Fear in Fiction

Fear is often treated in fiction as if it were just a weakness — a deficiency of the thing we call “courage” – and something that should be overcome at all costs. This overcoming of fear is an extremely frequent theme in all forms of storytelling, and the approach to overcoming fear that is depicted is almost always one in which the character confronts his or her fear, beats it, and is never troubled by it again. This is a convenient and compelling scenario which allows a rapid, dramatic solution to a problem. It has the further attraction that the hero or heroine must use courage to arrive at the solution.

This cliché is so ubiquitous that most people don’t realize it is a cliché. They think it’s an accurate representation of how fear works and how fear should be dealt with. Psychologists have a name for this confrontational approach: It’s called “flooding,” and they don’t recommend it. They don’t, for the simple reason that it’s all too possible for the fear to “win” the confrontation, making the person’s problem worse, not better. The recommended approach for overcoming inappropriate fears is called “desensitization” and consists of approaching the fear in a series of small incremental steps that can take quite a long time to achieve their goal. It’s pretty easy to see why that approach isn’t popular with fiction writers. You do see it used occasionally in fiction, usually when the fearful person is depicted as inherently weak, such as a small child or a traumatized person. Heroes don’t do it this way, however. To be a fictional hero one must take the plunge.

Everything I know about fear indicates that the view of it as a weakness or a deficiency of courage is fundamentally inaccurate. Fear is functional. It’s a protective mechanism that evolved to help keep us safe and frequently serves us well. Fear undoubtedly saves countless lives every day as it motivates people to avoid dangerous situations and behaviors. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, reacting naturally to that motivation was probably beneficial most of the time, or at worst, harmless. Our modern world differs vastly from the one we evolved to inhabit, however, and some of our fears have become inappropriate as a result. There are also a number of recognized disorders involving the fear mechanism, ranging from free-floating anxiety to simple phobias, to panic attacks – some of which may be exacerbated by the complex demands of our modern society.

Fear is known to have a biological mechanism involving specific brain regions and neurotransmitters. The same cannot be said for courage. It’s difficult, in fact, to say what “courage” actually is. Much of what passes for courage is really fearlessness. Real life “heroes” who rescue other people from danger frequently report that they didn’t think, but “just did it.” In that moment of impulse it’s doubtful they were experiencing fear. Daredevils and thrill-seekers routinely take on dangerous feats because it gives them a “rush,” which I can only assume is not the same thing as what I call fear.

According to my best understanding, the fear-overcoming type of courage consists of the ability, in a specific situation, to marshal mental motivators of sufficient number and potency to outweigh the power of the fear response that the brain is experiencing. And there is simply no guarantee that any particular person will be able to do that in any given situation. I conclude that we are far too free with the “coward” label, especially when anxiety disorders are estimated to affect 20% of the population.

We’ve probably all heard the adage, “to be brave one must first be afraid.” Yet fear has such a negative perception in our culture that we continue to admire fearlessness and look down on those who show fear. Further, the adage implicitly assumes that being “brave” is the desirable response. Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) frequently contribute to this bias. They love to make antagonistic characters ultimately turn out to be “cowards,” even as the protagonist turns out to be “brave.” It’s often assumed that we will judge characters negatively or positively based on how they respond to danger – and that we are right to do so.

If we truly wish to help people who suffer from inappropriate fears, an excellent place to start would be to resist this cultural bias that automatically dumps on fear and on the people who experience it or are overcome by it. We can counter the inaccurate assumption that one must always face fear head-on and the cavalier notion that a “courageous” person can always will it away. Fiction writers can help by seeking to portray fear more realistically. Readers can take writers to task for failing to do so.

I invite your comments.

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8 Comments

  1. G M Barlean

     /  November 25, 2014

    Oh, I love this one!! I’m actually reading The Phobia Handbook! I love anything to do with psychology, so this is intriguing and very thought provoking. I absolutely will be considering this from now on when I write. It also makes me want to examine my past books. I don’t tend to have very clear heros because I lean to the thinking it’s usually a combination of many efforts that bring a situation around. Even in life. We like to turn people into singular heros… the Christ-like figure. But, I think things come around and evolve and happen with many factors contributing.

    Great post. Thanks for getting me thinking!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Gina. I was over-simplifying a lot by suggesting that all fiction is the same in this respect – thinking mainly of “popular,” conventional fiction, rather than more literary fiction. You don’t take a simple approach to heroism in your books. Your characters and situations are much more complicated than this.

      Reply
  2. It does seem the heroes in movies and books often forego common sense in the name of ‘bravery.’ Not so sure the average human would react that way in real life. But I suppose none of us knows how we would react in a frightening situation until we face it. Here’s hoping we don’t have to face it any time soon. 😉

    Reply
    • I know. I don’t like to think about finding myself in a really dangerous situation, either. I don’t know what I’d do. If it happens, though, I would try not to attach too much significance to whatever I did – not to think in terms of “hero” or “coward.” I just hope I’d come through in one piece, that’s all. That would be enough.

      Reply
  3. What an interesting observation. There is an inherent tension between the art of storytelling and so-called “real life.” If we portrayed an ordinary day in an ordinary way in a novel (not in the manner of “Ulysses” or “Mrs. Dalloway”), our readers would soon drift off to sleep or abandon our book for something more captivating. So, naturally, fiction highlights moments of fearlessness–the highlights. That said, I think the best fiction can, in a nuanced way, give us the full panorama of human experience, including fearfulness and anxiety.

    Reply
    • As I said in response to Gina, I wasn’t thinking of literary fiction – more of popular fiction and movies. There was actually a quote I tried to find to include in this post, but couldn’t verify the wording. It’s from the movie of “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad. This may be a paraphrase, and I don’t know if the line is even in the book: “I’ve been a so-called coward and a so-called hero, and there is not the thickness of a piece of paper between them.” So yes, the best fiction is “truer” than what I was describing. I think it does address the full range of human experience.

      Popular fiction is more of an issue, though, in terms of how society views fear, because more people read it. (Sad, but true.) I just think we could have plenty of action and drama without so much moral judgement that hinges on “courageously” facing ones fears and beating them. Decisive action is often due to fearlessness and we should acknowledge that. And sometimes you fail to overcome the fear, and it doesn’t make you a bad person. We can also be sure to focus on the specific positive motivating thoughts that characters use to help them outweigh their fear – rather than referring vaguely to “will” or “courage.”

      Thanks so much for commenting.

      Reply
  4. Your post got me thinking about using characters in fiction as a voice to portray all of human emotions and not put labels on them as good or bad. There’s been much written about creating characters who have “faults”, who are imperfect. But maybe we should be thinking more of characters who have a balance of human characteristics. Thanks for this stimulating post. 🙂

    Reply
    • I really like that way of looking at it. Not to say there’s no such thing as a “fault”, but certainly the things we often call faults are part of what makes us human – and what makes us interesting.

      Reply

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