Conflict Thesaurus Entry: Discrimination or Harassment

Conflict is very often the magic sauce for generating tension and turning a ho-hum story into one that rivets readers. As such, every scene should contain a struggle of some kind. Maybe it’s an internal tug-of-war having to do with difficult decisions, morals, or temptations. Or it possibly could come from an external source—other characters, unfortunate circumstances, or the force of nature itself.

It’s our hope that this thesaurus will help you come up with meaningful and fitting conflict options for your stories. Think about what your character wants and how best to block them, then choose a source of conflict that will ramp up the tension in each scene.

Conflict: Experiencing Discrimination or Harassment

Category: Power struggles, failures and mistakes, relationship friction, duty and responsibilities, moral dilemmas and temptation, losing an advantage, loss of control


Discrimination: being treated unfairly by someone because of a characteristic or activity
Harassment: aggressive intimidation because of a characteristic or activity

Both of these scenarios involve prejudicial treatment—meaning, a person with prejudice or bias made a judgment about the character based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, nationality, level of education, political affiliation, etc. But harassment often occurs repeatedly, making it a more personally targeted action. They both can occur anywhere—in any environment, relationship, organization, etc.‚—and the ways in which they can occur are, sadly, myriad. Your character may experience discrimination or harassment if any of these characteristics factor into the following scenarios:

Not getting a job or promotion despite being the best candidate
Being paid less than someone else doing the same job
Being excluded from a club, team, or other groups
Being ignored or overlooked in favor of other people (at a store, in line at the DMV, etc.)
Not being called on in class
Not being invited to parties or other social events
Being pulled over by police when the character has done nothing wrong
Being monitored, scrutinized, or targeted without cause due to a characteristic
Standards being changed for the character (a testing measure being lowered, a physical requirement being higher for the character than for others, etc.)
Treatment stemming from biased expectations—i.e., boys being expected to pursue athletics while girls are expected to pursue the arts; teens being scrutinized in a store due to false beliefs that “all teenagers shoplift”
Being denied service at a restaurant, store, etc.
Being unfairly fired or let go from a job
Receiving hate mail
Being told off-color jokes, called slurs, or otherwise being verbally insulted based on the characteristic
Needing more education, experience, or social proof to be viewed as an expert
Being pressured to do things that other people aren’t being pressured to do (return romantic or sexual advances, adhere to a different dress code, etc.)
Being subject to rules, policies, or processes that are not universal
Having to provide a higher level of evidence to be trusted or believed
Personal boundaries or privacy not being respected (the character’s hair being touched, being leered at, personal space being invaded, etc.)

Minor Complications:
The character having to hide their feelings in the moment because it isn’t safe to address the treatment
Inconveniences arising from avoiding the person/place where discrimination occurs
Damaged relationships (looking at someone differently because of what they did or didn’t do)
Confronting the other party, resulting in awkward conversations
Having to submit a harassment report or attend an inquiry
Having to explain (again) why something is discriminatory
Dealing with the rumor mill in the aftermath
Being scrutinized and judged unfairly by those who weren’t there

Potentially Disastrous Results:
Not being supported by those with influence (being asked to “let it go”)
Telling others about the treatment and not being believed
The character lowering their expectations to match those of the discriminator or harasser
Confronting the other party, and the occurrences escalating instead of going away
Being blamed for contributing to the problem
Having to change jobs, neighborhoods, etc.
Other discrimination or harassment situations arising because this one has gone unchecked
Friendships souring because the friend doesn’t believe the character’s claims or doesn’t know how to respond
Experiencing long-lasting physical, mental, or emotional distress
Pulling away from other people groups and staying within the group that makes the character feel safe
Because of the mistreatment, reading discrimination into other circumstances where it isn’t a factor
Becoming biased against the kind of person who did the abusing (people of that race or gender, in that occupation, etc.)
Losing one’s temper and incurring consequences (being reprimanded at work, getting suspended from school, being removed from a board or organization, etc.)
Suffering further discrimination and humiliation by a company who doesn’t take responsibility (being asked to move on a plane, at a restaurant, or being shifted to another position at work to circumvent the situation rather than deal with the offender)

Possible Internal Struggles (Inner Conflict):
Discriminatory experiences causing a war between hope that things will change and losing faith in humanity
Trying to decide whether to call out the behavior or not (especially if the character fears negative fallout by doing so)
Internalizing the treatment (believing that what was said is true)
Struggling with fear, anxiety, or depression
Growing resentment, anger, or rage

People Who Could Be Negatively Affected: Co-workers, the character’s family members, neighbors, other people in the same demographic

Resulting Emotions: Anger, anguish, anxiety, appalled, apprehension, betrayed, bitterness, defiant, depressed, despair, desperation, determination, disbelief, discouraged, disillusionment, dread, emasculated, embarrassment, envy, fear, flustered, frustration, hatred, humiliation, hurt, indignation, insecurity, intimidated, loneliness, neglected, nervousness, overwhelmed, panic, paranoia, powerlessness, rage, resentment, resignation, sadness, self-pity, shame, shock, tormented, unappreciated, unease, vulnerability, wariness, worry

Personality Flaws that May Make the Situation Worse: Abrasive, cynical, hypocritical, ignorant, inhibited, martyr, needy, nervous, paranoid, perfectionist, pessimistic, prejudiced, reckless, subservient, violent, withdrawn, worrywart 

Positive Outcomes: 
Standing up for what’s right and seeing a positive change because of it
Shining the light on a wrong and exposing it
Educating people and gaining allies for the cause
The character sharing their story and emboldening others to do the same
Hearing other people’s stories and recognizing that the character isn’t alone
The character benefitting from cutting the toxic people out of their life
The character being able to identify and accept their characteristic as a strength rather than something to be downplayed or ashamed of
The character experiencing harassment or discrimination and becoming self-aware enough to acknowledge and discard their own biases

If you’re interested in other conflict options, you can find them here.

Need More Descriptive Help?

While this conflict thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (15 unique thesauri and growing) is available at our main site, One Stop for Writers

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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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2 months ago

Diversity is a topic near/dear to my villainous heart but the flip side–and I think one of our most important duties in fiction–is honestly depicting the horrors of discrimination. Thanks for posting this, I can’t wait to share.