Fear is an undeniable part of the human experience, for both real and fictional people. At its most basic, it warns our characters of potential danger and encourages them to take actions and make specific choices that will keep them safe. While unpleasant, it’s an important warning system meant to protect them from harm. But the system breaks down when a fear grows to the point of becoming overwhelming and crippling.
Debilitating fears play an important role in story and character arc, so we’ve decided to delve into this topic for our next thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers. Not just any fears, though—the virulent ones that stymie characters and derail them from their goals and dreams. To help you write your character’s greatest fear realistically, we’ll be exploring the following aspects for each entry:
What It Looks Like. Fears look different for each character based on a number of personal factors, so we’ll be providing a variety of manifestations for you to consider. Know your character’s personality, their sensitivities, and their personal boundaries—things they’re not willing to do because it will be triggering. Being intimately familiar with your character will give you a good idea of how their fear will manifest in various areas of life.
Common Internal Struggles. Fear will cause the character to doubt, obsess, and worry—many times, to an unhealthy degree. If they recognize that their preoccupation borders on the irrational or that it’s making certain desirable things impossible, that knowledge will war with their need for safety, generating internal conflict. The way they deal with it (or don’t deal with it) will have consequences that will impact their forward progress, so this is an important aspect of fear to think about.
Flaws That May Emerge. As your character tries to avoid what they fear, they may undergo a personality shift. A fear of commitment may cause the character to become superficial in their relationships and conversations. The character who is afraid of rejection may become abrasive, uncooperative, or dishonest—flaws that will keep people from getting close enough for a possible rejection to sting. Someone who is scared of losing control can become incredibly controlling and fussy. These traits are effective at protecting the character, but they will cause a myriad of other problems that then will have to be addressed.
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life. If your character has a debilitating fear, you’ll need to show it clearly to readers through the context of their current story—no expository paragraphs or info dumps. An effective way to do this is by showing how the fear impacts the various areas of the character’s life. In this field, we’ll offer ideas on the minor inconveniences and major disruptions a fear can create.
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear. This is another way you can clearly show your character’s fear—by introducing situations that will trigger them. But they’re also helpful for providing opportunities for growth. As your character moves through their story toward their goal, their fear will block them. For them to achieve their objective, at some point, they’ll have to confront their fear and put it in its rightful place. Knowing which scenarios will trigger their fears will allow you to build those important growth opportunities into the story.
Fear is such a vital part of your character’s arc and their story. Our hope for this thesaurus is that it will provide insight and guidance for this important element. Find our list of entries here!
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.