Making It Worse for a Character: The How and Why

We hear a lot of popular advice on writing forums and in craft books. At the top of the list, along with “show, don’t tell” and “write what you know” is “make it worse.” While any of these bits of advice are great to explore, I am here today to talk specifically about making things worse, what it means, and how it can help your writing.

About six months ago, I had a revelation. A true and honest revelation. For already half a year (at the time), I had been working with a new critique partner, and one of her favorite things to ask me was, “How can you make this worse for your character? How can you make these events matter more?”

How, indeed? Her questions became the first step to my realization.

Making It Worse Made Me Nervous

When we hear “make it worse” it’s easy to misinterpret the spirit of the advice and that’s exactly what I did. I wasn’t really keen to make things ever worse. After all, the ultimate “worse” is just having the character die on the first day of her story. I simply didn’t see how delving into the depths of “worseness” would make my story more compelling. My friend and I spent months talking (during which I’m sure I was a frustratingly slow learner in this particular area), but I started to grasp the concept.

At first, I had every excuse in the book for not wanting to be cruel to my character and make her life a living hell. I learned, however, that there are many ways to worsen a situation, ways other than death or fire. Ways to make things matter more, without plot points getting out of control. I found a few that weren’t too uncomfortable, and at least it felt like I was making progress. Dialogue became more hateful, descriptions took on a more immediate tone. Little worsenings.

I began to grasp the true and underlying meaning of “make it worse.” It happened like a punch in the face. The moment I grasped this concept, my world (and my writing) changed overnight.

Fate In The Library

The second part of the realization happened one day when I took my daughter to the library to check out another thousand books with Disney princesses on their covers. I perused the “How to Write” books, and found one with a bright blue and yellow cover, and thought I’d give that a go…mostly because it looked attractive and not too thick and menacing.

Its title is Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Well, okay, then! I anticipated Donald Maass had a bunch of great advice to share with me as I slogged through the dreary days of drafting and endless hours of editing.

I was SO right!

Three things. Three BIG things. Be brave. Be honest. Make it worse.

This was what he said to me over and over in the first few pages, and I heard it loud and clear.

I started rewriting a chapter I’d just “finished” after several painful editing passes. I started over fresh, with my crit friend and Mr. Maass telling me in BOTH ears, to be honest and brave, and make things worse. Make every scene matter more. It was torture some days, but I was committed to trying.

And I think I did a passable job. But that wasn’t the end of my wakeup call.

The Final Nail In My Coffin

Game of Thrones. I’m going to spoil stuff but it’s important, so…

*Game of Thrones Spoilers ahead*

Season four was the one that did it for me. It was the straw that broke this writer’s back. I had been rolling with this “make it worse” thing for half a year, and my crit partner was supportive and my writing was more honest, and everything was just going along fine with Mr. Maass’ books…until the night I watched Tyrion’s trial by combat.

Oh man, that poor guy had a raw deal, didn’t he? His father was ashamed of him, his sister hated him, just about everyone in the world wanted that dude to suffer. So he became a very sympathetic character for me. He was accused of murder, but was innocent. He had a farce of a trial. And his girlfriend? Oh man!

Then, he opted for trial by combat, but all his friends left him high and dry. My heart leapt when the prince offered to be Tyrion’s champion. I wanted redemption so badly, for both of them. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted something from a story so deeply (you can stop smiling now, we all know how naïve I was).

I was denied my victory. Or, rather, Tyrion was denied his. A victory he NEEDED. It was his last hope. I needed it, too. I don’t even know why, because who cares if a fictional character gets put to death for the wrong reasons? Why did I need his fate to make sense?

And it struck me…like my own head was caved in by the Mountain…that…things CAN get worse. So much worse. So WORSE you want to scream how unfair things are. But I didn’t scream. I busted out laughing and I think my husband thought me quite mad at that moment. Obviously what he was seeing on screen was sort of tragic and gruesome (at best), and what I was seeing was a triumph unlike any I could have imagined.

I had finally seen a situation that I thought was resolved, a happy ending that I wanted so badly, get MADE WORSE. I imagined that Mr. Maass would have reveled in how WORSE it got!

*End  Spoilers*

The Worsening Effect

The thing we have to realize as writers is that readers will never see our “worsening” when they read. They will believe everything that makes it to the final draft was planned brilliantly. Whether they’re facts about your character’s background, or challenges that seem insurmountable, they will look like they were in the writer’s head from the beginning. In fact, I just had a conversation with a friend about this exact thing. Did Rowling know ahead of time that Harry’s ability to talk to snakes was SO significant? Did she have a plan for Snape in the first book, or was he just an antagonist? I…don’t know. But I love it, even if I can’t explain it.

