, Mary! It gives me a lot to think about, as I've been writing more suspenseful and scary stories lately. And I echo Margo's comment--I have a YA manuscript I've been working on where I need to have my main character fail at something before she can overcome it. Hmmm . . .

(I have a total phobia of flying on airplanes. I only have to do it every few years, but it's so much anxiety every single time, and I have to put on a brave face for my kids.)

Angela Mackintosh said...

Wow. Dynamic post, Mary! You've given me a lot to think about, and although I'm not writing fiction right now, I'm thinking about how I can weave this into creative nonfiction.

I'm one of those people who love to be scared, love horror movies, love the adrenaline that comes from fear. I just watched a great mountain climbing movie that totally gave me butterflies: Free Solo. It's about the first free climb up El Capitan. Excellent film, highly recommended, and there is something about Alex Honnold's make up that allows him to do that, when one wrong move will result in death. They did an MRI of his brain and his amygdala, and it was healthy but showed no response to disturbing and shocking fear images when other climber's brains did.

I really like the idea of fear as evidence of innocence in a tough character and letting that show their vulnerability. You've given me some great ideas! Thank you! :)

Mary Horner said...

Thanks for your comments. Margo, I have phobias, and although I'm better now, I still deal with it at school because I teach the dreaded speech class. I see this fear in my students every semester! Renee, I love the idea of failing first, because so many successful people have failed along the way. And Angela, that's fascinating about Alex Honnold's. I'm so afraid of heights that I don't think I could even watch that movie!!!

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