The Fear Thesaurus

From Writers Helping Writers, this: Introducing…The Fear Thesaurus!

This post is not what I expected. Here’s what this post is about:

Debilitating fears play an important role in story and character arc, so we’ve decided to delve into this topic for our next thesaurus at Writers Helping Writers. Not just any fears, though—the virulent ones that stymie characters and derail them from their goals and dreams. To help you write your character’s greatest fear realistically, we’ll be exploring the following aspects for each entry … If your character has a debilitating fear, you’ll need to show it clearly to readers through the context of their current story—no expository paragraphs or info dumps. An effective way to do this is by showing how the fear impacts the various areas of the character’s life. In this field, we’ll offer ideas on the minor inconveniences and major disruptions a fear can create.

So this post is about how to use some sort of debilitating anxiety or phobia to built a more complex character, which is all very well. A good example is in The Mask of Mirrors by MA Carrick, where the crime lord Vargo is cripplingly phobic about disease, about touching anything that might carry disease. Given his background, this makes perfect sense and it’s handled very well in the story — a great illustration of exactly what the linked post is talking about.

But I was actually thinking of a thesaurus of fear.

This is because one pet peeve for me is writers using panic when they mean terror. These terms are not synonyms, and in particular, while you can usually use “terror” as a substitute for “panic,” you can’t safely make that substitution in reverse. As a reader, I would greatly prefer that authors use the correct term.


  • A terror of being caught.
  • A terror of being found out.
  • I’m terrified of public speaking.
  • She’s terrified of water.
  • He froze in terror.

All these constructions are correct. Panic would be the wrong choice in all of them, but that last one is the one where authors fairly often make a mistake.

Your character should not freeze in panic. Freezing in panic is not a thing. Panic means fear that throws you into wild, unthinking, unconsidered motion — not fear that freezes you in place.


  • I fled in panic.
  • Panicking, I flailed madly at the reaching hands.
  • Fleeing in panic, she plunged off the edge of the cliff before she even knew she’d come to the top of the mountain.
  • In blind panic, he fought back, stabbing and slashing with every weapon that came to hand.

Panic involves motion, especially unconsidered motion. Terror can be substituted for panic almost all the time, but not vice versa.

I’m not sure why it bugs me so much, but it does. I’m sure it would never make it into a top ten list of World’s Worst Word Choice Errors. But I think it probably would make it into my personal list of Top Ten List of Minor Pet Peeves And Please Stop Doing That.

While we’re on the subject, “instinctive” is also not a synonym for “reflexive.” When humans crowd together because they feel insecure and anxious, that’s an actual instinctive behavior. Reaching to touch something because you’re curious about it, that’s instinctive. When you jerk your hand away from a fire, that’s reflexive. If you don’t actually mean “instinctive,” then please say “reflexive.”

Now I’m starting to want to compose a Top Ten List of Minor Pet Peeves with regard to word choice errors. Not the big guys like affect / effect. More subtle and less common. “May” and “might” aren’t totally synonymous either when they are used in a “might have happened” sense. Mistakes with that are pretty common, but definitely subtle.

I’ll have to give this some thought and see if I can come up with ten.

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11 thoughts on “The Fear Thesaurus”

  1. Capital/capitol. ‘Nuff said. (I wrote a whole paragraph here but deleted it because it’s so self-evident. Take that, Mercedes Lackey.)

  2. What instrument goes with what kind of boat. Many people seem to think you use oars with canoes and paddles with rowboats and it drives me right out of the story and I may never forgive the author. Also you can’t row a canoe, and though you might paddle a bit in a rowboat that is not how you mainly will move the boat. It’s right there in the name! OTOH I have watched people in the rental boats in Central Park row their boats facing the wrong way — with the flat end going forward instead of the pointy end — so clearly this is an actual real-life problem. Though the faintest grasp of physics and motion should tell you the pointy part goes in front to cut through the water and make it easier to move! Or just looking at the other people rowing the boats.

