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 of Abandonment
While death and loss are a part of life, they’re incredibly difficult to deal with. Being left behind (whether the leaving is voluntary or a choice) by someone important is something that many people and characters can worry about, even to the point of it becoming a fear that takes over their life.
This is one of the worst feelings to experience and it can be inflicted by anyone close to the character—a family member (parent, spouse, sibling, child), lover or romantic interest, best friend, mentor, etc. Someone who has experienced abandonment may develop a debilitating fear of it occurring again, but so can people who have never gone through it because they know the anguish it causes and don’t want it to happen to them.
Whether it looks like guardedness or holding on too tightly, a fear of abandonment can manifest in a number of ways.
What It Looks Like
Maintaining shallow relationships (so the character never grows close to someone who could leave them)
Reluctance to fully commit to a relationship
Sabotaging promising relationships by pushing the other person away, treating them badly, cheating on them, abandoning them first, etc.
Believing that people are going to leave (due to insecurity, feeling unworthy of love, etc.)
Difficulty trusting others
Becoming possessive or manipulative as a way of controlling the other person and keeping them from close
Staying in an unhealthy relationship because the character believes it’s better than being alone
Attaching too quickly to a partner, friend, etc.
Seeking frequent reassurance of the other person’s loyalty or love
Making demands of the other party that will “prove” their love or loyalty
Being extremely sensitive to criticism
Seeking to please and appease
Struggling with emotional intimacy
Reading too much into the other person’s words or actions
Common Internal Struggles
The character blaming themselves for things that aren’t their fault
Struggling with anxiety or depression
Being tempted to do something they don’t want to to keep the other party happy
Feeling worthless or unlovable
The character wondering what’s wrong with them (that causes people to leave)
Wanting reassurance from the other person but not wanting to come off as clingy or desperate
Feeling defective and unfixable
Worrying that they will never be happy
Flaws That May Emerge
Abrasive, Addictive, Childish, Controlling, Cynical, Disloyal, Evasive, Impulsive, Insecure, Irrational, Jealous, Manipulative, Martyr, Needy, Nervous, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Perfectionist, Pessimistic, Possessive, Subservient, Timid, Volatile, Weak-Willed, Withdrawn, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Having many shallow relationships and few deep, meaningful ones
Struggling to engage with new people because the character is too afraid
Getting stuck in a cycle of not wanting to be abandoned but constantly exhibiting behaviors that drive people away
The character losing sight of who they are because they’re so eager to become the kind of person their partner will stay with
Having to explain to others why the latest relationship didn’t work
Living in denial about what’s really happening
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being asked out by someone
A romantic relationship moving to a new level of commitment (becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting married, etc.)
A move that will require the character to start and develop new relationships
A friend not returning a phone call, showing irritation, or doing something else the character perceives as withdrawal
Experiencing the unexpected death of a parent, spouse, or other close loved one
Being selected as one of the people at work who will be laid off
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.