Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.
If you haven’t read Part 1: Anger, you can start here.
This week . . .
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”
Emotion is a shared experience, and that is clearly true of fear. Joseph LeDoux of the New York University Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety was quoted in Lou Dzierzak’s Scientific American article “Factoring Fear: What Scares Us and Why”: “Since our brains are programmed to be similar in structure, we can assume that what I experience when I’m threatened is something similar to what you experience.”
Fear is an essential part of our animal existence. It’s like an internal fire alarm, alerting us to the presence of danger. In fact, “The ability to predict sources of danger in the environment is essential for adaptive behavior and survival,” Gavan P. McNally and R. Frederick Westbrook concluded in their study “Predicting Danger: The Nature, Consequences, and Neural Mechanisms of Predictive Fear Learning.” “Pavlovian fear conditioning allows anticipation of sources of danger in the environment. It guides attention away from poorer predictors toward better predictors of danger, and it elicits defensive behavior appropriate to these threats.”
We can see this idea of fear as a warning come into play in The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks:
Unable to move, to speak, even to think, they stood frozen in terror as the sounds of the spirit world reached up to them and passed through their minds, warning of the things that lay beyond this life and their understanding.
We—and our characters—can see and empathize with the effects that fear elicits in others, as in this bit from Catherynne Valente’s brilliant Palimpsest:
A ripple of fear and despair moves through the rice paddies, and Sei sees one girl with long braids fling herself from a great height, only to be caught up by a solicitous handhold. She hangs there by the waist, in misery, weeping.
The Third Rail offers no comment, but shakes her head in untouchable sorrow.
There has been a lot of talk in our new internet age about the ease with which cyber-bullying is carried out by people who can’t see the reactions their comments elicit. The realization that we’ve scared someone is a powerful thing. A normally empathic person doesn’t want to be the source of fear any more than he or she would want to be afraid of someone else. But that, of course is a normally empathic person. Your villain may very well not possess that particular trait—sociopaths, by definition, don’t.
Internally, fear represents one of our limits, it’s something inside us that stops us short of doing something dangerous, or otherwise risking some harm to ourselves either physically or psychologically. Ambrose Bierce gave us at least one character who was tested in this way in “A Tough Tussle”:
I repeat that Lieutenant Byring was a brave and intelligent man. But what would you have? Shall a man cope, single-handed, with so monstrous an alliance as that of night and solitude and silence and the dead—while an incalculable host of his own ancestors shriek into the ear of his spirit their coward counsel, sing their doleful death-songs in his heart, and disarm his very blood of all its iron? The odds are too great—courage was not made for so rough use as that.
And remember, courage is the ability to move forward through fear, a theme that pervades genre fiction in general. Take Frank Herbert’s classic Dune, for example, and the Bene Gesserit’s Litany Against Fear:
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it is gone past I will turn to see its path.
Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Fear is something that tests us, and heroes are asked to get through it, to resist their baser impulses, go into the burning building rather than running out of it. Depending on the story you’re telling, this can be very difficult for the less heroically-inclined everyman character, like Louis in Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary:
Horror rolled through Louis, gripping his warm heart in its cold hands, squeezing. It reduced him, made him less and less, until he felt like taking to his heels and running from this bloody, twisted, speaking head on the floor of the infirmary waiting room.
Though not everyone writes horror, and not everyone likes a good scare, still fear is an essential part of what makes us—and our characters—human.
Even children’s and young adult authors shouldn’t be afraid to make their readers afraid.
“It’s a spooky time to be a kid, even without Sandy Hook making even the once-fortified classroom a potential doomsday ride,” Greg Ruth wrote in “Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” “Look, the kids are already scared, so let’s give them some tools to cope with it beyond telling them not to worry about it all . . . when they really have every right to be scared poopless. Scary stories tell kids there’s always something worse, and in effect come across as more honest because they exist in a realm already familiar to them. Scary tales don’t warp kids; they give them a place to blow off steam while they are being warped by everything else.”
In that sense, fear isn’t so much the “mind-killer” Frank Herbert’s Bene Gesserit think it is, but a mind-protector. Something we shouldn’t let ourselves succumb to, but something we should listen to. And imbue our characters with, for good or ill.