How to Figure Out the Worst Thing That Could Happen to Your Character

How to Figure Out the Worst Thing That Can Happen to Your Character

Writers are always being told to think of the worst thing that could happen to their characters—and then to make it worse.

Being something of a literalist, the first time I heard that, my original thought was something like, The worst thing? You mean like kill him?

With maybe a few interpretative exceptions, death is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to any of us. But if every author took that advice literally, every story would end abruptly with the death of its main character. Something tells me that’s not quite what the pundits had in mind with this line of advice.

So what did they have in mind?

Ultimately, “the worst thing” that can happen is subjective—both to the character and to the situation. Subjecting your characters to the worst thing is more about finding their specific weaknesses and twisting the knife.

Maybe the worst thing that could happen to your character is death. Maybe it’s the equally extreme death of a loved one. But it could also be something much smaller, such as a lost pet, a bad grade, a torn wedding dress, no donuts on top of the fridge—you name it.

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The point of this exercise is not only to up the stakes and create conflict, but more importantly to generate character growth and advance your characters’ personal arcs in the story. The worst thing that could happen to them is going to depend on their needs and desires within the story and the personal misconceptions and weaknesses holding them back.

For example, if a character is about to propose marriage to the woman he loves, his worst thing might be her discovery of a secret in his past. Not only will this be an obstacle between him and what he wants, it should also, optimally, force him to face that secret and move forward toward overcoming the major character flaw that’s holding him back.

So, really, the worst thing is actually the best thing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is the worst thing that could happen to your character at this point in your story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Right now my protagonist’s worst thing would be if her boyfriend came back from the war and she had nothing but stories of a frivolous and sheltered life to share with him.

  2. Stories about people reconnecting after life-changing traumas are always interesting. Sounds like a good one!

  3. For me, at the moment, (for practice to prove to myself I CAN do this. This will probably not be shown to anybody except my closest friend, maybe) my story has an overall…event in which all my main characters are involved in (sad…sad event) and the main plots are their lives the year leading up to it. So basically, more like interconnected short stories “life flashes before your eyes” type thing, I suppose you could say.

    Beginning of each of those short stories IS the worst thing that could possibly happen to these characters and the rest of it is them overcoming those things. Only (sadly) the event is one that all ends tragically for them because of the type of event it IS (which is pretty obvious within the first paragraph of the story). But hey, it’s the journey that counts, right?

  4. Stories are all about the journeys. The destination is really only important insofar as it fulfills the author’s promise to the readers about what type of journey it was supposed to be.

  5. Thanks for the awesome advice! I just finished reading “Outline your Novel” last week and I am excited to finally have the tools to outline. I appreciate your blog, books, and the things you share.

  6. Thanks for stopping by! I’m so glad you enjoyed Outlining Your Novel and found it useful.

  7. The worst thing that could happen to my protag at the moment is paralysis (literal or metaphorical); she defines herself as someone who thrives on constant motion and instantaneous decisions.

    Which may be a problem, since the main crisis I have her slated to face right now in this novelette is a (significant, and bad) consequence that comes from her impulsiveness, not the paralysis she fears. Now I need to look at that again to see if it’d be improved by making that consequence a sort of paralysis itself…


  8. Great question. If we remember that literature is all about being human, then I believe what’s worse than death? Well, that’s simple: betrayal. The worst thing that can happen to anybody is to be betrayed by those you love. That is when you’d rather die. You pick death over betrayal.

  9. Yes, the worst thing that faces any character but it’s all the little nuances in between that make the story. Playing on the faults of a character is paramount.

    For example in my novel, Escape from Second Eden, the main character faces her flashbacks in her life of WWII and fire arms fire in her present life and time of the novel. She is forced into action for the sake of her children thus partially overcoming her fear.

  10. @JD: Sounds like you’re asking all the right questions!

    @Pedro: You’re right. Sometimes death looks good in comparison to some living fates.

    @J.L.: Some “worst thing” moments are about (apparently) crushing the characters; some are about giving them something to rise above.

  11. I like that you point out the “worst thing” in your example necessarily involves the other character — and to a degree, also puts the MC in conflict with another character that he cannot avoid. So the “worst thing” is intrinsic to the plot and strengthens the conflict in the story. This has taken me a long time to appreciate, but now I look for ways to do this all the time! I’m sure there’s more to it, but even this aspect is so important to a good scene and story.

