Today’s topic concerning characterization and the common forces that motivate our characters is FEAR.
Last time we discussed love and hate. Fear can somewhat intertwine or interfere with relationships of love and hate, but of course, fear is also involved when we confront or panic over things that have nothing to do with human relationships.
There are many kinds of fear. We fear death. We fear failure, perhaps because failure reminds us of our mortality in a way few other things can. We fear being snubbed or looked down upon; in other words, we fear judgment.
Then there are phobias, which take fear to strange heights that people who don’t share a particular phobia can’t even begin to understand.
FEAR AS A MOTIVATOR: OR A PARALYTIC?
One of the biggest distinctions we as authors need to make is the distinction between the two ways fear commonly and understandably affects us.
- Either it motivates us to take action…
- Or it freezes us up. It forces us NOT to do anything.
Of course, as with most things concerning humanity and emotions, there is no clear cut “either-or.” Fear might slow us down to a degree, but not completely. Or it might shut us down utterly, but only for a short period, after which we are able to charge in renewed with a new sense of purpose and clear cut goals.
What we fear, how those that fear is to being actualized, what our personal strengths and weaknesses are…. All these things play a part in determining to what extent a fear is going to freeze us, or freeze our characters.
Also, fear is rarely the ONLY emotional force at play when a person needs to make a decision: to choose whether, or how, to act. It can be the major factor or simply a contributing factor that authors should take in account when figuring out what a given character would do next.
Therefore, if a character’s fear is of a type that would tend to paralysis, one really has to ask whether that tendency to paralysis is strong enough to offset other motivating factors: love, faith, anger, hatred, etc. Obviously, the more a character’s paralyzing fear is able to dominate other and opposing forces, the stronger the paralysis it will cause.
COMMON HUMANITY AS AN AUTHOR’S MAJOR CONSIDERATION
Now, I don’t think this comparison among forces is something we have to really sit there and hash out for long periods. I’m not suggesting we set aside an hour or two in the middle of writing a scene to consider all the emotional forces at work upon a character.
That is the true beauty of fiction: when we write fiction, we write about what it means to be human. Because we ARE human. We know all the emotions our characters will face, even if we have never encountered the exact situations our characters do. Therefore, our acknowledgement and understanding of such emotional balances are often unconscious and instinctual.
When a situation is particularly complex–one of those situations from which great tragedy arises, in the true and Greek sense–it can make sense, as an author, to think things through on a character’s behalf.
So, what is “true tragedy”? Sometimes a character has to choose not between a good and an evil but between two mutually exclusive goods, each of which requires sacrificing the other: duty to family and country, perhaps. Or duty to God and to king. Something like that. But in most cases, we all know which kinds of fear are going to stop someone cold and which won’t necessarily do that.
Now, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m saying that a character (or person) paralyzed by fear is necessarily weak, or that someone who is motivated by fear, by contrast, must be strong(er).
There is a huge logical fallacy involved there. The fact is, to stare great evil in the face, for what it is, can sometimes paralyze (if only temporarily) the holiest, meekest, most emotionally strong people. You must be strong enough to recognize evil for what it is in order to be struck by its magnitude.
I was watching “Doctor Who” the other day, and I saw a great example of this. The Doctor is struck almost dumb for a moment when he realizes why it is the Daleks–his greatest enemies, who live only to destroy all life forms that are not Dalek–do not destroy mad or “broken” Dalek life.
It is because to the Daleks, the hatred that all Dalek life exemplifies is beautiful.
The fact that the Daleks can see beauty and honor and awe in hatred is enough to freeze him in horrified awe, not because he is weak, but because he is able to see how truly twisted such an idea (or ideal) is.
So, what are your favorite examples from films or novels of paralyzing fear? Does anything come to mind? Maybe Luke Skywalker at Darth Vader’s classic revelation?
I’d love to get a conversation going about this topic. And don’t forget, if you enjoyed this post, to stop by again for my next post, which will explore when and how fear can motivate a character.
Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”