Torturing Characters for Fun and Profit
As a reader and a fangirl, I have a LOT of sympathy for Tumblr posts like this:
There are SO many characters I love that I want to take away, hug, wrap in comfy blankets and feed them pie until they feel better. It’s only natural when you fall in love with a character—you want to take care of them and make sure they have nice things.
BUT, as an editor, I’ve learned that impulse is a trap. Because when authors give into it, when they try to protect their characters and keep them safe, their stories suffer. Great stories and great characters are forged from adversity. Your characters need to make mistakes and face the consequences. They have to go through their dark night of the soul and confront the bad guy and risk losing everything. They have to earn their happily ever after by facing trials and adversity and triumphing over them. That’s where the story is, and that’s what your readers are sticking around for.
So, if you ever feel like you might be stuck plotwise, look at the world and the scenario you’ve set up, and think about what the character wants, and more importantly, what the character is afraid of. Now, what’s the worst thing that could logically happen in that scenario? (Notice that I said logically. That’s important. I’m not asking for asteroids to crash into Earth or for everyone they love to suddenly die—unless that’s a scenario you started with, of course.)
Figuring out the “worst case scenario” becomes easier if you have a solid idea of what your character wants to happen. Let’s say the character is dying to get into a prestigious program and enters a contest for admission. Possible scenarios:
A.) They don’t get in, and have to figure out some other plan for their life.
B.) They don’t get in, but their worst enemy does, so they have to figure out a different way to get into the program or face their smugness forever.
C.) They do get in, but their worst enemy gets in as well, and they are now going to have to work together.
D.) They do get in, but the program turns out to be really terrible and not at ALL what they thought it would be.
And those are just off the top of my head… I’m sure there are many more possibilities. Once you have a list, think really hard about your character, who they are as a person, and what their weaknesses and strengths are. Which of these scenarios would they hate the most, and which would give them the most opportunity to grow?
Also, for added bonus points, is it possible to make the worst possible outcome either partially or entirely the fault of your character's actions? For example, let’s say that you choose Option C. Maybe part of the application process is a debate section, and your character is so focused on proving their enemy wrong and showing off their weaknesses, that they actually give the antagonist a chance to show off their skills under pressure.
Having the “worst case scenario” be, at least partially, the fault of the main character’s choices and mistakes, a.) gives the character more agency in the plot, thus making them more interesting, and b.) ups the emotional investment for both the character and the reader. Because if it’s your character's fault, then it’s your character's responsibility to fix it. And even if it’s not something that can be fixed, things are always worse when it’s their own fault. And great stories come from great adversity.
Don’t get me wrong, we all want your beloved characters to be happy and safe and to have everything they need and want. We love them. But… maybe wait to give it to them until the END of the novel. By then we all will have earned it.