Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Worst Thing

Prevailing wisdom seems to be that an author should find the worst thing that could happen to a character and throw that at him or her. James Scott Bell suggests asking this on page 42 of Plot & Structure. The idea behind this is to make your characters squirm and see how they get out of the mess. Prevailing wisdom isn’t always right.

What I don’t like about this approach is that it produces very dark fiction and nothing else. I have a character who owns a restaurant. It would be a terrible thing if I burned that thing to the ground. She would survive, but it would be bad. But would it be the worst thing? What if she were raped before the arsonist burned it to the ground, with her family trapped inside? That would reveal her character, but the story would be extremely dark, not to mention the fact that I don’t want to do that to her.

Instead of asking what the worst thing that can happen to a character is, why don’t we first define the antagonist and ask what is the antagonist willing to do that is the most likely to put an end to the protagonist’s plans? If we’re talking about two soccer Mom’s the antagonist may be willing to hit the other mother in the nose to keep her from yelling at her son, but she is likely to stop short of strangling her with her purse strap. She would certainly be willing to get the other woman’s son banned from the games, which would be a terrible thing for our protagonist, but she wouldn’t be willing to kidnap him and lock him in the basement.

We don’t have to consider the antagonist first, but the point is that it might be helpful to consider the limitations of the world we wish to create. Not only that, but some of the worst things we can throw at a character may send us off on a rabbit chase that it has nothing to do with the story. Being mean to our characters can be helpful, but it should never harm the story.