What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Yes, I’m serious. We all have our characters we come to love when we write. We have to in order to make it through an entire novel with them. Do you ever make it too easy on your main character?

In my writer’s group, one of the contributors is working on her first fiction project. She’s got a wonderful flair for description and the short bits she reads us are vivid. I’m sure it helps that she’s got a long history in nonfiction. One of the veterans asked her the question: “What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Do that and you’ll find your plot.”

It’s not always how I think of it, but it’s very good advice. Sometimes people try to go easy on their characters if they like them, though the best thing is to torture the poor protagonist until he wants to give up – except you never, ever let that happen. Even giving up is a choice and bad things can happen from it. Just like a juggler who throws all the balls in the air and then doesn’t try to catch them – one of them will turn into the brick to land on his head.

When was the last time you read a book where the worst thing didn’t happen? Did you get bored with reading it? The other extreme might be where believability hits. Did you put the book down because the events just couldn’t happen that way? Within each story world there are possibilities and consequences for every choice made.

Pretend you’re writing a young adult novel and Mom forbids the main character from talking on the phone for a week. The main character has two choices, to follow the restriction or to break it. Either choice has consequences. It seems very cut and dried, but what happens when you add the love interest who’s expecting a call that evening? What happens when you add the mother’s incessant checking of the phone logs? Then a father who allows it because he doesn’t know about the restriction? Does your character choose to follow the restriction even if it means the love interest will be upset? Does the character come clean to Dad about not being able to use the phone (and maybe even why)? Or is it just a one time thing that the character hopes won’t be noticed? Suddenly there’s a plot!

Might not be an epic plot right now, but the more consequences and reactions the writer adds to make the choices more tortured adds to the reader’s pleasure. Somehow George R. R. Martin gets named in protagonist-torturing crowd. Readers might get mad at him for killing off their beloved characters, but as far as I know they’re still reading. And making movies and a game out of the story line. I suppose we can’t all do it that way, but kudos to him for making it work well!

Next time you take a look at your plot, whether you’ve finished writing or if you outline beforehand, really dig in to see if you’ve made your protagonist’s life as troubled as you can. That’s when you know you’re writing a good story.

Note: This is not to say that writers love to torture people. We’re pretty much just aiming to get readers, and we can’t overdose on all the sugary fluffiness that it would require to make an entire novel out of things happening that aren’t bad. 

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3 Comments

  1. Puppy said,

    12 October 2011 at 08:16

    Love the post! So many good points! I’m having trouble right now, doing just that- torturing my protagonist enough. Hmm. I need to be eviller. MUAHAHAHAhahahaha…

  2. taureanw said,

    12 October 2011 at 08:39

    Great point! I know this was something I really struggled with initially. I based most of my characters off of real people that I liked & there were times I was too easy on them. Since then, according to my wife, I have done the exact opposite & have possible been too hard on them 🙂

  3. ransomnoble said,

    2 December 2011 at 21:54

    I’m not sure there is a ‘too hard’ so go ahead and unleash your evil selves on those characters! You have to worry about being believable. If that works, I don’t know if there is too evil.


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