Today, I thought I’d dive into a topic that’s been catching my eye. Like most writers I waste a lot of time on the internet when I should be writing. Some of that time is spend reading writing posts, forums, or blogs. A subject has been cropping up a lot. “What is the Worst thing I could do this
The question I have no problem with. We should do horrible, unforgivable things to our characters. We should make readers wonder what is wrong with us? What happened to us as children?! The question is looking at the problem all wrong.
When you first ask what’s the worst thing you can do your character you need to consider what kind of Story you are trying to tell. The ‘worst thing’ will become a defining moment in your story, because it is the worst. Either it will be why your character is afraid of spiders or the dark moment before the final climax in your story. It will be a big deal.
It will help define what story your telling. It severity and presentation will change based on that definition. Let me give some examples before we get lost in The Ramble Woods.
Let’s say the worst thing you are going to do is your character, Gary, is he watched his parents be eaten alive when he was a kid. Before you ask, yes, there is something WRONG with me. That’s why I’m a writer. We can agree that is pretty dark worst thing.
Would this work in a light hearted relationship humor book? I’d say no. It is too heavy for the feel of the story. Even if you did work it in, it would give an undercurrent to the book. This is neither good or bad, but it does change the style dramatically.
What about a procedural crime drama? I could see that. It feels like it is an opening scene for Criminal Minds. Yet, it could be too much if it was a back story of one the characters. The subject matter is pretty dark, so it might make everything too dark.
What about a horror story? It could work in a horror setting really well. I’m pretty sure I saw a horror movie where people are eaten alive a few times. There isn’t any stretching the narrative to fit it in, because it does.
What if the worst thing was that someone gave Gary a really horrible, uncomfortable scratchy sweater for his birthday. He is forced to come up with increasing unbelievable lies as to why he isn’t wearing it.
Light hearted relationship humor? It fits. It could the plot of an entire story, and it has been the plot of a few sitcoms.
Procedural crime drama? I could see as a one off during an episode to lighten the mood, or maybe an ongoing gag. It would difficult to make it the central conflict.
Horror? I really can’t see this one. Someone can do it. They could even make it horrifying, I’m sure, but right off the bat? Yeah, I’m not seeing it.
The story is affected by this choice, so when you make it you have to think about how it will fit into the theme.
There is a second, very important part, that I think gets brushed over a lot. What the worst thing is really depends on your character. Who they are as a person, what their goals are, and what their story is about will give you a clue as to the answer.
Your characters have things that matter to them, and things they want. Gary wants to be pilot. His father was a pilot, but had died when Gary was very young. This goal is his only solid connection to his father. It allows him the hope his father would be proud of him. Gary does the work, and gets into the program. Then, he finds out something in his medical history disqualifies him. He will never ever be a pilot.
To another character, this might not big deal. They don’t have an emotional connection to the job. It was an interesting career field, but they move on. For Gary it is the loss of his father once again. This connection is severed and will never be repaired. It matters, because of the emotional connection, his goals, and his back story make it matter.
When you ask what the worst thing is you’ll get some grim answers. That is a good starting point. But, it is a defining feature of your character. It must relate to them, to what they want, and what they care about, otherwise it is window dressing with no context. It won’t make the story stronger. That’s the true goal: to make a better story.
Anyway that’s my 840 pennies. Maybe, I don’t know anything. If you have a better idea, feel free to shoot me some comments. Or shoot me with comments, whatever works.