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 Feeling Unsafe
Safety is a basic human need. When it’s lost, everything can feel like a threat. The analogy being scared of your own shadow isn’t far from the truth for a character with this fear, which can progress to the point of them being afraid to leave home. Their unease can be focused on certain locations and people or spread to everyone and everywhere, including their safe places.
What It Looks Like
Always erring on the side of caution
Being short-tempered and snappy
Isolating themselves and loved ones from the outside world
Physical ailments associated with worry (headaches from grinding their teeth, ulcers, fatigue, etc.)
Nervous habits—wringing their hands, eyes darting around the environment, etc.
Scanning rooms or restaurants for exits
Being perceived as unfriendly or standoffish
Constant exhaustion from always being on high alert
Not going out after dark
Avoiding certain parts of town
Believing the worst about people
Being obsessed with self- and home defense
Being overprotective of loved ones
Becoming confrontational when cornered
Carrying a weapon, such as a gun, a taser, or pepper spray
Investing in security measures (a dog, a security system, a concealed carry permit, etc.)
Frequently checking locks
Not going anywhere alone
Obsessing over news accounts of people being attacked
Distrusting the police or those in authority
The character being edgy when they’re alone
Common Internal Struggles
Feeling compelled to flee a situation despite there being no visible threat
Wanting to go out with friends but being too overwhelmed with worry
Missing out on professional or relational opportunities due to a fear of traveling alone, at night, or in a strange place
Being compelled to protect family and friends despite knowing those efforts are pushing them farther away
Being obsessed with the news even though it makes the character feel more unsafe
Feeling like a burden (because the character can’t stay alone, needs someone to drive them after dark, etc.)
Disliking the perception they’re creating about themselves but not being able to change
Flaws That May Emerge
Antisocial, Apathetic, Cowardly, Defensive, Evasive, Indecisive, Inhibited, Insecure, Irrational, Morbid, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Pessimistic, Subservient, Superstitious, Suspicious, Timid, Withdrawn, Worrywart
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
Having to schedule their plans around other people’s timetables
Living as a recluse
Hiding from the real world so much that they become out of touch with it and the people in it
Being limited professionally because of their fears
Being pitied, judged, or rejected by others
Difficulty trusting others
The character’s relationship with their children deteriorating because of their obsessive need to keep them safe
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
A stranger approaching the character’s house at night
Feeling watched in a restaurant or store
A loved one getting involved with someone the character doesn’t trust
Being a victim of a home invasion
Losing a driver license or other documentation containing sensitive information
The political climate changing for the worst
Hearing a friend’s first-hand account of an attack or violation
Being pulled over by police in an isolated spot
A child not arriving home when they were supposed to
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.