Recently, my children and I each went through an experience that caused fear: my son started Tae Kwon Do class, my daughter had sealant put on a tooth, and I had a root canal. Now you may wonder why any of these is scary at all.
OK, maybe "root canal" is understandably scary, but if you think about it, the worst thing about dental work is the pain. In a root canal, the nerves are all dead, and so theoretically there should be no pain. Well. One of the three canals in my molar had some leftover, very un-dead nerves. The discovery of those nerves made sure I was on edge the entire time. To add to the fear factor, a rubber dam--a pink plastic sheet attached to a metal contraption attached to my teeth--was stretched tautly over my lips, flossed into the space between teeth, and almost drowning me. That last bit wasn't an intended consequence. It just happened that my sinuses were completely congested and I could only breath through my mouth, which was no easy feat when an airtight rubber sheet covered most of it. But the worst was when sudden gushes of water escaped from the dam down my throat. It was a good thing the brain knew to shut down the air canal to let water pass through.
My fear of anything dental turned out to be nothing compared to the fear of drowning or suffocating.
Even though the causes of my children's fears seemed puzzling, I could identify with their emotions. My five-year-old son was afraid he wouldn't be able to do the moves in class and everyone would laugh at him. My seven-year-old daughter didn't feel any pain, but she'd had enough dental work done in her young life that she was afraid pain would be just around the corner. The unknown future and the possibilities of pain and humiliation, not the actual events they experienced, were what struck fear in their hearts.
Lajos Egri, author of "The Art of Creative Writing" (Citadel Press 1965) puts forth the notion that fear is the underlying drive for human behavior and survival. That thought stopped me. Fear is indeed a powerful emotion and motivator, but the most basic? He argues even the positive emotions such as love and philanthropy, are based on fear.
This idea may take me a while to chew on. But in the mean time, it's given me new eyes to look at conflict, the engine that drives a story. If I buy this theory, my characters would base all their decisions,consciously or not, on fear and its cousin, insecurity. We'll find out how that works.
Love, revenge, greed, power lust: move out of the way!