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 will hold your character back in the story and affect how they see themselves and the world. Below is a sample of the entry found in our Fear Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers. To access the full entry and the full range of topics in this powerful show-don’t-tell THESAURUS database, start a free trial.
Being Capable of Harm
Notes: Sometimes destructive thoughts enter the mind, causing us to wonder if we are capable of harming others, either as an uncontrolled response because of some internal driver or deficit, or because we become so single-mindedly obsessed about something (a goal, success, power, etc.) we will do whatever it takes to possess it. For most, these thoughts are fleeting, because common sense prevails – I am moral and have good judgment. For others, though, it becomes a deeply embedded fear: I will harm someone if I don’t safeguard against it.
This fear can play out well in storytelling for characters who are unsure where their moral line is, or worry they will lose control of themselves. It can also be a good fear for a villain if you wish to hint at their humanity and whether they might be self-aware enough to be redeemed. Characters with Harm OCD may be especially susceptible to this fear.
What It Looks Like
The character being afraid of their own anger
Warning people away and discouraging relationships
Not liking to be surprised
Common Internal Struggles
Having intrusive thoughts on how to get something in a direct, dark way (I’d get full custody if he was dead), followed by shame, fear, or both
An idea forming that it would be easy to hurt someone in a specific way
An unwanted impulse to use an item violently (cutting a sandwich at lunch and suddenly imagining using it to stab a family member nearby)
Flaws That May Emerge
Addictive, Compulsive, Fanatical, Flaky, Impulsive, Indecisive, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Needy, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Subservient, Superstitious, Timid, Uncommunicative, Withdrawn, Workaholic, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Struggling to build bonds with others (for fear of harming them)
Choosing to settle or underachieve so to not activate their “darker side” by setting big goals
Feeling easily overwhelmed
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being alone around children or someone who is vulnerable
Being responsible for the welfare of others
Having to make a decision where people could be negatively impacted
Other Fear Thesaurus entries can be found here.
Fear is a Crucial Piece of Your Character’s Arc
A character’s fear is defining, determining who they are at the start of your story and what they’ll have to overcome to succeed in the end. Don’t overlook or underestimate this vital piece of the character’s arc. Unearth their greatest fear at One Stop for Writers.
The Fear Thesaurus is part of the largest, fiction-specific description database available.
Access it here.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.