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 will hold your character back in the story and affect how they see themselves and the world. Below is a sample of the entry found in our Fear Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers. To access the full entry and the full range of topics in this powerful show-don’t-tell THESAURUS database, start a free trial.
Fear of Criticism
No one likes to be criticized, but for some people, it can be very intimidating and even demoralizing, leading to an avoidance of any kind of well-intended feedback or critique. A fear like this can also be linked to a fear of rejection. It might be generalized, affecting many areas of life, or be localized to one person or environment.
What It Looks Like
Hesitancy to share their work
Double- and triple-checking completed tasks
Striving for perfection
Common Internal Struggles
The character always feeling on edge, afraid of making a mistake
Having ideas to share but being too afraid of they not being received
Feeling like a failure
Flaws That May Emerge
Antisocial, Defensive, Evasive, Haughty, Inhibited, Insecure, Jealous, Know-It-All, Nervous, Perfectionist, Pretentious, Timid, Verbose
Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life
The character stagnating because they’re unable to accept feedback
Being limited professionally because of an unwillingness to change
Never being able to truly express themselves
Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear
Having to change jobs and start over with a new supervisor
Being put in a situation where the character or their skills are on display
Being assigned a job that is beyond the character’s abilities (being set up to fail)
Other Fear Thesaurus entries can be found here.
Fear is a Crucial Piece of Your Character’s Arc
A character’s fear is defining, determining who they are at the start of your story and what they’ll have to overcome to succeed in the end. Don’t overlook or underestimate this vital piece of the character’s arc. Unearth their greatest fear at One Stop for Writers.
The Fear Thesaurus is part of the largest, fiction-specific description database available.
Access it here.
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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.
This is a very interesting post, thanks for sharing it, Becca.
I liked the mention of ‘trust’ here: ‘Receiving harsh criticism from a trusted individual’ as a trigger for the fear.
I think fear of criticism goes back to trust often, generally (not trusting that the person giving the criticism has one’s best interests at heart).
Many people who have this fear have experienced punitive environments such as a controlling parent for whom nothing is ever ‘good enough’. It can create a deep-seated desire to please.
In an ethics of care, the criticizing/feedback-giving person should always strive for a mixture of honesty and care/sensitivity, if possible. There was some study where they found for each negatively-worded criticism, a person needs to hear three positive/praise-like pieces of feedback to regain trust and a sense of it being a good interaction.
BECCA PUGLISI says
I find this fear really interesting because it’s something none of us like, but for the vast majority of us, it doesn’t go to an extreme level. If it does, i’s super important to explore the possible reasons behind this fear and make sure what we land on for our character makes sense for them.
Jennifer Lane says
Great post. The book, The Defining Decade, cited interesting research about twenty-somethings responding to work criticism with feelings of devastation due to more activity in the amygdala as the brain fully develops.
BECCA PUGLISI says
A great reminder that in real life, as Jordan mentioned, we need to over-encourage and affirm to be sure our necessary criticisms aren’t over-internalized.