  12. It doesn’t *have* to involve another character, so much as it has to involve the antagonistic force. Whatever’s causing the conflict (i.e., preventing the protagonist from reaching his goal) is what’s going to be inflicting the worst thing on him, one way or another. So it could be nature, a corporate system, an animal, maybe even just the protagonist’s conflicting selves.

  13. I teach this as the “Crisis Point” and it happens right before the Climax. Think Rocky II when Adrian remains in a coma after giving birth to their son. Rocky is paralyzed with sorrow and cannot go on w/o his love.

    For my protagonist, he is a 13 yr old Prince imprisoned as a slave. He has lost everything and fails at escaping. He is inspired by a friend to fight in the arena against dragons to try and win his freedom and has some success, but when his good friend is killed by the antagonist, he feels he can’t go on and wants to give up.

    It’s fun to think up these situations that take the reader deeper into the story…and character!

    Great post!!

  14. What you’re talking about is that all important low point prior to the Climax, during which the character is finally pushed to the breaking point from which he must definitely rise or die. However, “the worst thing” can be brought into play throughout the novel. It’s just a matter of escalating the stakes along with the conflict.

  15. I agree that “worst thing” is probably poorly phrased. I think the key is to find the character’s core belief/desire and test it by seeing what price they’re willing to pay to hold on to it, or if anything could make them change their mind.

  16. I agree that “worst thing” is probably poorly phrased. I think the key is to find the character’s core belief/desire and test it by seeing what price they’re willing to pay to hold on to it, or if anything could make them change their mind.

  17. Exactly. Characters are usually very right about one thing and very wrong about another – and it’s the latter that’s holding them back from gaining the thing they need the most. We have to challenge both those beliefs in order to get the character to grow.

  18. I think if writers struggle with this point they should write out a list of bad things that could happen and then develop them. It’s a bit like brain storming. Doing this will hopefully generate lots of ideas.

  19. Great idea! A list of ten things is a good goal to shoot for – and then look at each item on the list and see if you can figure out a way to make it even worse.

  20. Yup, sometimes it is hard to find that “worst thing”, but we have to. In my last WIP is was for the mother loosing her daughter, so the girl found out the mother´s best kept secret and ran away…

  21. Spot on!

  22. Hmm, in my current book, I believe the worst thing for my main character would be failure. Complete and utter failure. This is a fantasy novel, built “mostly” around an idealistic young man who finds himself standing against the odds. Refuges are flocking to his banner, they are looking to him… but he is a sheltered lord’s son, never known strife or hardship. He wants what is right for his people and fears that they might be misguided in following him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like you’re on the right track! Envision a scene where he *does* fail and see where it takes you from there.

  23. My character, Lilly, and the guy that she loves, Damon, are trying to help an old friend of Damon’s set his life on track and move on from the past. But this friend, Cody, will fall into the wrong crowd and end up trying to steal something. Damon and Lilly try to stop him and he runs right as the police get there, resulting in Damon’s arrest under false accusations. Lilly is obviously distraught about this happening to Damon. But it gets worse when on the way to the station the police car he was in gets into a severe car accident. Damon is in critical condition, the police man dead, and Lilly has to deal with this, the worst possible thing that could have happened in her life right now, in her life EVER. I seriously LOVE every aspect of my story which I am getting well on the way with! Thanks so much foe this post, it is a nice fresh reminder of tragedy needed to help develops characters. The good side to what happens; Lilly realizes just how much she loves Damon and will end up with him in the end ?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like a killer “worst thing” to me! Good job! You know you’re doing it right when you’re enjoying torturing your characters. 😉

  24. My character, Tyler, is with a group of friends trying to find and rescue his little sister and girlfriend who have been captured by…someone. (NO SPOILERS!! YOU’LL HAVE TO READ IT :)) During this, something else occurred that made the group split up. Then Tyler has to choose between saving his own life and the life of those in his small group, and the life of his friends in the other small group. He chooses his own life. And that guilt stays with him until the end of the story.

    I find that this is the worst thing that can happen to Tyler because, as a foster kid, his friends, girlfriend, and sister are the only family he has.

    I’m having a lot of fun with this story! (It’s actually only begun: there are still a ton of plot holes, but I’M WORKING ON IT!!!!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! I especially like that the worst thing happening here is directly caused by the protagonist himself. Yay for consequences!

