Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 25, 2023

Writing Dark Using the Five Basic Types of Fear

by Eldred “Bob” Bird

Bare arms wrap creepily around trees in a gloomy forest.

Fall is once again in the air, and you know what that means—Halloween! ‘Tis the season to carve the pumpkins, don our costumes, and break out the scary stories. Or in our case, it’s time to write them. This is the perfect time to talk about our fears and how we, as writers, can exploit them.

Whether you write horror, terror, thriller, or let’s face it, even romance, fear is one of the most powerful emotions you can tap into. Fear and panic can override logic. It can make people do things they normally wouldn’t do or freeze in place and do nothing at all.

Once we establish an emotional connection between a character and the reader, the game is on. When we play on the fears of our characters, we’re playing on the fears of our readers as well. So, let’s talk about how to use the power of fear.

What is Fear?

A simple definition of fear is an anxious feeling, caused by our anticipation of some imagined event or experience. Notice it says anticipation and imagined. Fear is not the monster or creepy-crawly creature under the bed, fear lives in our own heads. It’s the thought of what might be lurking under the bed.

Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our sense of fear developed over the generations as a survival mechanism. It’s the thing that stops us in our tracks and makes us look before we leap. Fear keeps us alive.

The Five Basic Types of Fear

There are an infinite number of things we can fear, but according to Dr. Kari Albrecht in his Psychology Today article they can be divided into five basic categories: Extinction, Mutilation, Loss of Autonomy, Separation, and Ego Death. Let’s take a closer look at each one.


Put simply, extinction is the fear of death. It’s the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you stand too close to the edge of a cliff, or the panic when you hear a strange noise as you walk down a dark alley alone. The anxiety we feel when our life is threatened is there to try to keep us among the living.

Fear of death is one of the primary tools of horror and terror. It can be a powerful fuel for the emotional engine driving your story. Once you have the reader feeling empathy for your character, put their life in peril. If done well, the reader will experience the same emotion as the character.


Mutilation is probably the next favorite fear of the horror and terror genres. It’s all about violating the body’s boundaries. You may think this is just about the fear of mangled or lost body parts, but it also includes things like pain, infections, infestations, torture, bugs, and bites of all kinds. You’ll often find this fear coupled with extinction fear, as it can easily lead to death.

Want to really make a reader’s skin crawl? Send your character down a dark hallway covered in webs or roaches or drop them in a pit full of snakes. Maybe lock them in a room with a rabid raccoon and make their only escape require running barefoot through the glass of a shattered window. It’s all up to you. Have fun with it.

Loss of Autonomy

The loss of autonomy is the fear of being imprisoned, paralyzed, immobilized, or otherwise restricted in some way that is beyond our control. Again, as with separation anxiety, there can be a physical or emotional component, making this a good tool for many genres beyond horror and terror.

Fear of the physical loss of autonomy is just what it sounds like—being afraid of something or someone physically restraining you. It can be anything from being tied down or chained up, to being drugged, sat on, or trapped in an elevator. The latter plays on claustrophobia, the fear of enclosed spaces.

The fear of emotional loss of autonomy focuses more on social and personal interactions, as well as relationships. This fear can be quite useful in creating tension between characters in a broad range of genres. The fear of being trapped in an abusive relationship might hold a character back from seeking companionship. This fear includes being afraid of getting lost in the crowd or not having your voice heard.


One fear that’s useful in almost any genre is that of separation. This is the fear of abandonment and loss of connection. I’m not just talking about being physically separated from others, but emotionally as well. That’s what makes this particular fear so universal.

We’re all familiar with physical separation in stories. Characters can fear getting lost in the wilderness or their group getting split up, whether by design or by unforeseen circumstances, giving an antagonist the opportunity to pick them off one by one. Then there’s also the anxiety brought on by the thought of outright abandonment—just being left alone to fend for yourself.

On the other hand, emotional separation can be trickier to use, but very powerful. It can be used in any genre to amp up the anxiety. Remember when I mentioned you romance writers out there? This is one of the fears I’m singling out for you. How many times have you read a book where a character is denied by the object of their desire, or shunned by the in-crowd? The fear of this type of rejection can cause a character to put up walls that will have to be torn down later to reach their goals.

Ego Death

Our final category, ego death, is another type of fear we can use across all genres. Ego death is the fear of humiliation, shame, or any other mechanism that leads to self-disapproval and threatens a loss of integrity or self-worth.

This one can be a strong emotional driver for your characters. Think of how paralyzing it is when you’re afraid that your actions may make others see you as less capable, less intelligent, or even less loveable.

A good example of this fear is social anxiety. As authors, most of us probably felt it the first time we were asked to talk about our books, especially to a live audience. Take that firsthand knowledge and transfer to your characters. Odds are you’ll have the reader feeling it as well.

Bringing it all Together

While some fears can easily fit into one of these categories, many will overlap. The fear of one thing may lead to another, and that to another, forming a chain of anxiety for both character and reader. This is where pacing becomes super important.

Once you play on the reader’s fears and have their heart racing it’s time to turn it up a notch and keep the pressure on. Too much description at this point could slow the story down and give the reader a chance to breathe. Keep your language active and choose a few words that pack a lot of punch, rather than long strings of words that may paint a more gruesome picture but lose the emotional impact.

