Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Fright and Fear

It’s October! The month of pumpkins and ghosts, witches and goblins. It’s the perfect time for a post about the one emotion that’s at the core of every single story that’s ever been told: Fear. 

Fear propels our characters or it can inhibit them. We use our characters’ fears against them to push them to the limits of their physical and emotional strength. Without fear, a character would dance through the plot without any true sense of conflict - which of course, isn’t much of a story at all. 

We understand fear with our hearts, but when we use it as a tool for storytelling, it’s a good idea to know how it works. Psychologists recognize five common fears: Extinction, Mutilation, Loss of Autonomy, Separation, and Ego-Death. 

Guess which feet are mine!
Extinction: Have you seen those glass baclonies at the top of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago? I freak out and can barely get my toes onto the glass. This fear of heights is a subset of the fear of Extinction. It’s the fear of death and non-existence. Many powerful stories are built around this fear including A LONG WALK TO WATER, a novel based on real events by Linda Sue Park and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. Just about every spy, crime, murder-mystery, and horror novel is also fueled by the fear of death. 

Mutilation: When people fear losing a part of their body, or fear having their body invaded, or are afraid of illness, they fear mutilation. Fears of being attacked by spiders or wild animals fall into this category. Characters in wilderness survival stories experience this fear as well as characters who are being abused. Examples include THE CAY by Theodore Taylor and SOLD by Patricia McCormick. 

Loss of Autonomy: I think most of us fear being paralyzed or in a vegetative state. But there’s more to this fear than long-term bed rest. It also includes the fear of having your freedoms restricted or being imprisoned. It’s the fear of being controlled by another person, a society or government. This includes pretty much every dystopian book including George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s FAHRENHEIT 451. Stephen King’s book, MISERY also falls into this category. 

Separation: This fear is a little tricky - It’s the fear of losing connectedness. It’s a lot more than the fear of losing those you love - although that is something people often fear more than death and is explored in many books such as the Twilight series. This fear includes the fear of abandonment and rejection. It’s the fear of becoming the outcast. One example can be found in Dan Gemeinhart’s, SOME KIND OF COURAGE. Joseph, the main character, has lost his mother, his father, and his little sister, and then someone steals his horse! Joseph follows her through the wilderness in an effort to gain back the only family he has left. His journey isn’t just about the horse’s welfare, but also Joseph’s need to belong somewhere - his family. 

Ego-Death: We’ve all experienced it. You’re about to get up in front of a group of people to speak and your mouth goes dry and your hands start shaking and images of you throwing up or maybe burping into the microphone fill your imagination. This is the fear of humiliation and shame. At best, it’s short-term embarrassment that will fade. At it’s worst however, ego-death makes you feel worthless, unlovable and broken. This is a powerful fear to work with and turns up in almost every story. That moment in HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCER’S STONE when Harry and his friends each lose 50 points each for their house - that shame is the pain of ego-death. Books that deal with this theme in depth include Becky Albertalli’s SIMON vs. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA and R.J. Palacio’s WONDER

While some stories deeply explore one category of fear, many others intertwine them. The inner journey, the true heart of the story, is about the protagonist overcoming one long-standing misbelief that has created a sense of fear. The outer journey, on the other hand, is a series of obstacles that challenge the protagonist in different ways, ultimately forcing her to confront the fear that stems from her misbelief. 

Consider Gayle Forman’s IF I STAY. On the surface, it seems like the story is about the fear of the loss of autonomy. The main character, Mia, has been in a serious car accident with her family. Her body is immobilized, her spirit restricted in how far she can move. But the heart of the story is really about the fear of separation. When Mia finds out that her family did not survive, she must deal with her sense of isolation in this land between the living and the dead. She isn’t sure if she can live without her brother and parents - and ultimately, she must decide if the love that is left - the love of her boyfriend, extended family, and friends is enough. 

Lucky for us, fear is also great at producing powerful memories. We tend to remember what has hurt us in the past better than we remember pleasant things - like our eighth birthday party. (Seriously, I have no memory of ever turning eight. But I’m sure it was nice.) When something scary happens, like
you walk into your garage at night and a raccoon hisses at you, the amygdala region of the brain connects the dark garage and the scary raccoon in your brain. That means, that a week later, when you have to go into the garage at night again, the amygdala is once again stimulated, triggering a fear that the raccoon might be back. This is why it can take months or years for that fear to pass and is how some anxieties develop. But more importantly for us storytellers, it’s how those valuable misconceptions are born. 

When you sit down to write, consider what roles fear will play in your story. What fears will you pair together to create an inward and outward journey? What traumatic event led to your main character’s misconception? Use fear as a tool to strengthen your story. 

Happy Halloween!

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