Chris the Dauntless

Last Thursday I attended a 3-hour writing workshop on characterization. David Corbett, author of The Art of Character, led it, and if his book is even half as good as his presentation, it’s well worth reading. David reinforced many of the things I have learned from other writing teachers, but he also gave me some new directions to explore. Such as fear.

David insists that a huge part of writing complex characters is getting to know yourself. He spoke about many facets of the self that are important to examine, but I think the one that intrigued me the most as a writer was fear. And a recent book club discussion of Divergent got me wondering: What would be in my fear landscape? Besides spiders. Lots of spiders.

Well, creepy-crawlies in general. Though it seems to have to do with how many legs a creature has. Anything with more than four legs just creeps me the hell out. And I hate sticky, suctiony things, so you can guess how I feel about octopuses. ::shudder:: My other big fear is of heights. I’m the only person I know of who has been reduced to tears by balcony seating. I also fear left-hand turns, suffocation, public speaking, and getting stuck while trying to get into or out of a dress. Which makes for one bizarre fear landscape. (I’ll let you picture it yourself. It’s too scary for me.)

As I was trying to think of my moments of greatest fear, though, it occurred to me that there are many times when I really should have been much more scared than I was. I have walked alone through central London in the middle of the night. During a war, no less. I probably should have been scared out of my wits. But would I have actually been in more danger if I had been in fear of everybody I encountered? Or was I just being incredibly stupid and naïve? There was also the time I almost died. The doctors still aren’t sure why I’m alive now. By all rights, I should have just keeled over instead of regaining consciousness and dialing 911. But I distinctly remember my inner dialogue at one point going something like this:

Me: Ohmigod, I’m going to die!

Myself: Oh, don’t be silly. Nobody dies of a dizzy spell!

And then they carted me off to the ER and informed my family (but not me) that I most likely would not live through the night. If they had told me what dire circumstances I was in, would I have been scared? I suspect not. After I proved them wrong by clinging to life for a few more days, they decided to try a treatment that was just as likely to kill me as to cure me. And I nonchalantly signed off on the order, daring them to do their worst.

So I think perhaps fear is an area where my judgment is sorely lacking. Am I Dauntless? Alas, no. Try serving me calamari that hasn’t been FUBAR (Fried Up Beyond All Recognition) and see what happens. But I see this as a way to better explore the characters I write. In addition to asking what they’re scared of, perhaps I should ask what they should be scared of. And then find out why they aren’t.

Fear of the Dark

You have probably heard by now that the midnight premiere of the new Batman movie at a Colorado cineplex turned into a massacre early Friday morning. And you have probably heard about the fear now surrounding other showings of the movie. Cinemas throughout the nation have increased armed security, particularly at screenings of The Dark Knight Rises, and many cinemagoers have stated that, at the very least, they are having second thoughts about going out to see the movie, future midnight premieres of other films, or movies in general. This saddens me. No, actually, it frightens me.

I am thankful that there has already been a response to this reactionary, if well-meant, fearmongering. It is especially at times like these that we cannot afford to let fear rule our lives and decide our fates. Does it make sense to stay alert and aware of what is going on around us? Yes. I’ve worked in public safety long enough to know that can go a long way to heading off disaster. Does it make sense to stop and reflect on what we might do if faced with a disaster? Of course. Planning, training, and preparedness are the things that help first responders remain calm and effective when the unthinkable occurs. Adopting a similar attitude can save precious seconds even for those of us who are not professional heroes. But focusing on the fear itself gives it power. It can paralyze us. It can demoralize us. It can kill us.

It’s early days yet in this particular incident’s investigation, but certain items that have come to light really make me question the fearful fallout we are experiencing and even promoting in the name of “caution.” We don’t know much about the gunman’s motivations or his apparent descent into madness, but it seems fairly clear that he acted alone and was not part of some larger organization or plot.  So why are we giving this one man’s deranged outburst the full TSA treatment? Not that I think the TSA approach is particularly effective in the “war on terror,” whatever that may be, and not to downplay the horror of the attack or the impact of the enormous losses incurred in this tragedy,  but what exactly do we think we are protecting ourselves from by putting so much energy into defending Batman audiences? Copycat shooters? Honestly? That may be the official line, but what we are really scared of is our own shadow.

Why else does so much of the commentary this weekend revolve around the darkness of the film’s themes? Why are media outlets rushing to pull the movie ads from the airwaves? Do we really feel ourselves so weak-minded a population that we think any reminder of the dark, dank corners in humanity’s soul will topple us from the precarious perch we have named Sanity? I am constantly having to remind myself that my day job gives me a particularly skewed perception of the human condition. My days are filled with narratives peopled by felons, drunkards, paranoid schizophrenics, junkies, liars, run-of-the-mill jerks, and corpses — and the poor cops who have to translate their stories into something fit to put before the DA. Some days it is downright depressing. Yet here I am, exhorting my fellow humans, be they goodhearted sweethearts or good-for-nothing scoundrels, to acknowledge our dark side but not flee from it. This fear of the unknown will feed on itself if we let it. Ignoring it will not make it go away, but that seems to be a common theme in the wake of this incident.

I do understand the pulling of movie trailers (for a different film) that show a scene in which someone enters a theatre and starts shooting. That’s not a matter of fear; that’s just demonstrating a little tact. What is frightening me is the finger-pointing, this idea that blame can be assigned to artistic depictions of the darkness of humanity and that those who create or consume such works are somehow more dangerous and/or endangered than “normal” folks. What I have come to realize, though, is that there is no “normal.” Normalcy is a bedtime story we tell ourselves so we can get some sleep despite all the monsters lurking in our closets. As humans, we have been harboring the dark within ourselves since we came into being. We simply differ, on an individual basis, as to the degree and the manifestation. When we encounter such an extreme exhibition, such as that of James Holmes, it would behoove us to, instead of running from the dark, drag it out into the light of day, get a good look at it, poke and prod it, and figure out what makes it tick. And this is precisely what many artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians devote their lives to. They create mirror worlds for us to examine, and when their monsters seem — or become — too real for us to shove under the bed, we plead with our gods to save us. And it seems that one of our favorite gods is Censorship.

I’m not necessarily talking about official panels who pass down decisions on what can be created and distributed through legal channels. I mean trying to pretend that showing evil is itself an evil thing. Even without laws or regulations, this means that the creatives we should be relying on to reveal the contents of the dark are instead learning to self-censor in order to avoid being vilified by the “normals.” And it means that the teachers we should be relying on to show our youth how to recognize the dangers of the dark are instead expurgating their most valuable tools in the name of keeping children “safe.” Ah, safety — another fairy tale we tell ourselves. This world is not safe, and we are not safe creatures. Bad things will happen, and humans will do bad things. Some worse than others. But only if we seek to understand the darkness — in ourselves as well as in others — will we truly be able to defend ourselves from it taking over our world.