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.