  3. Oh and I meant to say that I like Emotion Thesaurus from Writers Helping Writers. Writing emotion is one of the hardest parts of writing for me and the thesaurus generally gives me a good starting point to figure out how to depict the emotion I’m going for.

  4. Irina, not one of my Personal Pet Peeves, but yes.

    R Morgan, hmm, I’m making a firm mental note about this. Rowboat, rowed not paddled, with oars. That does sound right. I don’t *think* I’ve made this kind of mistake, but I sure wouldn’t swear I haven’t.

    I’m very certain that I already knew that the pointy end goes in the front. It’s kind of funny, visualizing people trying to row the boat with the rear end in the front.

    I hadn’t noticed these emotion thesaurus entries previously; I’ll have to read through some of them. I mostly make mental notes about authors who do a thing especially well and then go back and see how they do it. The complicated worldbuilding in The Mask of Mirrors did make me think of your Shadow of the City — if you haven’t read it, I bet you’d like it.

  5. Thanks for the comparison! I started it last year sometime and it was too much for me then but I’d like to go back and give it another try. I’m still mostly re-reading and reading low-tension books. Strangely the Jade City trilogy snuck in under my threshold and I’m currently reading Jade Legacy. So far the first is my favorite but the ambition in all three is impressive.

    And yes, it is pretty funny to see people rowing boats the wrong way. Maybe they wanted the extra exercise. It sure looked like hard work.

  6. You’re not the only one; Sharon Shinn told me last week that she was reading Jade City and somehow found it okay despite being intense and violent. My response was ???? how can you read really high-tension books right now? But apparently it’s sneaking to the top of people’s TBR piles somehow.

    Fine, I’ll add Jade City to my TBR pile — there, done — but I kind of think The Mask of Mirrors series is probably the only high-tension series I’m going to actually read this year. And it’s taking me a long time to get through each book no matter how good they are.

  7. I can say with complete certainty that most writers who use the word ‘surety’ don’t know what it means.

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  8. Evelyn, that’s a good one! I can’t offhand think of examples where authors got this one wrong, but I can very easily imagine that you’re right.

  9. “Rein” — use the reins on the horse to curb its speed.

    “Reign” — rule over as a monarch.

  10. B.Morgan, here’s a funny story you might appreciate.
    I knew the pointy end of the rowboat was the front, but did not know how to row, when we went on a lake as kids in a heavy rented rowboat a few times. So I sat the wrong way around, looking where I was going, as that was the obviously logical way to sit, how else could you see when you’d need to adjust your course by pulling harder with one hand or the other? I just made the circling motion with my hands in the logical way to move forward in that position, which is the opposite direction that anyone who is taught rowing learns it. For just dawdling along it worked fine!
    Apparently this is a shocking way to row, for anyone who knows how. I never quite understood why, as I didn’t notice any difference in speed or effort between leaning forwards or leaning back to pull… but then I tend to use my weight to do some of the work, which is also wrong, I think.

    Anyway, going flat end forward is strange because of the extra resistance*, but I really wouldn’t be surprised by any self-taught occasional rowers (in books or out in real life) sitting the wrong way around while the rowboat moves pointy-end forwards.
    Real rowers might laugh at their unneccessary exhaustion when they reach safe harbor that way, but on the other hand it could save a solo rower from getting their boat stove in or run aground while manouvering around a lot of obstacles.

    * unless you’re used to poling/paddling those really shallow and small morass/creek-boats that have a flat but sloping end on both sides, to easily beach up on the flat sloping shores of marshy islands that barely rise out of the muck.

  11. Thanks for sharing, Hanneke. This seems much more reasonable to me for some reason. Of course you would want to look where you were going and there’s nothing about a rowboat that intrinsically tells you that it is wrong. I can’t say that I’ve ever spent enough time rowing a rowboat to know exactly how much more power you get by doing it the right way.

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