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 Mediocrity
The fear of mediocrity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can drive the character to do their very best, rising to all occasions and overcoming the obstacles that stand in their way on the path to success. The dark side of this fear comes when it is based on external validation. Needing the admiration of their peers instead of basing their success and value on their uniqueness and areas of strength is a recipe for disaster.
What It Looks Like
The character being hyper-critical of themselves
Searching for purpose in life
Wanting to be extraordinary
Difficulty accepting criticism
Becoming anxious as deadlines approach
Being a perfectionist
The character comparing themselves unfairly to others
Needing external validation
Desiring superiority over others
Refusing to accept mediocrity in others
Having unrealistic expectations
The character basing their value on the opinions of others
Being envious of other people’s accomplishments
Being scared to take risks (because they could result in failure)
Being an overachiever
Having a large ego
Exhibiting narcissistic tendencies
Pointing out other people’s flaws (to counteract their feelings of inferiority)
Going to extremes to prove themselves (getting plastic surgery to improve their appearance, amassing debt to maintain a certain lifestyle, etc.)
Common Internal Struggles
Putting off a new endeavor or adventure for fear of criticism
Not choosing a desired career path because it’s too ordinary
The character wrestling with depression when they fall short of a goal
Feeling demeaned at the slightest criticism
Berating themselves over simple mistakes
Becoming resentful when they don’t receive recognition they feel is warranted
Being overwhelmed with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy
Flaws That May Emerge
Controlling, Extravagant, Haughty, Impulsive, Insecure, Irrational, Jealous, Judgmental, Know-It-All, Materialistic, Needy, Oversensitive, Perfectionist, Pretentious, Resentful, Self-Destructive, Self-Indulgent, Selfish, Vain, Workaholic
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Being dissatisfied with significant accomplishments
Constantly being plagued with self-doubt about their abilities
The character living below their potential because they’re afraid to take risks
Needing the praise of people the character admires before they can claim success
Being unfulfilled socially or relationally because the character is focused on achieving goals
Always feeling second-best because the character is comparing themselves to others and coming up short
Frequently burning out
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Being eclipsed by a successful sibling
The character not winning a competition or contest
Being told they will never amount to anything
Being passed over for a promotion
Seeing an ex-partner with someone the character perceives to be better in some way than the character
Observing someone being showered with accolades and desiring the same
Being assigned a ho-hum role or project where there is no chance to shine
Being teamed up with a partner who is superior to the character (in an area of giftedness, with other people, etc.)
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.
Fear of mediocrity could be related to impostor syndrome or inverse Dunning-Kruger Effect? All seems to be related to low self-esteem and self-doubts. And, probably, parental and social mandates about what success is.
When my Ghost of Average Writer greets me, I answer: “Well, there it is, the impostor syndrome showing its ugly face again. I write first and foremost for me, and try my best if someone else like my stories, all the better. Now, shoo! I’ve work to do”.
BECCA PUGLISI says
Absolutely! So many possible causes and past drivers for this particular fear.
Every morning the Ghost of Average Writer greets me. “You’re no C.S. Lewis. Your character descriptions can’t equal ‘Chuchundra, the musk-rat, who never comes out into the middle of the floor, but always creeps round by the wall.’”
I shrug. “This is supposed to be fun, remember? Last year, I was curious about a regular guy named Elijah. Today I’m helping Obadiah hide the good guys from Jezebel. If I enjoy the story, maybe others will.”
The ghost backs into the corner. “We’ll see.”
BECCA PUGLISI says
This is a great mindset to have. Comparison, in any area of life, is going to result in disappointment and, ultimately, us feeling bad about ourselves. I try not to go there. 🙂