5 Ways to Use Fear in Your World-Building
Fear is a powerful tool to use in all parts of your speculative fiction story, including the world-building. Injecting some fearful elements into your science fiction or fantasy world increases tension, conflict, and ensures your world-building integrates perfectly with your plot. Here are five ways to use fear in your world-building!
Note: When creating societies, you might be tempted to say “Wait, I’ll make them biologically incapable of fear! Tada!” However, since fear is a basic motivating factor of all humanity, removing that from your created culture will make them alien and very difficult to relate to. You have lost a major aspect of reader identification. Now, if your point is to alienate your readers from this other culture, then you’re on the right track!
What diseases or ailments does your culture fear? What is their cancer or other incurable diseases? Fatal illnesses can show the weak spots in every created race. The ailment can also be superficial, but still something that might arouse fear. For example, wrinkles or male pattern baldness. The biological fears can also be tied to biological needs. We need to breathe to survive. Therefore, suffocation can be a fear. Survival stories often feature conflict based on biological fears.
What areas of the country, town, or world induce fear? What happened to create fear of these areas? It can be something as simple as treacherous landscape or as complicated as rumors of ghosts haunting the area from old battles or other tragedies. There could also be a religious tie-in with a sacred space being defiled–or a sacred space being terrifying enough that no one defiles it!
3.) Flora and Fauna
What are plants or animals that are feared–and why? There can be logical and visceral reasons. For instance, many people would consider fear of a poisonous snake to be logical. However, add in the slippery, squirmy feeling of snakes slithering over your skin in the darkness, and suddenly even a harmless garter snake can be fearful! At other times, even the appearance of a certain creature can be enough to engender fear and revulsion. Plants often play the reverse role, where a lovely flower can hold deadly poison. The deceptiveness of beauty which contains evil can be equally fear-inducing, because it lures you (and the reader) into a false sense of security.
The usual suspects here are demons and other dark forces of supernatural evil. Have your religion include various kinds of baddies that could wreak vengeance and terrible deeds on your hapless protagonist. Or even have a looming aura of fear due to some kind of ancient curse. You could also induce fear with temperamental or capricious gods, which is seen in a lot of mythology. If you prefer to leave out religion, philosophies can also offer some good fodder for building fear. Scientism run amok is a popular trope in science fiction. Political ideologies play a key role in much of dystopian, near-future, and high concept work, including Atlas Shrugged, 1984, and Brave New World.
From ancestral shenanigans to bad blood from generational feuds, history offers a lot of opportunities for fear. There can be overlap with geographical fears where evil or tragic historical figures haunt modern locations. These locations can be anything from abandoned asylums to new buildings constructed on old sites of malevolence. There can also be fear between the descendants of old adversaries, especially if an individual on one side wants revenge.
Fear can be a powerful tool in story telling and world-building. Use these five methods to enhance fear in your writing!
6.) The Other
Fear of outsiders can be quite potent. Xenophobia, the intense fear or dislike of people from other countries, is a great way to stir up conflict and tension. Just make sure you have an understandable reason for the xenophobia (the reason doesn’t need to be logical–it certainly isn’t in real life). Some reasons for fear of the Other can be scarcity of resources, perceived physical threat, superiority complex (they are less than us and must be feared), or inferiority complex (they are stronger than us and must be feared).