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.
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 Responsible for Others
While some people crave being in charge of others, many shy away from it. The pressure of being responsible for someone else’s well-being, success, happiness, etc. can be so great that a character will actively avoid being put in this position.
A fear in this area could realistically develop out of a wounding event—whether the character failed when they were put in charge of someone or they were the one who was let down by the person responsible for them. Their reluctance can also stem from other fears, such as a fear of failure or letting others down.
What It Looks Like
Not having children
The character avoiding situations where they’re put in charge of children
Difficulty building deep relationships with others
Common Internal Struggles
Seeing injustice and wanting it to end but being too afraid to take action
Wanting deeper connections but knowing that a certain level of responsibility for the other parties comes with it
Wishing to be less selfish but feeling powerless to change (because it has become an ingrained defense mechanism)
Flaws That May Emerge
Abrasive, Antisocial, Apathetic, Callous, Childish, Cynical, Disloyal, Evasive, Flaky, Frivolous, Inattentive, Irresponsible, Lazy, Self-Indulgent, Stingy, Suspicious, Uncooperative, Withdrawn, Workaholic
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being unable to pursue a dream career that requires being responsible for others
Having few deep relationships or many shallow ones
Not being able to have children (if this something the character would want)
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Seeing firsthand injustice that requires a response
An emergency situation that requires the character to temporarily take charge of a friend’s child
A niece or nephew being orphaned, and the character being the only relative who can save them from foster care
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.
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.