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 health condition, 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.
A Secret Being Revealed
You better believe your character has something to hide. Small indiscretions—cheating on a diet, lying to a loved one—are one thing, but big secrets have the ability to completely destroy your character. If they’re hiding a shame-based secret, one that is tied to who they are at their core, or something they believe could train-wreck their life (or someone else’s), the fear of it coming to light can push them to rearrange their existence around keeping it hidden, resulting in massive fallout in many areas of the character’s life.
What It Looks Like
Withdrawing from others
Claiming that events from the past happened differently than they actually did
Living in denial about what happened
Changing the subject when certain topics are broached
Deflecting—turning the attention off of themselves and onto someone else
Picking a fight about something else if someone is getting too close to the truth
Having relationships that only go to a certain depth, limiting their intimacy with others
Signs of nervousness or agitation in specific situations
Physical ailments, such as insomnia, incontinence, acid reflux, acne breakouts, etc.
Seeking treatment for anxiety, panic attacks, and emotional volatility
Staying busy (to avoid thinking about the secret)
Self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
Engaging in risky behaviors
Discomfort and weirdness around people who know about the secret or were involved in it
Common Internal Struggles
Feeling guilty for not being honest with others
Knowing the secret should be shared but being too afraid of other people finding out
Obsessing over interactions with others to see if they might suspect the character of hiding something
Fighting to avoid thoughts about the secret; doing anything to keep from facing it
Engaging in unhealthy behaviors to cope, then feeling ashamed
Struggling with anxiety
Feeling unworthy or unlovable
Burying the secret so deep that the layers of coping mechanisms and lies the character has constructed make it difficult to address
Flaws That May Emerge
Addictive, Confrontational, Dishonest, Evasive, Flaky, Inflexible, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Nervous, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Reckless, Self-Destructive, Timid, Uncommunicative, Volatile, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being seen by others as dishonest, flaky, or evasive
Sabotaging relationships with people who get too close to the truth
Having to avoid certain people (because they share the secret, they’re nosy, etc.)
The character having to remember all the lies they’ve told and to whom
Difficulty remember past events clearly because the character has lied about them in different ways to different people
Suffering from a mental health condition brought on by the stress and anxiety
Being unable to pursue a hobby or occupation the character is passionate about (because the secret is tied to the character’s identity or it’s too close to the source of their secret)
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Someone saying something that makes the character think they might know what’s being hidden
The character being given an ultimatum by a spouse or partner that requires them to come clean
Encountering someone who knows about the secret or played a part in its genesis
Being blackmailed by someone threatening to go public with the secret
New evidence being found and the case being reopened (if the secret is related to a crime)
Attending therapy for an unrelated issue and the secret being unearthed in the character’s memory
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.