What does it mean to be brave? What does courage look like? One way to explore these questions is to look at what scares the monsters in our fantasy novels. When you are a six-and-a half-foot, 270-pound vampire/ dragon-in-human-form/werewolf/or powerful mage (they all seem to be physically large, have you noticed?) is there really anything that scares you? Apparently, yes. Even though that which scares the monsters may not be what scares you and me. But it’s worth looking at to see what inhabits their nightmares to understand how it might illuminate our own.
One of the things I’ve learned from my books is that scary things, like preferences, are extremely personal and particular. Some people prefer dogs to cats and vanilla to chocolate. Some like beef, while others like chicken. Standard stuff, for sure. But what about our fears? One of my close friends becomes paralyzed at the idea of public speaking, while for me it is something I look forward to. I woke up once and the space heater in my room was on fire, the smoke so thick, I actually couldn’t really see the fire. I very calmly threw a blanket on it, picked it up and dropped it in a tiled shower, turned on the water, put out the fire, opened the bedroom window and went back to sleep. No problem. But when my husband I and I took out a sea kayak yesterday on completely calm waters, I panicked as soon as we got twenty feet beyond the surf and insisted we go back. I’m afraid of water, but not fire. For someone else, it might be the opposite.
Seems there is no accounting for tastes or fears. And it doesn’t seem like we have much say in how it’s all going to go down. I’m currently reading the latest in the Black Dagger Brotherhood series (BDB, for those in the know) by J.R. Ward. This one is focused mainly on Wrath, son of Wrath, the king of the vampires, and definitely one badass dude. Turns out Wrath can throw a billiard table across the room, but the idea of anything happening to his wife turns his bowels watery (one thing I like about the BDB books is that its characters use the potty—and believe it or not, that is always one of my metrics for relatability, which is an element that makes a good book great, and the BDB books consistently make the top ten paranormal series on all the lists I’ve seen, including mine).
Back to Wrath’s fears. He is afraid of his inability/incompetence when it comes to navigating emotional depths with both his wife and his brothers in arms, the other massive, powerful, scary males who constitute the Black Dagger Brotherhood. When you are good at kicking ass and taking names, the touchy-feely stuff is scary as hell. That’s probably true for most men, even if they don’t fight bad guys for a living or keep the world safe from the real monsters.
Another one of my favorite characters is Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, created by Laurel K. Hamilton. Anita is an extraordinarily complex character, and I’ll be talking about her in great detail in other posts, but for today, I want to focus on a recurring theme in her books. For Anita, killing monsters and saving the world is part of her daily grind and all of that doesn’t really phase her (although she does worry quite a bit about straddling the line past which hunting and killing the monsters makes you one of them, another interesting thought for later posts). What really gets Anita’s adrenaline pumping, though, is dealing with others’ emotional pain—bearing witness to it and attempting to help those in pain by simply sharing space with them.
Anita might come back from an incredibly difficult night of fighting crime and confronting truly frightening creatures (can you say “Mother of All Darkness”? Makes your blood run cold), and then get all foot-dragging and hesitant about visiting a friend and his family in a hospital room in order to offer support and comfort.
For me, all of this highlights the fact that I spend a lot of time in denial, thinking I am actually being brave. I’m the kind of person who never avoids a confrontation when it’s necessary. I don’t seek them out (contrary to popular belief), but I don’t fear them, either. I’m willing to say the hard things to people—the stuff that is difficult to say and harder to hear—like “we don’t want you on our team anymore, we have to let you go.” Or, “We’re sorry, but we just don’t have a spot for you with us. You aren’t really what we are looking for.” Or, “I know you wrote this and you think it’s really good, but, unfortunately, it’s really not, and it’s better you hear it from me than from someone else.” I’m also the one who will always tell you (even if you’re a complete stranger) that you have lipstick on your teeth or if your fly is open.
Because of this, a lot of people think I’m brave. And sometimes, so do I. But true bravery, as Wrath and Anita show us, is when we do the things that are actually hard for us, not for someone else. It’s not a big deal for me to say the hard thing to someone, but boy, do I hate being on the receiving end of that dialogue. Doing the hard thing for me, being brave, is accepting criticism or rejection with grace and dignity and trying to learn something about myself from the experience, rather than blowing off the message by discounting the messenger, as I am wont to do (well, she’s a total bitch anyway, so why should I care what she says?. Oh, my husband is being a jerk, so I won’t process the underlying truth he’s trying to communicate to me but that I don’t want to hear).
See—denial—it’s not just a river in Egypt (I know, I know, that is so old and so clichéd, but I never get tired of it). And Wrath and Anita, in working through their own difficulties, help me get a better picture of my own. It’s like being able to see something in your peripheral vision that disappears when you look at it directly.
The other awesome thing about all of this self-reflection through reading fantasy is that it’s cheaper than therapy and you can progress at your own pace. Because sometimes facing your own shit is the hardest thing you’ll do today, and maybe it’s even OK to wait and be brave tomorrow. Me and Scarlett.