Fear: The Most Undervalued Emotion in Fantasy

I’m thrilled to host this guest post from fantasy author A.E. Marling (@AEMarling) in celebration of the upcoming release of his epic fantasy novel, Gravity’s Revenge

“The time for fear is past.” ~ King Theoden, The Lord of the Rings

In fantasy worlds, fear is the enemy. It swoops down on black wings to smash the heroes to the ground, to paralyze their hopes. It comes with talons and ghostly swords, with blazing eyes and green fire. It rusts men’s resolve. Turns allies against each other. It clears walls of defenders. It is the edge that no armor can stop. Cowardice to courage marks the most common arc of character growth in fantasy, possibly in all genres. For heroes to stand a chance, or even to remain standing, they must say goodbye to the butterflies ravaging their stomach. Anyone who reads enough might begin to believe that all fears should be smothered in their cradles. 

Read closer. Characters in fantasy novels fear all the time. They are cautious. They respect danger, trying to avoid the greatest perils. When they throw fear to the wind, it’s often because they have no other choice but one last desperate gambit.

Real-life heroes also fear. Soldiers in modern armies still experience the tearing sensation of numbness in the pit of their stomachs. They merely fear letting down their fellow soldiers more. I read an article in which a veteran said his greatest worry was that his mistake would get a friend killed.

“I do not fear either pain or death,” Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings said to Aragorn. “Then what do you fear, my lady?” “A cage.” Even the bold must fear something. If not, then we would have a hard time relating to them. They would begin to seem inhuman.

I hope my readers never meet someone who is truly fearless. There is a name for that condition: psychopathy. Bereft of emotion, psychopaths have only an intellectual understanding of danger. In one reported case, a psychopath broke into a man’s home, murdered him, had a beer from the fridge, and fell asleep beside the corpse on the sofa. (Clearly, this psychopath was not an intellectual.) He woke up in handcuffs. A person in that situation who has fear in their repertoire would be less likely to kill, fearing social recrimination if nothing else. Adrenaline would careen through his bloodstream. His heart would pound, his pulse race, his stomach cramp, and his lungs gulp air. He could never fall asleep.


The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us from Violence

Even for us non-killers, fear has its uses. A performer on stage will always feel the rush, that tingling burst from the presence of hundreds of eyes. The greatest entertainers will expect the feeling, be ready for it, and use their heightened alertness and strength to amaze. Those without any urge to perform (or find the safest way to Mount Doom) may still have need of fear. In fact, it may save their lives. In the book The Gift of Fear, the author cautions that often people will imperil themselves by ignoring fears. A woman might, for instance, experience a chill before allowing a strange man to carry her groceries into her apartment. To avoid appearing rude or ungrateful, she might push away the creeping sensation that’s bristling its way up her spine. If she acts fearlessly and lets him inside she could well regret it.

“You have the gift of a brilliant internal guardian that stands ready to warn you of hazards and guide you through risky situations.” — Gavin de Becker, consultant to the FBI and author of The Gift of Fear

Some might prefer to call this inner sense the intuition. Whatever the name, adrenaline accompanies it and causes those well-known feeling, from trembling fingers to cold feet. The important thing to remember, Gavin de Becker writes, is that fear is in response to some external trigger. Even if our brain’s conscious processing has not yet caught on, we have to respect that our fear might be onto something. Stories will often have the theme of trusting one’s instincts. The wise old mentor might urge the hero to follow intuition and, in the same wizened breath, to stamp out every last spark of fear.

That's some slipper slope, Yoda.To be fair to the Jedi masters, they likely are cautioning against allowing fear to paralyze, or drive one to impulsive violence. But to deny all fear seems less than practical. “Ignore your doubts,” sounds too close to, “Ignore your intuition.” Heroes feel fear, and we should expect no difference from ourselves. When that sensation of ice prickles down our backs, we should first think what might have caused it. (But don’t freeze in the headlights too long.) Next, we should avoid thinking of fear as an evil. Not, “Oh, no, this is terrible!” Or, “I’m afraid, so I must be a coward.” But, “Ah, something important is coming, and my body is getting ready to fight.” I say it’s past time fear got its due in the fantasy genre. After all, I always root for the underdog. Especially if he is a terrifying mongrel that breathes fire and has three heads.

In my latest fantasy novel, a tragedy arises from an acute shortage of fear. The protagonist studies magic in a vertically inclined magic school. To reach the lofty altitude of the academy, she had to overcome her fear of heights and walk up a cliff. When the academy’s enchantments begin to fail, she senses the mounting danger but ignores her worries. She has grown too used to being bold. To save her school and her students, Enchantress Hiresha will have to regain a healthy respect for fear. She’ll need the full speed of her intuition to outsmart the mastermind holding the magic school ransom. Only with every instinct and every edge adrenaline can bring her will she have a chance to oust the invaders. Hiresha faces twelve to one odds in battle, and each step could end in a plummet.

“He who is without fear has no hope.” – Lord Tethiel, Gravity’s Revenge

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4 Responses to “Fear: The Most Undervalued Emotion in Fantasy”

  1. I think that without fear as a catalyst there would be a whole lot fewer books. I like how you point out that fear is a healthy strategic reaction to things, and it is the response to that fear that decides the next step, whether in fiction or not. Fear is one of those tricky emotions that can save us—or stunt us. And in the end, the choice is our own.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Hi Robin, Thanks for your comment. I agree. I loved his excellent exploration of the value of fear in storytelling from both the angle of the storyteller and that of the reader. Fear is an essential catalyst, and I thought his article really captured and presented that concept into clear view.

  2. Ian Jade says:

    A good article, although I was a little disappointed by the real-world example (possibly from de Becker’s book) suggesting that a woman might put herself in danger by suppressing her own fear response. Leaving aside the stereotypical gender roles that paint “strange men” as inherently dangerous and women as victims, to imply that a victim in such a situation is responsible for the consequences of a potential attack is unfair and puts the blame in entirely the wrong place.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Quite true, Ian. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s valuable to remain aware of stereotypes of all kinds, whether in our writing or in our interactions with others.

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