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. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.
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.
Fear of Growing Old
While growing old is a natural part of life, it’s not always an easy process. Someone who has always looked young, whose identity is tied to their attractiveness, or whose occupation relies on their mobility and independence can develop a fear in this area. Whether they’re triggered by their changing looks, a potential mental decline, a physical weakening of the body, or death itself, someone with this fear may become driven to do everything in their power to keep the inevitable at bay.
What It Looks Like
Incessantly working out
Following a strict and involved skin care regimen
Common Internal Struggles
The character obsessing over changes in their appearance or mental capabilities
Worrying that others also notice the changes
Seeing deficiencies where there are none
Flaws That May Emerge
Childish, Compulsive, Defensive, Frivolous, Inflexible, Insecure, Irrational, Morbid, Nagging, Needy, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Pushy, Rebellious, Reckless, Stubborn, Vain, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
The character spending too much money to maintain their appearance, purchase supplements, etc.
Frequent surgeries and recoveries stealing the character’s free time
The character spending so much time on the activities that will keep them young that they pass up other opportunities
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
A friend or associate passing away
Seeing a drastic change in an older friend’s appearance
The character experiencing a physical change associated with aging, such as gray hair, age spots, or a drop in metabolism or libido
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.
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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.
Roland R Clarke says
As a writer struggling to write because of health issues, I fear growing old and I’m unable to do much about it.
I’m 68 in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. Little physically works: my typing has declined from touch typing to slow tiring pecking, and my fingers quickly lock/seize up. As for using voice recognition software, my speech is slurred and sporadic, which Dragon hates. Everything takes time… a month of sessions for one blog post – multiple drafts. My current novel came back from my editor with invaluable suggestions, but time revising is infinite.
The only thing working is my brain, so I’m frustrated by being unable to keep up with it.
My legacy is dying and I’m afraid… of dying with too much unfinished.
[Apologies: no energy left to edit this.]
BECCA PUGLISI says
I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling, Roland. Sending you a PM 🙂
Andie Patrick says
I have just read your Thesaurus entry on the fear of growing old. As I am in my late eighties, I feel I am qualified to comment on it. My first thought was that a writer younger that I might assume that these fears apply to all older people. Let me assure them that this is not so. I agree that the behaviours listed may very well apply to some senior citizens: though they may not apply to this one.
A second comment in that not all of the behaviours mentioned are necessarily signs of fear or ageing. Take exercising, for example. Some of us do follow exercise regimes in order to remain as mobile as possible for as long as possible. There are many forms of (usually gentler) exercise that can be safely follower by older people, which are beneficial to our health and wellbeing.
Another is the tendency to visit a Doctor more frequently. This becomes a necessity for most seniors, as bits and pieces of one’s anatomy wear out and medication becomes essential. I won’t bore you with a list of my conditions; suffice it to say that I take three prescribed medications daily – without which my continued existence on this planet would be curtailed.
I take my pills and do my exercises, not to be able to compete with younger people, but to enjoy a better quality of life in my autumn years, and to enable me to carry on for as long as I can, doing the things that I enjoy doing. The converse is that I am able to put aside the activities that I can no longer do, without regret.
So, fellow authors, if you are writing about an older person, be careful not to fall into the trap of stereotyping them – we’re not all a bunch of old white-haired wrinklies, nodding in front of a fire – there’s still a bit of life left in us whilst we still breathe.
P.S. What if my libido is no longer the force it used to be – I can still write sexy romances!
BECCA PUGLISI says
Hi, Andie. I think there might have been some confusion about the purpose of this post. It’s part of a Fear Thesaurus which, as you see in the introduction, is about debilitating fears that a character might have and how that fear can impact them and their story. So this entry on growing older isn’t a statement about the elderly, nor is it meant to characterize someone who might be a bit concerned about aging. It’s an exploration of how someone with a crippling fear of growing old might act, what they may struggle with internally, and how that fear could hold them back in life.
Characters have fears, things they’re deeply afraid of that become motivators for them and hold them back from fulfillment. It gets really complicated when those fears relate to things in life that are unavoidable: making mistakes, letting people down, the government, dogs… Gerascophobia (the fear of growing old) is a documented fear. For a character who has it, it can range from merely inconveniencing them to becoming a formative force—changing who they are, what they want, how they respond to conflict, and impacting the story as a whole.
Hopefully this helps you see our intent with this entry (and with the whole thesaurus). I appreciate you sharing your concerns with us.