Character Outline: Portraying Realistic Teenager Fears


7 Techniques for Building (ahem) Conquering Teen Fears – The Back-To-School Edition

School is often the mainstay milieu of YA and NA protagonists. Building story tension, we authors can freely add conflict upon conflict, but one emotional stake is shared among most every teen: Fear of what will happen at school. “Fear is natural when we’re about to go back to school or off to college, because we’re dipping into the unknown,” says Jude Bijou, MA MFT, and author of the multi-award-winning book, Attitude Reconstruction: A Blueprint for Building a Better Life.

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It’s helpful to remember that fear is a completely natural reaction.
In fact, don’t send your teen protagonist back to school without it.

Here are Jude Bijou’s seven highly effective techniques to help writers identify fear-causing triggers for students and aggravate those fears to cause serious anxiety before the final act–and how to help your protagonist let go of those fears, and arc into a realized theme goal.

1. Release the emotion.

Scientists understand that emotions are physical–pure energy that’s produced by our brain. When teens feel an emotion such as fear, they experience the following physical symptoms:
1) fast heartbeat
2) shortness of breath, and/or
3) stomach upset.
Be sure to illustrate tension with these physical cues.
“Fear can be released physically and constructively by shivering and quivering, like a dog at the vet,” Bijou explains. “To relieve tension, have your protagonist go into the bathroom or a safe place and allow her to tremble or shake in privacy. She might put on some music. Note feelings up the spine, out the arms and legs, in the hips.” This can be performed before a social event, before a difficult class, or anytime she feels those physical feelings (at the approach of her crush?) To increase tension, give her nowhere to go, make her tremble down to her toes, without letting up.

2. Invite the fear in to stay awhile.

Allow repetitive, fear-based thoughts to scurry about in your protagonist’s head. She might write down or find a means of demonstrating her worst fears. Let well-meaning (but uninformed) parents or teachers comfort her without relieving the tension; “Everything will be okay,” “This feeling will pass,” etc. It’s up to your protagonist to come to the place where she can say, “I can handle this.”
Positive talk and reassurance really do change attitudes,” says Bijou.

Conversely, to increase fear, work backward. Begin with plenty of positive reasons to continue a quest, and strip them away one by one.

3. Look within for the right action.

To increase tension, embrace a teenager’s tendency to isolate, judge themselves poorly, and walk around in a fog. However, a protagonist can move the plot forward, and grow, by pausing and asking herself what action needs to be done.  To relieve your protagonist, let her find a quiet place so she can get in touch with what she really needs to do right now or in the immediate future. Maybe she has a secret place, or perhaps give her a divine meeting with someone barely knows but with whom she shares a similar or complementary goal. Keep in mind author Lisa’s Cron’s advice: Whatever remedy your character devises should, consequentially, make her struggle harder. Conflict, thou art story.

4. Make a list of what needs attention.

Fear is a sign that some things in your character’s life are out of control. It’s helpful to write down every specific thing that needs your protagonist’s attention. Divide big worries and obligations into little components so you can compound them, thus building tension.

When we get to see your protagonist solve problems, we find out what she’s made of, we learn about who she is, and hopefully share a hope of resolution for her goal. Small successes are very rewarding to the reader, but only if the protagonist must be creative, and willing to take risks in pursuit of whatever she holds most dear.

5. Snowball effect vs. being specific.

“Teens tend to feel worried about lots of things and lump all the scary things together,” explains Bijou. This is ideal in fiction (not so much in real life). If your protagonist can’t handle a particular conflict, escalate it until she succumbs to overwhelm, compounding it along with the myriad other troubles she has until she’s mired in the World’s Most Conflict-Ridden Clusterstorm (snowball effect.) When it’s time to wind down your story toward resolution, give her the strength to enter into the eye of the Clusterstorm to solve the specific problem that bears the theme of your story. If your character can stay specific and present, she’ll be bigger than her fear. (In real life, had she remained specific and present, she probably could have handled the scary things one by one. But that would make boring fiction, wouldn’t it?)

6. Give your protagonist encouragement.

You character may make dumb mistakes, she may not always be right, but she needs to have courage. She needs to step beyond status quo and rise up–regardless of her fears–on behalf of her quest. “This is what courage feels like,” says Bijou, “it feels like overcoming, being resilient, and pushing through what seems scary.” As your character’s confidence grows, she’ll feel more like the best version of herself–and your reader will too, having identified with her.

7. Find a support buddy.

To combat feelings of alienation and isolation, a well-crafted and possibly comedic sidekick keeps the emotion, actions and reality in check for the reader. We get a second point of view, an assurance that events transpiring are reliably narrated–or not. (Sometimes it pays to cause the reader to question reality. See How to Use an Unreliable Narrator in Your Story). This support may come in the form of email, text, phone, or in person.  The support buddy’s task is not to solve the protagonist’s problems but to present new information, question the protagonist’s actions, or inquire about what she might do next.

Do you have any tips for managing a fictional teenager’s fears? Share them in the comments below!

Jude Bijou MA MFT is a respected psychotherapist, professional educator, and longtime student of Eastern philosophy. Her theory of Attitude Reconstruction® evolved over the course of more than 30 years working with clients as a licensed marriage and family therapist. Learn more at

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