X is for Xenophobia

Damn; I found an actual X word instead of having to x-aggerate something.

Xenophobia is a fear of strangers or foreigners, or anything that is strange or foreign.  This could encompass people, customs, or even food from another culture.  People can harbor a distrust of someone from another country, another region of their own, or even just a few counties over.

Small towns are often depicted as friendly, like Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show, or often in horror fiction, horribly xenophobic.  Suspicious and unwelcoming residents have secrets, or the entire town harbors some dastardly events in its past it doesn’t want the interloper to discover.

Or worse, something happens that makes them turn on each other.  This one’s probably the most fun from a writer’s standpoint.

Just ask the residents of Maple Street what they think about THAT.

Image:  twilightzonevortex.blogspot.com

Having lived in small American towns, I can definitely say they are surface friendly—that is, you will be welcomed in a polite and hearty fashion, but you’re not truly one of them until you’ve been there for years, and many times not even then.  Most people in these places were born there, grew up there, and expect to die there, and an insular sociology dominates.  This post by Blake Campbell in the Berkeley Beacon (October 29, 2014) quite excellently illustrates some examples from Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft.

This isn’t unilaterally true; my father hails from Texas, but he is quite a well-known figure in the small Midwestern town where both my mum and I grew up.  It helped that when we moved there in 1972 (yes, I’m old; now shut up), he became very active in the local Chamber of Commerce, etc. and built an extensive social network.

A small town and a large city share this distrust to some degree—we all fear the unknown.  When a stranger speaks to us, we can react in a range from curiosity to terror, depending on the person’s appearance, demeanor, and what time of day or night it is.

In The Dark Tower: The Wolves of the Calla, several inhabitants of Calla Bryn Sturgis become aware that gunslingers are passing near their village.  For generations, the folken have been plagued by agents of the Crimson King that steal their children and return them roont, or ruined.  The minds of the roont ones are damaged and they grow to prodigious size and die painfully as young adults.  They don’t know if the group can help them, or if they will, but they take a risk and ask anyway.

Once the gunslingers win the town over (luckily, Roland knows what he’s doing), most of them accept their assistance.

Most of them.

Image:  Bernie Wrightson / stephenking.com

The cliché says that smaller communities are more helpful than those in a large urban area, but even real-life incidents can turn this trope on its head.  For example, in May 2015, in an accident in northeast London, a unicyclist became trapped under a double-decker bus.  People who work in the neighborhood, together with passersby, came together to lift the bus and free the man’s leg.

Keep in mind, we are talking about a very big city here, where people are busy and hurried.  They didn’t just call for help; they moved the bus off the man.

Think about this when you consider your setting.  Will the population welcome your characters?  Is your protagonist one of them, and will she fight to keep interlopers out?  What is her reasoning?  If you have no strangers, what conflicts will split the residents?  What events will bring them together?

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