Theories and studies in human studies provide excellent writing tools. Earlier this year, we shared material on love types as well as sociological pressures. Now, we turn attention to the basic elements of human fear as tools to generate creative conflict.

The field of psychology generally recognizes five basic, primal fears. They’re listed in order, starting with the strongest:



Loss of Autonomy




To appreciate the depth of these fears (and their creative potential), consider the layers each of these terms can represent.

Take separation as an example. From what people would you never want to be separated? Family and friends come to mind, but the situation largely determines the exact expression of this fear. In a survival situation, especially with a group, becoming isolated from the person who can best provide fire, shelter, and food would sting the most (blending this fear with extinction). An individual who is co-dependent, or one who has narcissistic tendencies, would fear separation from those who would feed their psychological needs. To some, items are sources of comfort instead of people, making separation a very real and likely possibility (though just as terrifying).

Brainstorming how each of these fears can manifest could lead to conflicts, situations, or characters to populate a story. The following are a few more exercises to help convert these primal fears into raw writing material:

For each fear, create a situation in which a character is pushed to their particular limit. It may sound sadistic, but consider how far that character could go before breaking. This will often illustrate which approach will be most effective for use in the climax of that character’s story.

A child’s manifestation of terrifying separation.

Write a scene to embody what each fear means to you. Embody this fear either in the setting, scenario, or antagonist. Try to do this without using the word “fear”. This is intended to sharpen skills of showing emotion rather than telling the audience how to feel. Instead, make them afraid.

Select one of these fears and write three scenes (or five, if you’re ambitious) which induce fear at a different level of intensity from low to high. If higher levels are difficult, combine the chosen fear with another (or several others), though a lot can be learned by just sticking stubbornly to the initial choice. This exercise works on control of narrative tension, developing a variety of options for conflict development.

Each of these fears relies on dread to make them powerful. Write what would happen to your characters if one of these fears became a reality. Follow through on the reaction, even if this will never make it into the actual work. This could lead to clues on potential themes, resolutions, or plot twists.

Inversion is a great general writing exercise. Turning something to its opposite, swinging to a far extreme, or inducing an opposing effect encourages the mind to approach the original element in a different manner.

On the reverse side of the previous exercise, explore the power of the dread in your characters. Write out a scene in which they confront this fear for the first time. Use this to learn what this fear means to this particular character, and explore how to use it in their story to best effect.

Finally, as all things have their opposite, flip the script on these primal fears. Consider the opposite of one from this list and make that as much a fear as the original. Extinction? How about living forever? (A favorite topic of speculative fiction authors) Mutilation? How about never changing… ever? Oh, this is fun! Here’s one more: Ego-death turned to constant adoration and praise. Play with that and see what would make this something to fear. Use characters, settings, or any other tool needed to make this come to life.

For more information on these fears and others, see the resource links below and do some of your own research. Write on!




Potential Genetic Link to Phobias | Genome News Network

The Only 5 Fears We All Share | Psychology Today

5 Different Types of Fear | Life Provocateur

Top 10 Strong Human Fears | Listverse

Primal Fears | TV Tropes

Three Primal Fears | Recursive



Commenting area

  1. Great job. As a horror/suspense writer, I’m always playing with fears. I had a lot more, on my list, but I guess they’re really phobias. And I guess they can be traced back to this. For example, a fear of heights can translate as fear of extinction or mutilation if you should happen to fall from it.

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