Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Power of Fear

No one understands the power of fear better than a novelist. No one. We use it like a mathematician uses a calculator. It is part of our DNA, part of what create, if only because we understand it to be one of the most powerful forces within humanity.

Some would suggest that love is more powerful, and certainly, all novelists try to show that love is indeed powerful and redemptive and is the better choice. But nothing replaces fear.


A character motivated by fear will do anything, and they won't be rational about it. That gives an authour a great deal of room to play with, not because it's a stupid plot device, which it can be, but because it's true. A human reacting out of fear is unpredictable, because what we would deem as "logical" no longer applies. Now in fiction, you still have to be careful, but if you emphasize how frightened a character is, you can have them do anything.

And people will believe it.

We all understand what it's like to be afraid.. We get it. We've been there. We've felt our stomach churn, felt our knees get weak, felt the jolt of terror run through our limbs. We've all felt it and responded in way that make no sense.


Take the current refugee situation. Many people in the West are responding in fear. They are saying things about the refugees that have no basis in fact. But facts don't matter when someone is scared. Think about it. That horrible little group of ignorant murderers called ISIS has everyone dancing. And not in a good way. They have Christians suggesting that poor women and children should be denied a home. They have kind people suggesting that the world has changed, so no, they won't help anyone either. They have people who have never cared about the plight of any foreigner being given a huge microphone.

That is the power of fear.

Fear is, without question, the easiest and quickest way to control people.

Again, this is something every artist knows, but in the realm of the novelist, it is an ancient truth. The simplest stories, those of serial killers and yes, terrorists, expound on this like its play day at an elementary school. But even the more complex works rely on fear as a driving force within their works.

Most of the memes and anecdotes regarding ISIS and the terrorists have no basis in truth. And yet, people spread them anyway. They don't care if the stories are true. They don't care if the facts don't match up with the truth. They don't care if they're being led like bulls with a nose ring to be slaughtered. They don't care because they are afraid, and once you get people scared, you can do whatever you want.

The irony is that most of these people claim to be tough. They want more guns. More military. More freedom to do whatever the hell they want when it comes to protecting themselves.

And yet... they're full of shit. The same people who advocate for guns want no part of starving children and women and refugees due to the minuscule chance that one of those people may turn against them. This is the power of fear.  The ones who act macho and with so much swagger and scoff at "bleeding heart liberals," are the biggest cowards you'll ever find. That such a thing is illogical (A Visa makes FAR more sense for a terrorist) has no impact on them.

They are afraid.

They've been raised in fear. Soaked in it. (Why do you think they protect the 'right' to not only bear "arms," but carry automatic weapons. Because they're tough?) They are more worried about protecting themselves than listening to reason.

Or compassion.

This past week, a couple of local churches got together to sponsor two Syrian families. These churches are Mennonite in origin, and pacifists. A gun would never interest them, nor does military action. And yet, in the next two weeks, despite all the nonsense about terrorism and the fear being slung across the internet like a dog's drool, two families will have a new home in a new country.

They are not afraid.

Novelists understand this contradiction. However, we have to be careful. The obviousness of such things doesn't always translate to the page as believable. And when you write about fear, you can't simply illustrate what is so obvious in society. If you do, it will feel more like a Children's story than something for adults to consider.

So when you're doing your revisions, remember that fiction is unlike real life. Our job, as writers, is to provide a mirror for society, but if it's too obvious, too clean, people will reject your work because no one will believe it.

You can do it, but make sure it's subtle. Why? Because most people hate looking in the mirror, especially when they're under the grip of fear.