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 of Letting People Down
The feeling of letting people down is never a pleasant one, nor is it uncommon. Not wanting to disappoint or upset others is understandable—especially if it’s someone the character loves or is responsible for. The problem comes when this mindset becomes an obsession. This fear can come from a desire to please a parent, spouse, employer, friend, group, or even society as a whole. When pleasing people takes over, unhealthy patterns form, which lead to a whole host of problems.
What It Looks Like
Repeatedly asking for instructions
Asking to help (with chores, services, etc.) or doing these things without asking
Consistently receiving high grades or performance reviews
Working overtime often
Being a perfectionist
Volunteering to run errands, do favors, etc.
Constantly apologizing for little things
Being hurt by constructive criticism
Seeking validation and praise for work or services
Spending free time on pursuits that will make the character better (studying, volunteering, taking on an internship, etc.)
Obsessing over small details
Agreeing to plans with minimal hesitation
Being empathetic and sensitive to others’ emotions
Making sacrifices to put other’s needs first
Agreeing with others’ opinions, evaluations, and ideas
Being highly suggestible
Repeatedly assuring others when they make mistakes
Conforming to societal norms
Watching others carefully for negative reactions
Cheerfulness, even when doing menial tasks
Common Internal Struggles
Wanting to follow a passion (for a career, etc.), but caving to what others expect
Putting on an emotional front to hide “unacceptable” emotions
The character investing in a hobby they don’t enjoy because someone else likes it
Not knowing how to say no
The character feeling that they’re not enough
The character compromising their values to do what’s expected
Smiling on the outside while falling apart on the inside
Wanting to share an opinion but not wanting to cause trouble
Resenting the people the character is trying so hard to please, and feeling guilty about it
Worrying about the repercussions of falling short or making a mistake
Flaws That May Emerge
Cowardly, Defensive, Fussy, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Martyr, Needy, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Pessimistic, Self-Destructive, Subservient, Timid, Weak-Willed, Workaholic
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Struggling to function at work or school due to fear of failure or making mistakes
Struggling with low self-esteem and depressive disorders
Feeling a lack of true connection to certain people (parents, a boss, etc.)
The character being unable to do the things that make them personally happy because they’re too busy doing what others want
Being taken advantage of due to a lack of personal boundaries
Constantly flirting with burnout
Frequently falling ill due to a lack of self-care
The character believing that their own opinions and ideas aren’t as important as other people’s
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Receiving a poor grade or performance assessment at work
Being asked to do a large or difficult task
The character learning that someone wasn’t happy with their work
Having to make a crucial decision—e.g., marriage, attending college, choosing a career
Being punished or penalized for making a mistake
Someone critical or harsh re-entering the character’s life
Getting invited to two events at the same time and having to choose one
Being asked or pressured to do something the character isn’t comfortable with
A significant other not appreciating a thoughtful gift
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.