Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Worst Thing

I got an email last week from NaNoWriMo, reminding me that November is nearly upon us. I hope not to be officially participating in NaNoWriMo this year. My goal is to finish the zero draft of Guardian by the end of November and I'm aiming to be a good 60k into it by the time that month starts so I can take it easy around Thanksgiving. Of course, if I end up behind schedule. . .

Anyway, I got to thinking about NaNoWriMos past and, since I just finished up the final plotting stages of Guardian, I happened upon a relevant anecdote in my memory banks that I thought I'd share with you.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was at an evening write-in event. We were all clacking away furiously on our keyboards and over-caffeinating and advising one another to kill off troublesome characters--with fire!--and generally enjoying the NaNoWriMo atmosphere.

But the person sitting next to me, a fledgling Wrimo just entering her second week of chaos, was not doing any of those things. Her fingers gradually slowed to a halt. Her eyes narrowed as she read and reread the words on her screen. Eventually, she dropped her head and heaved a huge, sorrowful sigh.

It was a sigh that whisper-shouted of things like plot muddling and character flailing and utter demoralization for a newbie Wrimo. Having been around the block a few times by that point, I recognized the signs and, being generally nosy and interfering, sought to help.
Me: What's wrong?
Her: I. . .  I have no idea what happens next. Everything was fine and now there's just. . .  nothing. My characters don't want to do anything!
Me: What's the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen?
Her: *explains worst possible thing*
Me: Do that.
That was years ago, but I still stand firmly by this advice. I am by no means the first one to offer up this little pearl of wisdom. Heck, I wasn't even the only one to offer it up to someone at that particular write-in. When in doubt, make things worse. Torturing characters is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of a writer's key job responsibilities.

I was reminded of this while I was finishing up the character sheets for this next run of Guardian. My character sheets are fairly simple, just a page of notes that I fill in with as much or as little detail as I feel like, adapted from the existing template in Scrivener.

The very last things I think about when I'm working up a character are "what is the worst thing that could happen?" and "what is the best thing?" And, because they're fresh in my mind, those bits have a tendency to worm their way straight from the character sketch into the plotting notes.

(Yes, including the best things. Have you ever noticed how people are really bad at figuring out what's best for them? Typically when I give my characters the good, it's just a quicker route to the bad than they would otherwise have encountered.)

Characters only grow when they're challenged to do so. Making them face the worst thing that could ever possibly happen them is oftentimes just the thing to spur a floundering story into action. And I'm hoping that working out those things in advance can keep a story from floundering in the first place.

Well look at that, a piece of commonly offered writing advice that I actually agree with. You had to know it would be the bitter, mean one. ;-)

How do you feel about torturing characters? Is it enhanced characterization? Or cruel and unusual punishment?

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