Monday, October 05, 2009

Fear Itself

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her espionage thriller, Dead Reckoning, will release March 2010 (Abingdon Press), and Nightshade, the first book in her military series, Discarded Heroes, will hit shelves July 2010 (Barbour). Ronie is an active member of ACFW, where she serves as the Book of the Year coordinator, assistant to the conference appointment coordinator and volunteers on the conference planning committee. She is also a speaker and teaches lit studies at her local homeschool co-op.

Visit Ronie at her website or her blog

There is nothing to fear but fear itself.
~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Fear is a very powerful emotion—it has both the ability to stimulate (a response) or paralyze. Fear can be rational or irrational. It can motivate toward change or paralyze you in a dungeon of anxiety and dread. But fear involves more than fear itself, and if not handled correctly or in a logical order, an author can easily deaden the impact of fear.

There are two kinds of fear: rational and irrational. Rational fears include natural responses to natural stimuli (bee sting, startle reflex, etc.). It is these natural responses that are easily capitalized on in fiction. The sight of the orange bowl on the counter can be an indication to your heroine that her mother has come to visit unexpectedly.

Irrational fears are just that—irrational. They step out of the ordinary and away from typical responses to natural stimuli; they are phobias. A recent count lists more than five-hundred
phobias, which shows how easily fear exerts its powerful influence. And it also explains why it’s so prevalent in stories, but there are times when the fear is not adequately built up or established.

Ever read a story where the character seems to melt down at just about everything? Where the heroine is afraid of everything, but you don’t know—or ever find out—why? I would wager a guess that the author does not have a clear understanding of fear, and its partners, threat and anxiety, which are cooperative elements but uniquely different.

Threat, fear, and anxiety are not the same thing. Threat is a sense of imminent danger that it is to come. Fear is the psychophysiological response to the threat. Anxiety is a range of feeling in response to fear or a threat. So, a character must first detect the perceived threat, which elicits fear and its psychophysiological responses (sweating palms, racing heartbeat, dry mouth, etc.) that will ramp the character into anxiety, which elicits the infamous “fight or flight.”

Before we venture any further, let’s establish a vital point: FEAR IS SUBJECTIVE. What is a rational fear to one character might elicit a surprisingly strong reaction from another. This does not mean you can skip the stages of fear. A person cannot go from seeing the threat to the flight. The physiological response is still there, but ignited much faster.

Fight of flight is part of the psychophysiological response that preps the character to either combat the threat or run away from it. Remember – fear is subjective. At this point in the story, the bridge to this action must have been built up.

Think of Pavlov’s dog. A pup who doesn’t know that the bell is a sign of forthcoming food won’t salivate. But one that’s been trained will. One of my favorite movies was Sleeping with the Enemy. In it, the sight of straightened, organized towels sent Julia Roberts’s character spiraling into a panic. Why? It meant the psychotic husband she’d fled from had found her.

Fear also has stages, and we’ll mention four that are important. These stages will stretch through the length of your work of fiction. At the presentation of the threat, a character will experience disbelief. They might question whether what’s happening is real or not. They might even decide it’s not happening.

Once the threat and its veracity established, the character will most likely shift into anger—remember, from an earlier article—that anger is a masking emotion, which means it masks the feelings of the character. In this case, it’s most likely a threat to person or property or identity. They’re angry and not willing to let the threat against them (or their property or family) happen. The character might vacillate between the disbelief and anger.

Eventually, the character will shift into a feeling of resignation once they’d done all they feel they can do. They might experience of sense of powerlessness and hopelessness, and it’s during this time that they might
seek a higher power.

There is a fascinating theory used (primarily in sales and marketing, but it is also a very effective tool in fiction) called Fear Appeals. Fear appeals are persuasive messages designed to scare people (into action or aversion) by describing terrible things that will happen to them if they do not do what the message recommends. Villains (or manipulative characters) often use this method in coercing character into their schemes or death traps.

In review, there are two kinds of fear, rational and irrational. There is also a subtle but important difference between threat, fear, and anxiety. Fear is both subjective and psychophysiological. We also discussed (briefly) four stages of fear: disbelief, anger, seek higher power, resignation/powerless. It’s clear that fear is powerful, and can be an effective tool for the fiction author.

Top Ten Phobias
What can you do with them in your story?
(found at:

1.Arachnophobia - Fear of Spiders. Half of women and 10% of men have a fear of spiders to some degree.
2. Social Phobia - Fear of being evaluated negatively in social situations.
3. Aerophobia - Fear of flying.
4. Agoraphobia - Agoraphobia involves intense fear and avoidance of any place or situation where escape might be difficult or help unavailable in the event of developing sudden panic-like symptoms.
5.Claustrophobia - Fear of being trapped in small confined spaces.
6. Acrophobia - Fear of heights.
7. Emetophobia - Fear of vomit.
8. Carcinophobia - Fear of cancer.
9. Brontophobia - Fear of thunderstorms.
10.Necrophobia - Fear of death or dead things


Gina Holmes said...

What's the fear of not ever getting published? Ha. Interesting article, Ronie. Thanks :)

lynnrush said...

Gina---your comment made me smile. That was funny.

Ronie---great post. Loved it. Pavlov's dog...great example!

Sheila Deeth said...

Names for all of them! Wow. Neat article thanks. And I think I share Gina's fear.

Julie Garmon said...

Loved this post. Thanks!

Ronie Kendig said...

LOL Great one, Gina. I just have to show y'all this one, though:

Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia - Fear of long words.

Lisa Buffaloe said...

Great post, Ronie. Love your last comment on Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia! My son actually knew what that meant. :-D

Dineen A. Miller said...

I love your point about fear being subjective. So true! Awesome post. :-)

Katy McKenna said...

I'm a recovering agoraphobic and an ongoing claustrophobic. Oh, the fun we stricken have! (ha.)

At ACFW conference, I mistakenly got into an elevator at the end of general session and moved to back. When the elevator was crowded and I'd already started sweating and hyperventilating (before the doors closed...) a man pushed in and said, "Oh, there's room for a few more." I almost screamed, "NO! THERE'S!. NOT!" A lady I don't know held my hand and tried to distract me by talking about the dinner we'd just enjoyed. It didn't help, but she was SO nice.

As far as I can tell, a claustrophobic's worst nightmare is an MRI machine. Highways under construction, with the walls built up on either side, look and feel exactly like an MRI machine to me. I can hold my breath for five full minutes while driving through one of these "tunnels."

Great post, Ronie. Now I'll just be going into the kitchen to find a paper bag..... :)

Ane Mulligan said...

Ronie, these articles of yours are great. For me and others, who never studied psychology, they are so helpful.