Along Came A Spider
Nothing to Fear
This article is going to cover worldbuilding with fear. Of course you are wondering why I chose fear as a basic step in worldbuilding. Why not? We are always told that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, however, you and I know that is bull. Most of us can’t even think about our deepest fears without feeling shivers down our spines. I want to take us into the depths of our fears and discover what makes us into little fainting sheep when we see our own shadows and how to harness that for worldbuilding. An interesting complex comes from our relationship with fear and the power it has over us. Whether we want to admit it or not, our fears intrigue us, we even respect it, to some degree. Take a look at the definition of fear, so that you don’t think I am entirely crazy.
Fear – noun
1. a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.
2. a specific instance of or propensity for such a feeling: an abnormal fear of heights.
3. concern or anxiety; solicitude: a fear for someone’s safety.
4. reverential awe, esp. toward god(s).
The fourth definition, that is what I am talking about. Despite fear being such a terrible thing, what comes out of it can be awe inspiring.
Here are my fears to give you a bit of an understanding as to what I mean:
Arachnophobia – The fear of spiders
Necrophobia – Fear of the dead (More specifically in my case, fear of the undead. Maybe kinemortophobia?)
Neilasparophobia – The fear of extraterrestrials (Xenophobia might cover it too.)
Lethophobia – The fear of forgetting.
Acrophobia – The fear of heights
Those are my greatest fears. Arachnophobia being my greatest. Let me tell you this, I STILL have night-terrors about spiders. I am so scared of them that when touched in a certain way while asleep, my brain will will automatically wake me up warning me that there is a spider and thus trigger a night-terror. Yet they are one of my favourite subjects in fantasy. Why? Think about it. You know your fears and you know exactly the length and distances you will go to prevent them from happening. You learn about your fears from experience or educating yourself on them. You want to know all about it and try to prevent it, try to protect yourself from it, and throughout your experience you have come to admire your fears, in a strange sort of way. You like watching characters face your fears, whether they share them with you or not, you watch the interaction with them intently. You may be afraid of heights, but you love characters with either the ability to jump really high or characters able to fly. Maybe you are afraid of aliens, but you love alien movies or shows that explore alien worlds. Maybe you are afraid of forgetting, but you love to read about characters who have amnesia. And in the end, you love when those characters conquer your fears. It gives you joy, if at the very least, it brings you joy to seem them defeated.
Why You Should Be Scared
Lets put a world together based on acrophobia, and give worldbuilding with fear a whirl.
“What if the surface of the world was suddenly lifted into the sky and formed into islands amongst the clouds?
Now knowing your fear of heights, tell me what the people would experience and how they would develop in ways to protect themselves from that fear? Yes, the fear, not the height, because the people will not make laws to stop the accidents, exactly, they will make the laws to protect themselves from having to face their fear.
Those fears/laws can restrain people from doing what they want and need to do, holding back people and society from moving forward.
None shall come within 1000 meters of an edge of any landmass
A few questions
- How is this law enforced?
- Are the enforcers just as scared of the edge?
- Are children told terrible stories about the world below to scare them away from the edge?
- With this restriction do more laws come about, like no creating machines that can allow them to fly?
After centuries of being in the sky, what has become of their people?
- Does lore speak of a time of punishment to bring the people into the sky? That now below are wicked pits of doom filled with evil that will attempt to bring any at the edge down into?
- Have the islands become isolated from one another due to the fear of falling down below?
- Are they now xenophobic of each other, fearing that one is trying to drop the other into the world below? As if agents for the world below.
Not fully convinced that the fear of falling would morph an entire society like this? Need a published example of what fear can do?
In the Wheel of Time a city in the northern border lands have a very strict law about hoods being up, why? Because of the Halfmen from the Blight that could move through shadows, scar men white with their eyeless gaze, and kill a dozen people before they are stopped. Despite the fact that they could easily be detected by sight, the people are ordered to wear their hoods down, and deal with the very cold temperatures, or be killed. Their fear of the Halfmen is enough to give control over to authorities. It is very militaristic up there.
Now it wasn’t mentioned, but I can guarantee that their clothes were not made with hoods. If you were to develop this world, you could make it so that seamsters view creating clothing with hoods as an ill omen. You could take it a step further and have it so that if a person were to create cloaks with hoods they would be stigmatised, maybe even viewed as evil, for inviting evil images into their city.
Think about the above example I just gave you. Would those who had to work along the edge be stigmatised as ill omens, maybe even evil? Would they be distrusted? Fear has a profound way with us.
They Are More Afraid Of You Than You Are Of Them
Don’t be limited to your own fears. Look up other fears.
Create a war in history, because of one king’s batophobia (the fear of very large and tall things) and his desire to see an enemy nation’s terrifyingly high towers burned to the ground. What will history say about this war and its king?
Generate a movement in your world where Agrizoophobia (the fear of wild animals), has driven a whole nation into domesticating every animal on the land. What kind of impact would this have on the wild of the world?
What about your characters? what are they doing with their own fear of heights in the floating islands of the sky? What would they do about their batophobia? Would they avoid cities and mountainous places?
And don’t give me the bull story on how different they are from everyone else, and don’t share these fears. We have talked about your characters being products of where they are from and what kind of impact their home would have on them. So make them real. Give them flaws based on what their society has moulded them into.
In the end, this all boils down to one thing. The reader.
Readers can relate to fear. Maybe they want to know more about it? Or how they can over come it? Or better yet, how they would handle it if it were an environment rather than an instance. Number one thing readers are looking for in worldbuilding is believability. That means using elements in a world beyond the plot of the story and making it a real place. And know this:
Fear is a very real place in our minds.
So, what are you afraid of?