Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Paralytic

skulls-1417416-mToday’s topic concerning characterization and the common forces that motivate our characters is FEAR.

Last time we discussed love and hate. Fear can somewhat intertwine or interfere with relationships of love and hate, but of course, fear is also involved when we confront or panic over things that have nothing to do with human relationships.

There are many kinds of fear. We fear death. We fear failure, perhaps because failure reminds us of our mortality in a way few other things can. We fear being snubbed or looked down upon; in other words, we fear judgment.

Then there are phobias, which take fear to strange heights that people who don’t share a particular phobia can’t even begin to understand.


One of the biggest distinctions we as authors need to make is the distinction between the two ways fear commonly and understandably affects us.

  • Either it motivates us to take action…
  • Or it freezes us up. It forces us NOT to do anything.

Of course, as with most things concerning humanity and emotions, there is no clear cut “either-or.” Fear might slow us down to a degree, but not completely. Or it might shut us down utterly, but only for a short period, after which we are able to charge in renewed with a new sense of purpose and clear cut goals.

What we fear, how those that fear is to being actualized, what our personal strengths and weaknesses are…. All these things play a part in determining to what extent a fear is going to freeze us, or freeze our characters.

Also, fear is rarely the ONLY emotional force at play when a person needs to make a decision: to choose whether, or how, to act. It can be the major factor or simply a contributing factor that authors should take in account when figuring out what a given character would do next.

Therefore, if a character’s fear is of a type that would tend to paralysis, one really has to ask whether that tendency to paralysis is strong enough to offset other motivating factors: love, faith, anger, hatred, etc. Obviously, the more a character’s paralyzing fear is able to dominate other and opposing forces, the stronger the paralysis it will cause.


Now, I don’t think this comparison among forces is something we have to really sit there and hash out for long periods. I’m not suggesting we set aside an hour or two in the middle  of writing a scene to consider all the emotional forces at work upon a character.

That is the true beauty of fiction: when we write fiction, we write about what it means to be human. Because we ARE human. We know all the emotions our characters will face, even if we have never encountered the exact situations our characters do. Therefore, our acknowledgement and understanding of such emotional balances are often unconscious and instinctual.

When a situation is particularly complex–one of those situations from which great tragedy arises, in the true and Greek sense–it can make sense, as an author, to think things through on a character’s behalf.

So, what is “true tragedy”? Sometimes a character has to choose not between a good and an evil but between two mutually exclusive goods, each of which requires sacrificing the other: duty to family and country, perhaps. Or duty to God and to king. Something like that. But in most cases, we all know  which kinds of fear are going to stop someone cold and which won’t necessarily do that.


Now, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m saying that a character (or person) paralyzed by fear is necessarily weak, or that someone who is motivated by fear, by contrast, must be strong(er).

There is a huge logical fallacy involved there. The fact is, to stare great evil in the face, for what it is, can sometimes paralyze (if only temporarily) the holiest, meekest, most emotionally strong people. You must be strong enough to recognize evil for what it is in order to be struck by its magnitude.

I was watching “Doctor Who” the other day, and I saw a great example of this. The Doctor is struck almost dumb for a moment when he realizes why it is the Daleks–his greatest enemies, who live only to destroy all life forms that are not Dalek–do not destroy mad or “broken” Dalek life.

It is because to the Daleks, the hatred that all Dalek life exemplifies is beautiful.

The fact that the Daleks can see beauty and honor and awe in hatred is enough to freeze him in horrified awe, not because he is weak, but because he is able to see how truly twisted such an idea (or ideal) is.

So, what are your favorite examples from films or novels of paralyzing fear? Does anything come to mind? Maybe Luke Skywalker at Darth Vader’s classic revelation?

I’d love to get a conversation going about this topic. And don’t forget, if you enjoyed this post, to stop by again for my next post, which will explore when and how fear can motivate a character.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”



13 responses to “Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Paralytic

  1. I have a character whose resolution involved getting over a fear of guns. Paralyzed by them because of an incident, she overcomes her extraordinary fear enough to pull a trigger and use one in a life and death situation.

  2. Bringing up the Daleks reminds me of something I learned back as an undergrad: there is no villain wholly evil. No one sets out to be “bad”; instead, even villains are functioning on their own level of morality. They follow rules and try to achieve a “greater good,” although that’s usually far away from what the rest of “us” thinks is good. That’s why they’re so scary–they make us wonder, “Am I as misguided at times?”

    I have a character who’s a sycophant, tries to take over the part of the army he’s assigned to, and goes so far as to attempt to rape his commander’s daughter. My beta readers hate him . . . until he goes home, and we see that his father is far worse, his childhood has been one of bizarre reasoning and abuse, and when the character returns, you can’t help but feel some sympathy for him, because he’s actually being as good as he possibly can, based on his background. You still dislike him, but now you understand him, and that makes for an deliciously uncomfortable situation, I think.

    • I think there is a difference between explaining evil and explaining evil away. Like you say, understanding this character and where he comes from doesn’t make it okay that he’s doing what he’s doing. It doesn’t make him not responsible for his actions. But it can make us wonder, “how and why am I different?” And that can be a fruitful (if as you say, uncomfortable) situation.

  3. The first thing that came to mind is the Dhaka from ‘Prince of Persia: Warrior Within’. It’s a video game, but the basic is that the Dhaka is an unbeatable creature that is out to remove the Prince from time. So every time it shows up, you have to run through and obstacle course and avoid getting killed in one shot. So it does help bring the fear to the player too. Eventually, you find a weakness and face it in the end, so the story takes on the ‘face your fear’ subject too.

    Fear in heroes is an odd thing when you talk to readers. I’ve been told by many that they hate seeing fear in a main character of a fantasy adventure. Yet this emotion is what makes them more relatable and human. Maybe ever reader has a different level of fear that they can accept from a hero.

  4. In most of my stories, my characters fear not being accepted. Sometimes, that fear can inhibit them from finding the happiness they deserve as human beings; other times, it motivates them to make sacrifices. In “real life,” everything we do affects the other people around us, for good or bad. Fiction shouldn’t be any different. Fear is definitely a motivating factor; but in the romances I write, it’s an emotional rather than a physical fear.

  5. Pingback: Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Motivator | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  6. Pingback: Two Frustrations Authors Face (That Mean GOOD Things Are Happening) | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

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