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 Death
Human beings have a natural drive for self-preservation and survival, so a healthy respect for death is normal. But when the character begins to obsessively fear that they or a loved one will die, a phobia called thanatophobia can develop. Someone in this situation may be afraid of the death process—of pain, the unknown, or the afterlife—or simply of ceasing to exist. This kind of fear can dominate a person’s life, making it impossible for them to enjoy even the smallest aspects of living.
What It Looks Like
Shying away from potentially dangerous or thrill-seeking situations (skydiving, storm chasing, running at night, etc.)
Frequently checking for signs of illness or disease
Avoiding cemeteries, funeral homes, and other places associated with death
Not celebrating Halloween, the Day of the Dead, and other holidays related to death
Checking in frequently on loved ones to make sure they’re okay
Taking vitamins and supplements
Insisting on over-the-top safety precautions
Running to the doctor at the slightest sign of illness
Protecting children to the point of smothering them
Being an overly cautious driver
Being overly concerned about germs
Doing good deeds as a way of “balancing the scales” in this life so the character won’t be punished in the next one
Talking incessantly about reports of dangerous places, mass casualty events, etc.
Making fear-based decisions
Suffering from frequent nightmares or insomnia
Common Internal Struggles
The character falling sick and fretting that they’ve contracted a deadly disease
Worrying that they won’t be able to accomplish everything they want to before they die
Anxiety rising when the character sees a news report about someone dying
Desperately wanting to know the truth about the afterlife but not having any proof
Struggling to act normal because the character knows their fear makes them look irrational
Not being able to rest when loved ones are away
Knowing the character’s actions are driving family members away but being unable to lighten up
Obsessing over exercising regularly and eating healthy
Struggling with paranoia
Flaws That May Emerge
Fussy, Controlling, Morbid, Needy, Obsessive, Paranoid, Stubborn, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Missing out on opportunities to try new things
Being reclusive and living a life of isolation
The character’s health being such a big priority that they don’t have time for other activities
Other people avoiding the character because of their neediness, restrictive rules, and obsessive need for safety
Having to use medication to control anxiety and depression
Spending so much time worrying about death that the character loses all joy and happiness
Being ruled by fear
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Experiencing a life-threatening situation, such as a car accident or a tropical storm
The character or their loved one being diagnosed with a terminal illness
A loved one dying unexpectedly
Having to attend a funeral
Seeing death depicted in a movie or on the news
Having a near-death experience
Suffering a serious injury
Milestone birthdays that represent the passage of time
Seeing signs of aging as the character gets older
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.