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

This week’s video examines the advice to “think of the worst thing that can happen to your character, then make it worse.”

Video Transcript:

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 have to 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 has to be subjective—both to the character and to his situation. Subjecting your character to the worst thing is more about finding his specific weakness and twisting the knife in it. 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.

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

For example, if your 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.

Tell me your opinion: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character at this point in your story?

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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.

Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 🙂

  3. 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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