Of course, you may want to slow things down at some point to lull your victim into a false sense of security…right before you swing the axe!

How do you use fear in your writing? What genre do you write? Let us know in the comments.

* * * * * *

About Bob

Eldred "Bob" Bird

Eldred Bird writes contemporary fiction, short stories, and personal essays. He has spent a great deal of time exploring the deserts, forests, and deep canyons inside his home state of Arizona. His James McCarthy adventures, Killing KarmaCatching Karma, and Cold Karma, reflect this love of the Grand Canyon State even as his character solves mysteries amidst danger. Eldred explores the boundaries of short fiction in his stories, The Waking RoomTreble in Paradise: A Tale of Sax and Violins, and The Smell of Fear.

When he’s not writing, Eldred spends time cycling, hiking, and juggling (yes, juggling…bowling balls and 21-inch knives).

His passion for photography allows him to record his travels. He can be found on Twitter or Facebook, or at his website.

Top Image by Enrique via Pixabay

Bob Juggling Knives

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14 comments on “Writing Dark Using the Five Basic Types of Fear”

  1. I use a fair amount of fear - I write mainstream fiction.

    For my main character who is a disabled writer:
    fear of freezing during her first national TV late night talk show interview
    fear of the fan who has tracked her down and 'just wants to talk to her' in her own home - and fear of the panic room the previous occupant built in the house
    the fears of living alone (in NH)
    fear of looking ridiculous when she falls (quietly and privately) for another guest on the show, an actor
    fear her adult daughters and best friend will think she's lost her mind if they find out
    fear HE'LL find out when the actor, filming in the neighborhood, drops by for a courtesy visit
    fear her readers won't like it that her new book is in a different genre than she usually writes (SF instead of historical fiction).

    The actor, meanwhile:
    fears finding out his new friend is just like the other obsessive fans that bedevil him
    fears that the child his ex girlfriend is bringing up with the man she then married is actually HIS child
    fears not handling himself right in a bar fight
    fears that any damage to himself will add to the length of the movie he's starring in (in NH) and enhance his reputation for being difficult
    fears NOT getting the roles he knows he'd be good at
    fears that signing on for one movie will preclude others he would like better
    fears the critics and their seeming dislike
    fears that he'll never manage a personal life, a spouse who sticks, children.

    And finally, our villain, an actress:
    fears the actor will discover the things she's done to land him as a costar and partner
    fears those machinations might not work
    fears her reputation if the press find out
    fears her backers won't support her debut movie without significant meddling, or that the movie itself won't be as good as she needs it to be, or that it won't win the awards she's hoping for which would provide validation
    fears that hitting thirty will make her ingenue parts disappear, go to younger actresses
    fears what will happen to her perfect body if she has more children
    fears the custody battle over those children will ruin her reputation with the movie-going public.

    Just the usual fears of the high-stakes life. A little bit of everything.

  2. These are helpful reminders of how to get to the creepy essence of horror. One of my favorite dark genres. Thanks, Bob!

  3. Thank you for this clear breakdown.

    Even when I was first making up stories for my own amusement, I tended to use a good deal of fear in my plot and character development: fear of ego death in the form of not feeling as good as an object of admiration or feeling like a failure, fear of separation causing one character to reject the love of another, fear of mutilation in the form of an old enemy (or two)(ok, ok, three) coming back for revenge. It's nice to have them clearly defined.

    Now, as a children's book author and aspiring novelist, in the fantasy genre, I still find myself using fear as an obstacle and plot point. Fear of being mocked (ego death) is a key player in my published children's book, and also has a strong role in one of my first draft children's books. In my novels, fear of ego death makes a frequent appearance, with extinction and mutilation as co-stars. The other two make their own marks on the stories, just with a bit more subtlety.

    Again, thank you for giving me this opportunity to really work down to the 'why' of my characters.

    1. Ego death is probably one of the most universal of all fears. We all seem to suffer some form of this fear at many of the crossroads in our lives. I love that you're using it so frequently, as most readers are going to readily connect with it.

  4. What a marvelous post for Halloween! And it's a fantastic reminder of how to amp up the tension in our books. I hadn't thought about the types of fears when writing my book so I wondered how it measured up.

    My character suffers from fear of Ego Death when she has to get up on stage and accept an arranged engagement. Loss of Autonomy is the fear that motivates her to "escape" her family before the marriage. When she learns about the darkness of her world and trains to join the rebels she fears mutilation. The fear of extinction becomes very real for her when she must battle for her life and the lives of others. And she suffers from the fear of separation every time she is forced to operate on her own and finally when death permanently separates her from someone she cares about.

    Look at that! I managed to get them all in. What fun. Thanks, Bob.

    1. That's a good use of fear in any genre. The fear of change usually falls under separation fear, loss of autonomy, or ego death--sometimes all three. It all depends on what it is about the change that's scaring them. Mustering the courage to overcome those fears is what leads to growth.

  5. For at least one of my stories, I get deep into the psychological make-up of the protagonist and play upon his fears to push him forward.

    I love how you've broken down the aspects of fear. This one's a keeper!

    Thanks, great post, Bob!

  6. Almost all of my stories have as least one spider in them. I write fantasy, sci fi, and modern paranormal. This is a great description of the types of fear we can play on. I want to use this as a reference. Great post!

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