  25. N. T. B. Armendariz says

    Thanks for the article! It touched on the heart of the problem that I am dealing with in one of my characters. What is the worst thing that can happen to her? She is even keeled (although she does feel very intensely) and practical with a very strong sense of right and wrong, but matters of the heart tend to defy simple classification. Although she is ambitious and earned her position of leadership through work and dedication, having her position downgraded or even having to change to a different vocation would not be the end of the world. Even the loss of the person she loves might not break her. For her “apathy” might be the worst thing, but what must happen to her to bring that about? I’m not entirely sure what her breaking point is. Suggestions? Should I throw everything at her like I was planning? It will definitely make for a lot of conflict, and it will help me “get to know her better.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed the article! It rather sounds as if the character is already pretty apathetic. Unless there’s a reason for her to be so, I would look into finding a way to *make* her care more strongly about things.

  26. I suppose, for the reader, the worse thing that could happen to a character they love is their death, but to me, it’s not. The worse thing that could happen to one of my character’s would be/is abuse.

    I’m working on a supernatural/psychological thriller, where the protagonist suffered greatly as a child, in the hands of her father. However, that has already taken place, long before the opening line of my novel, and now, as an adult, she must face her demons. Real demons and metaphorical ones.

    I’ve completed the story, and presently working on a third edit, but… it breaks my heart. Here I was hoping a ‘twist here and there’ would be a great thing to do, but “Amber’s” story is so heavy, her suffering so deeply-rooted, that I contemplate seeking publication under a pseudonym, not wanting anyone to look at me after reading it. I want to cry for my protagonist. I want to erase what happened, feeling as though she is a real person who suffered real events. In fact, it disturbs me so much I doubt I’ll ever be brave enough to seek publication for it. Yet, it calls me to write it — with the hope of offering hope to a hurting reader. But, at the same time, it breaks me to think that anyone who has suffered in such a way would read it, as I don’t want them finding heartache at my hand.

    “I” am traumatised by this story! 🙂 That sounds pathetic, I know. I mean, heck, it’s only a story born of my imagination… Even so, my heart has become invested in it and the characters, and, at the same time, I want to run from them all.

    As a Christian, I’ve been asked, “WHY ‘horror’?” Upon seeking God for the answer to such a confronting question, I replied as He showed me, “It is not that I am turning off my light to enter into darkness, rather, I enter into darkness in order to turn on the light.” So, with that in mind, and with a cry in my heart begging me to not kill the story, I write on with trembling hands, knowing my character considers her deceased sister the fortunate one.

    I share this with you, K.M., because I know you have the wisdom I need to either kill the story, or keep going. (Actually, just now, I think I’m looking for a way out of it and am hoping you have that. lol) Is this subject too deep? Too… wrong! Too ugly. (Perhaps I should share the ending to explain more of my dilemma.)

    Oh, gee… I don’t know. Chances are it’s not good enough for publication anyway, so I don’t know why I’m so stressed over it. But… how deep into heartache and such ugly things should a writer go? How deep into the effects of trauma should a writer take their characters and their readers?

    If you know of any novels with a similar story, that you find acceptable and ‘good’, I’d greatly appreciate knowing what they are. I am yet to find one to read, and see how the subject has been handled.

    Great blog… as always. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dark stories are scary stories–usually for the author more than anyone. Part of that is the nature of the subject matter itself and our immersion in it. But another part is that we struggle with our projection of reader reactions to it–from any number of angles.

      I can’t give you a way out. I always tell authors to follow their instincts, but to write scared. Often, there’s a conflict there. We *should* be writing stories that scare us. This is a good thing. It means you’re digging deep and being *honest.* That’s where great fiction comes from.

      So although I can’t tell you that you *should* continue with your story, I will say the following:

      1. Kudos to you in first place for writing something so obviously powerful. The fact that you’re reacting to it so strongly is a good thing. As Robert Frost says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

      2. Don’t feel you have to protect readers. That’s their job not yours. Most readers *crave* the kind of raw and real cathartic experience that powerful, if painful, works of art provide.

      3. Pen names are fine. In fact, for many reasons, I often recommend them. But one reason I would *never* recommend them is as a way to hide in shame from readers. Own what you’ve written, as you have here: passionately claiming its power and virtue. Not everyone will like or appreciate it, but that’s a subjective opinion.

      In short, my encouragement would be to keep going. 🙂

  27. I would add, “That she’s not prepared for.” E.g. if she is a soldier, it’s not dying, it is probably the illegal orders that go against all she believes. With Kissla, it wasn’t when she lost the two loves of her life (they married each other) it was when her “Fairy-tale Godfather”-the ghost of her evil Grandfather -tries to help her by possessing one of her lost loves as a result of her trying to get back some of Grandfather’s social status.

    Sometimes it is getting what you asked for…


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