Writing: Confronting Fear

Something a lot of young authors do (myself included) is the “Mary Sue/Marty Stu” difficulty.  Another common problem is the “perfect response.” Flaws are important, but even more important is what a character does when they confront that fear. This is something I am trying to incorporate more in my own writing: the response. This is where it is important to remember some basic psychology.

Flight: The fear response of “run away” can be healthy and appropriate!  It can also be deadly. Running from the tiger will make him chase you. Knowing that you shouldn’t run from a tiger and resisting that instinct are two totally different things – and unless someone has experience, it’s safe to assume they won’t be able to resist that urge (at least entirely).

Fight: Fear can also respond with an attack-mode. There are plenty of situations where the best defense is a good offense. It might also be that knowing flight is impossible (trapped in a small box with the tiger!) that fight becomes a requirement. This does not guarantee a win in the fight, just an adrenaline surge.

This goes beyond the classic “tiger” threat – any sense of threat or danger can cause these reactions.  The looming danger of an oppressive overlord can instill a sense of “fight or flight” as well – does your character seek rebellion or hide their disobedience?  Are they a criminal and know that what they do would earn them the wrath of the law? Are they a minority in their society and must decide whether they stand up for their rights or “pass” as part of the majority (when possible).

It adds depth to have a character in a situation where they have the urge for fight or flight but have no outlet: perhaps they are sitting around a family dinner and the beloved uncle who pays for college is saying cruel things about their secret alliance. Perhaps they are in the den of the prince of thieves to recover the stolen artifact and as despicable as these people are – the cruelty they are inflicting on their victims – the hero knows that acting will only increase their suffering.

The trap is to create a character who always responds “correctly” to the negative flaw-induced circumstances that confront them.  The movie Sherlock had this flaw for most of the movie. Sherlock pondered and thought through all scenarios and then followed through with the “best option” in fractions of a second. I can’t speak for others – but when I’m under stress and trying to take in ALL the information… I don’t process like that (I know that’s supposed to be part of the Sherlock character… I always felt it was a cheap effect). A character who makes the wrong choice – not only can it drive plot in a much better way, readers enjoy seeing failure (we all do – ever watch one of those obstacle course shows?)

The subtle fear of a character who is reacting in flight or fight can create a powerful connection between the character and the reader. Especially when the character reacts wrongly  – they attack their best friend in the grief and fear – or guilt. They hide under the covers instead of standing up to the bully. Failure is a great unifier, and makes our characters live in depth and truth. Everyone faces those “little tests” or the bigger tests which make our hearts ache after the fact but in the moment we know of them – we want to fight or flee that which we fear.