There are two main uses of fear in fiction. There’s using it within the characters and then there’s using it within the reader. The former can be emphasized in any genre, from a Chick-Lit character’s Fear of Failure to a Science Fiction character’s Xenophobia, while the latter is most commonly found in the Horror and Dark Fantasy genres.
Fear Within The Character
Fear isn’t just an emotion that can be displayed by a character in response to an incident. Oh no, fear is a motivating force. Fear can either overshadow or exaggerate certain personality traits. Fear can set characters against each other. It can make a character avoid their goal. It can blind the character to a truth – particularly if the fear is of a little-understood species, race, or social class. It can keep the character on the straight and narrow or force the character to the outskirts of society. It can drive both character and plot, in other words, and provides a rich tapestry of motivation. Some people create entire character arcs or storylines that deal with a particular theme of fear and the lengths that people will go to deal or avoid it.
Fear Within The Reader
Some readers want to be scared. They want to explore their fears. Confront them. Deep down, such readers are truly afraid of only one thing and that is that the book they are reading will show them their greatest fear has become reality. Writers of horror and other frightening fiction will often go and explore several angles of your fear, examining it closely, before returning to tell you all about it.
Good fear fiction often ignores the rules about who can live and who can die. Children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people who are just so cute and innocent that the world would be too cruel to kill … horror writers will kill. They take away that comfort value that the rules supply you with so that you’ll be biting your finger nails in the hope that your particular brand of fear won’t hurt that one person you’ve grown attached to. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe they won’t die. But that doesn’t mean they’ll come out of it okay.
Did I mention destroying your security blanket? Well, horror fiction writers will take it away from you. They’ll try and turn your world upside down and show you what might lie behind that veneer. They’ll try and make you question your perceptions – what’s behind the assumed reality? What would happen if your household dog turned against you? What if demons were truly real and that schizophrenic you always derided was actually trying to help you? They make delusions seem reasonable and reality seem like a delusion.
Of course, the trick is that in the quest for the paranormal, the mundane fears are lost. If you look at all the things that terrify you, it isn’t generally a fear that a vampire will break into your house in the middle of the night or that your boyfriend is a werewolf. So why are these horror tropes? Well, because paranormal horror done well reminds you of all the mundane fears. The vampire represents every story of home invasions, organ harvesting (in this case, harvesting blood), muggings, assaults, infection, corruption, death and even the fear of losing your mind and your heart to someone who’s no good for you. The werewolf boyfriend represents the fear that the man you love might hurt you and he might not even want to, he might hate every minute of it, but he simply might not have the self-control to keep himself at bay.
If you focus on what the monster represents, if you follow the ‘What If’ line all the way home to the brutal possibilities, then you can still get fear value from the paranormal monster. You just need to show the similarities.
Of course, horror, especially horror involving monsters, requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. If you’re trying to keep the fear going as well, that suspension becomes a very tight wire forever on the edge of snapping. Everything else must be believable. Anything that jars them out of the story will snap that wire and you’ll have to hope you get another chance to re-string it. Fix any typos and keep everything else as realistic as possible. Dialogue, characters, scenarios, and descriptions.
Even more importantly, make sure the characters shine. Really shine. Because if your readers don’t care about what happens to them, any of them, then you’re doomed. They don’t need to be likable (though it helps) but they need to be memorable, with interesting flaws, and a way about them that draws the eye.
The other trick is to face your own fears, explore them, poke them, ask yourself ‘What if?’ and ‘Why?’ until you scare yourself. We’ve all read the same tired tropes written over and over by people with a mastery over writing technique but who just don’t feel the fear. Bring your own unique slant to it by asking yourself if this scares you, and if so, why? Because fear is contagious and if you can bring that scent of fear to your novels, then you’ll be all the more successful at frightening your readers.