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.
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
Taking jobs that allow the character to work alone
Shifting responsibility for others onto someone else
Acting irresponsibly (to keep others from considering the character when someone needs care)
Avoiding leadership roles
Being neutral or apathetic about social and political issues (because if the character expresses concern or notices injustice, they’ll feel compelled to take action for those being mistreated)
Claiming that social problems aren’t real or are someone else’s problem
Claiming that people needing help are responsible for their own misfortune (so the character can avoid taking responsibility)
Selfishness (real or perceived)—because the character’s priority always seems to be themselves, their own needs and desires, etc.
Reluctance to get involved in a friend’s personal problems
Throwing money at problems (because it allows the character to help without getting personally involved and being responsible for individuals)
Staying busy with work, hobbies, personal pursuits, etc.
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)
The character recognizing that they’re becoming irresponsible, self-serving, or superficial but also feeling that those traits are protecting them from harm
Being mired in feelings of inadequacy, incapability, and insecurity (because they believe they’re unable to responsibly care for others)
The character recognizing they’re being limited (professionally, socially, etc.) by this fear but not knowing how to change course
Wanting to eradicate the fear but being unable to get to the root of it—because they’re unwilling to face the past or the reasons behind the fear are complicated and hard to unravel
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)
Friction with friends and family members who don’t understand why the character won’t engage on a deeper level
Missing out on growth opportunities because the character is too scared to act
Having to avoid people who will ask more of the character than they’re willing to give
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
Being offered a desirable professional opportunity that would put the character in charge of others
The character’s concerns about their inabilities being confirmed by a negative influence in their life
A family member needing long-term care for a physical or mental health issue
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.
If you like, swing by and check out the video walkthrough for this site, and then give our Free Trial a spin.
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.