Do you have to make the worst thing you can imagine happen to the characters in your novel? No, not really. But it certainly helps. In actuality, bad things do not need to happen to your characters for there to be a good story. A story depends on conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story – for the most part.
Conflict over Tragedy
A good character will want for something that they cannot necessarily easily obtain – that’s how there’s conflict. So let’s look at an example: a little girl wants a dog. We have a character who wants something. Let’s look at possible conflicts.
- A little girl wants a dog, but her mom does not want a dog. There’s a conflict.
- A little girl wants a dog, and so does her mom, but when they go to the shelter to adopt a dog, there are no dogs, because someone has released them from their kennels and they are running in a pack through town. Again, there’s conflict. Notice, nothing really bad is happening in these scenarios.
- A little girl wants a dog, and she finds one on the street. He has no tags and she names him Spot. He’s probably just one of the dogs who escaped from the shelter. She brings him home and her mother loves him too. They’re happy, until a week later, when they see posters for a missing dog with Spot’s face on it. They’ve already fallen in love with Spot and do not want to give him up. Now this is a lot more conflict.
The world does not need to be in peril for there to be a story. There does not need to be an evil enemy. Sometimes a good antagonist just wants the same thing the protagonist wants, but they both can’t have it. Like the dog from my last example, Spot. Though he could be shared, and that would be a very sweet ending, that isn’t the obvious resolution and doesn’t always work for everyone.
The Worst That Could Happen
Now, back to this advice, “imagine the worst thing that could happen and do that to your character.” It’s not necessarily wrong advice, but I want to modify it a little. My version, “imagine the worst thing that could happen to your character right now and write that.”
So, what’s the difference? The worst thing does not need to be the worst thing ever – like natural disasters or murder or illness, it should be the least conveniently-timed worst thing – like that fight with your roommate that you’ve been putting off happening in the middle of your apartment setting fire. It’s not the worst thing ever, but it’s not helping anything and making the conflict so much worse.
This piece of advice tends to get a lot more use in screenwriting, though it works for all forms of storytelling. The first example that comes to mind that I think is absolutely brilliant is from the season finale of season 1 on Stranger Things. I won’t ruin the whole show for you if you haven’t watched it. Nancy and Jonathan set up a trap to kill the monster they’ve been hunting all season long and are waiting for the monster to take the bait. Everything is set and then, Nancy’s boyfriend Steve knocks on the door. He was looking for Jonathan to apologize for how he’d treated him, but because he knows nothing about Jonathan and Nancy’s monster-hunting, he has questions and is totally misreading the situation. Of course, while they’re all arguing and distracted, it’s exactly the right time for the monster to show up.
Nothing seems to go right for the characters… ever.
While there does not necessarily need to be major trauma or tragedy in a story, rarely does anything seem to go right for the characters. The world might not be ending, but also, often nothing particularly good seems to be happening either. So why is that? Conflict thrives on the wrong thing happening. It’s the red light you’re stuck at when you’re already late for work. It adds to the frustration and builds the tension that the whole story is built up around.
So what happened to the good things? Often when good things happen to a character, it gets a sentence. Bad things get a chapter. Good things often aren’t building tension or adding to the plot of the story. Good things are usually boring. And because they aren’t often pushing the plot forward, they’re not dwelled on for very long. They don’t usually force the character into making a decision or facing the central conflict.
Good things can happen, but usually they don’t. While that’s no fun for the character, it’s great for the reader.