A common theme in books is facing one’s fears, whether that’s the entire story arc, or just a side plot, or important character growth. And while there definitely are exceptions, a lot of these arcs progress where the character is afraid of something, and then they are forced to go up against what they fear, and then somewhere along the lines, whether in gearing up to face the thing, or during the battle, or looking back on it, they become no longer afraid of whatever it was that they feared. In other words, facing a fear usually involves completely conquering it.
That’s cool and all but when I think of the fears I have to face, I conquer about 0 of them. Like the anxiety-induced fear of talking to people on the phone. Every time I have to call the doctor or bank or something, it takes a lot of working up to getting where I feel like I can do it, and then I do it, and then after I finish, I’m still…well, not exactly afraid of but super uncomfortable with doing it. Did the phone call go badly? No. It was easy and even pleasant because the receptionists at my doctor’s office are fantastically friendly. It wasn’t even scary, even if it felt scary as my finger hovered over the green phone icon. I face that fear fairly frequently, especially since I have a lot of doctor visiting thanks to being pregnant, but I never conquer it. I use this example because it’s a particularly common one; I’m far from the only adult who hates talking to people on the phone no matter how pleasant the call might be, who feels a spike of anxiety every time my phone rings. I face this fear because I am a big girl who can make a friggun phone call but facing that fear doesn’t ever make it go away.
Likewise, I am afraid of the dark. I mean do you know how much scary crap lives in the dark? In real life, mostly nothing, but I am a writer, so I only live in real life so much, so the dark is friggun terrifying. I face that one like, every night. Especially if my kid wakes up and wants a drink and I have to try and decide between turning on the lights and not “losing sleepiness” by leaving them off, because as an insomniac, getting to sleep sucks. (I’d leave the cup in her room but that inevitably ends in her playing with the water so…) Being an adult, I can go out to where all the scary imaginary stuff that wants to kill me in the most horrible ways lurks just out of the corner of my vision to find her stupid cup and get it to my kid and then get back to bed. Doing so and not getting viciously murdered and reminded that it’s seriously just my imagination does not abate the fear, nor does it make any moment of doing so less terrifying. And if I did turn on the light, there’s still the fear of the shadows beyond the one light I flipped on, and there’s always the famous flipping the light off running leap into bed before anything gets me from out of the inexplicably magical protection of blankets.
You have arachniphobes who have to kill the spider themselves, with a lot of shrieking and/or crying the entire time, who are just as afraid of spiders afterwards. You have acrophobes who never get over that rickety creepy as heck staircase and feel like they’re on a rope bridge in an Indiana Jones movie every time they use it. You have those who find driving in the rain or snow to be unbearably scary and doing it anyway doesn’t change anything.
And you also have people who try to face their fears and fail, or fail to face their fears at all.
When a villain uses fear against a hero, it’s undoubtedly going to be a plot arc that the hero overcomes that fear and thus defeats the villain. And that’s a great moral. Stories of courage, of conquering fears, are important. But it might be nice to see heroes face fears because they have to, and when they come through, they are still afraid of The Thing and the accomplishment is that their life isn’t ruined; they were brave but hope they don’t have to do it again. And these stories exist, too, but I might like to see it more prevelantly. Because it’s okay to be afraid, and it’s okay to be afraid even after a confrontation. That’s life.
And my husband says he actually would like to see more stories where the hero fails to face the fear, they try and can’t do it, and then the protagonists have to figure something else out. This is rare and if it happens it’s usually only as a fairly minor incident, but the fallout, the consequences, would be rather interesting to explore, don’t you think? After all, to try and fail, especially in the face of fear, is rather human.
When fear is a factor, you might consider more thoroughly your character’s arcs in dealing with it – in conquering, merely facing, and failing altogether. And don’t forget – this also applies to your villains.