Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.
In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.
This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc.
Fear of Failure
What It Looks Like
Being content with the status quo
Taking a follower role; letting others lead
The character not doing their best
Apathy or laziness
Shutting down a co-worker’s new idea before it can be adopted
Finding faults in potential love interests
Ending a romantic relationship when it starts to get serious
Turning down new projects or opportunities
Doing something reckless or ill-advised the night before an important test or interview—e.g., staying up all night drinking, then falling asleep and missing the appointment
Procrastinating on a school or work assignment
Not finishing projects
Blaming others when a failure occurs
Projecting an image that encourages low expectations from others
Preoccupation with minor tasks (instead of focusing on the important ones necessary to succeed)
An inability to analyze past failures and learn from them
Being perceived as inflexible or lazy
Making excuses for underachieving
Manipulating others to avoid having to take on certain duties
Perfectionism; obsessing so much over making things perfect that the work never gets done and the end product is sabotaged
Common Internal Struggles
The character doubting their abilities or intelligence
The character being certain of their own failure when they’re entirely capable of winning
Worrying that failure will make others think less of the character
Worrying about disappointing others
Envisioning a desired future but doubting that it will ever come to be
Past failures replaying in the character’s head on a loop
Struggling with shame
Wanting to take on certain projects or opportunities but being too scared to try
Creating internal arguments against an appealing but risky opportunity
Flaws That May Emerge
Apathetic, Cautious, Cowardly, Cynical, Defensive, Devious, Evasive, Flaky, Forgetful, Frivolous, Humorless, Hypocritical, Indecisive, Inflexible, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Irresponsible, Manipulative, Mischievous, Nervous, Perfectionist, Rebellious, Reckless, Self-Destructive, Self-Indulgent, Stubborn, Temperamental, Uncooperative, Withdrawn
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Missing out on opportunities that the character would be good at or enjoy
Being looked down on by others (for a lack of ambition or ability)
Arguing with parents and family members who call the character out for not trying hard enough
The character being limited in what they’re able to achieve in life
Being unable to succeed professionally
Being unable to maintain a meaningful and healthy romantic relationship
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being assigned a high-profile work project
The character’s work partner falling ill, leaving the character to handle things on their own
Being asked to join a committee or volunteer group
Being asked out by someone the character likes
A romantic relationship escalating to a new level (the other person saying I love you or suggesting they move in together)
A negative influence speaking doubt and failure to the character, echoing their own thoughts
Being introduced to a scenario similar to the one that caused the character’s fear of failure
Experiencing a failure—real or perceived—that reinforces the character’s fear (their marriage falling apart, their child dropping out of school, etc.)
Being pitted against someone who is superior and is sure to win
Being rejected by a potential love interest
Other Fear Thesaurus entries can be found here.
Need More Descriptive Help?
While this thesaurus is still being developed, the rest of our descriptive collection (16 unique thesauri and growing) is accessible through the One Stop for Writers THESAURUS database.
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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.