Fear is a disruptive force, even though its job is to keep us safe. When there’s a perceived physical or psychological threat, our brain blasts us with a shot of adrenaline so we respond, fight, flight, or freeze, whichever helps us navigate the danger we’re in.
But fear is also insidious. It can sink into our thoughts and memories and become an ongoing dark force that cloaks us, changing our behavior and how we see the world. We become ever-watchful for new threats, and avoid things that have the potential to lead to another painful experience.
In fiction, characters also feel this dark weight, and it can be as detrimental to them as it is to us.
Fear may cause a character to…
Hold back in relationships
Underachieve (by choosing ‘safe’ goals below their potential)
Avoid certain places, events, and people
Misread situations and overestimate threats
Feel stuck in life
Struggle with self-worth
Retreat into themselves
Stay within their comfort zone
Settle for less
Find it harder to make decisions
Hold onto the past in an unhealthy way
Have a more negative view of the world
Doom cast (decide something will fail without trying)
Become triggered by certain events and circumstances
Project fears onto others (damaging relationships)
Not take advantage of opportunities
Have unmet needs (that grow deeper as time goes on)
Develop health conditions
Whatever your character wants in the story, fear stands in their way.
Strong characters have agency, meaning they make choices and act, steering their own path toward their goal. But this goal will be hard to achieve, and if fear is in the driver’s seat, it affects their choices and actions.
If they stay within their comfort zone rather than take a risk, avoid something they must do because they don’t want to be judged, or convince themselves an effort will only end in failure, their decisions and actions are impaired, and whatever they choose to do instead won’t be enough to win.
There are many debilitating fears which can hold someone back. Knowing what your character’s exact fear is, be it rejection, intimacy, competition, or something else, will help you write their actions, behaviors, and decisions in the story. It will also help you plot events to purposely challenge that fear, in the hopes that they will grow and come to control it, rather than it controlling them.
How to find a character’s deepest fear
Fears can be learned (like a child who fears dogs from being exposed to their mother’s phobia of them), but for the most part, fears are born of negative experiences, especially trauma.
For example, being surrendered to the state by a parent who no longer wants to be tied down would be a devastating experience for a character. This trauma likely would create a fear of rejection, abandonment, or both. They will move through life worrying that if they let someone in, that person will eventually get tired of them and the character will be discarded once again.
To find your character’s fear, think about their experiences, especially emotional wounds. What happened to them, and how did this shatter how they see themselves and the world? What insecurities do they now have? What triggers them, what do they avoid more than anything, and what do they refuse to do because the mental barrier of fear is too strong?
Help for brainstorming your character’s fears
We’re thrilled to announce that our Fear Thesaurus is now part of our THESAURUS descriptive database at One Stop for Writers.
This thesaurus dives into deep-level fears so you can show how one changes who your character is & how it steers their thoughts and actions in the story.
Each entry looks at what the fear looks like, the behavioral fallout it leads to, what might have caused it to form, the inner struggles your character may be facing as a result, and the triggers, possible disruptions to their life, and more.
Use this thesaurus to build deeper characters, understand the role of fear in character arc, and plot events that will be specifically challenging for your character so they struggle but also have an opportunity to grow!
Wondering what One Stop for Writers is about?
One Stop for Writers® is a site Becca and I created to help you beyond our thesaurus books. It’s packed with tools designed to make planning, writing, and revising easier, and teach you to become a stronger storyteller as you go.
If you’d like to take a look, join Becca for a tour, and then start a free trial to test these tools and resources for yourself. See you at One Stop!
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Traci Kenworth says
Great emotion to dive into. It can cripple a person in life so the same should be true of our character on the page. I enjoy your site! It helps with the planning of a story so much! I encourage others to visit and try it out.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Thank you so much, Traci – I am so glad the topics we cover are helping you, and we appreciate the referrals!
Fears are so fundamental, especially those deep-set ones. They can really get in our way in the real world, and so we want to bring that realism into the story by showing our characters struggle with the same things.