Going back to Game of Thrones, I was terribly upset when Robb Stark and his family experienced tragedy at the infamous Red Wedding. I liked them and wanted to see them win. But that didn’t happen. As I picked my spirit up off that bloody floor in the dining hall, I looked toward the future. I rationalized that if Arya had been returned to her family, her story would have ended. I suspected she’s going to be an assassin (one of my favorite types of characters), so I wanted that story line to continue. I realized that if everything went smoothly, I wouldn’t ever see that eventuality. So I got over the tragedy and put my hope into one little girl I wanted to see succeed.

Making things worse, even in the brainstorming phase where you explore story options, can open doors you didn’t know existed.

What It Means To Make Things Worse

While Game of Thrones is an example of a “never-ending worsening,” I’m mentioning it because that’s what it took to open my eyes. I know a lot of people hated that aspect of the story, but it took that degree of persistence to get through to me. I’m a bit dense, I suppose.

There are so many ways to make things worse for a character, to make their situation or their environmental factors, or even their own inner demons matter to them more, regardless of how much planning and outlining a writer does. Even great ideas can benefit from some deeper exploration.

Making things worse can be as simple as having a character need some advice, and suddenly her best friend goes on a cruise and isn’t answering her phone, or it can be as overt as an old rival burning your character’s house down. Only you can decide how much worse things can get and how it will impact your character and get him to take action. That’s the point—to get a character from a place of relative comfort and cool-headedness, into a situation that makes readers flip pages with a fury because they NEED to know what happens next.

How To Make It Worse

As for HOW to make things worse, it begins with questions. Sometimes answers can be found by writing a dozen possibilities of worsening that will lead to deeper answers. Say, if a character has to make a tough decision, what elements from their environment (including friends or family) can make that decision harder? Cut the first half off the top of that list and dismiss them because they’re obvious. But in that second half, you get to the real gold.

Another tactic is “steps” of worsening that lead to the good stuff. For example, follow a train of thought until it leads to new, surprising directions and results.

1. What would make this situation worse for my character?

2. What would make that worse?

3. What would make that matter more?”

4. What would make it worse than that?

5. (and Donald Maass asks) What would make it matter more than life itself?

Wow. Sometimes we get answers to questions that we never would have visited. Of course every answer isn’t a winner, but by following a train of thought further than you’ve ever gone before, surprisingly brilliant things can happen.

When we take a step toward deeper connection that will directly impact the character and her choices, we have the opportunity to reach a level of emotional engagement that perhaps we weren’t quite accomplishing before.

Why Should We Make Things Worse

The “how” of making things worse is tricky enough (because I guarantee, no matter how much you try to hang up your inhibitions and go outside your comfort level, it’s going to feel EXTREMELY uncomfortable), but the why of it is probably the hardest to get over. Like I said, I was really resistant to this at first. For a long while.

Why would I want to make my character suffer? Why would I want to write about tragedy / loss/ pain, etc.?

I had this misconception that “making it worse” was synonymous with suffering. Now, I realize it’s more like intensity. If your character has a goal, and let’s say you’ve already got three obstacles in the way of her achieving that goal, that’s great. But can you take one of those obstacles and make it more personal ? Can a little worsening make it harder for her to WANT to achieve her goal? Could you include a sacrifice that didn’t exist in the first draft, some new cost? Her job? Her best friend? Her husband? If she makes that choice now, and gets the thing she wanted, could she lose something important? Something that will change her in a way?

Those little ways to worsen things don’t need to be death or violence, but can encompass a whole world of possibilities. They deepen a story and increase reader engagement.

Where The Line Is Drawn

I think the reason I was so hesitant to embrace this concept was because it felt like I had spent so long already writing my story. I didn’t want to ruin it by making things crazy or complicated. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. So where do you draw the line regarding what’s a strong “make it worse” decision, and what’s just going to damage the story?

Mr. Maass (in his books) consistently requests that writers go beyond the point where they think they’re “doing enough” and to keep going. He says that when we feel we’re slapping the reader in the face with what we’re trying to say, that’s just about the point where it becomes truly noticeable for a reader.

It could certainly change major plot points of your story. Your characters may grow in ways you didn’t expect. Scenes may take on new meanings, or may be scrapped to make way for newer better scenes.

The bottom line, however, is for you to know what your story needs. Are there scenes that feel a little dull, but you can’t seem to find something better to put in there? Is your character not quite as committed to her own journey as you are to putting her on it (my current problem)?

There are an infinite number of ways to make a character’s problems more personal, with more at stake, with bigger consequences for winning/ losing, and with worse challenges. It probably won’t hurt any writer to take out a notebook and just start brainstorming ways things could get worse for their character. Any bad idea, you can just cross off the list. No harm done.

And if you do decide that those “make it worse” moments accidentally lead to something brilliant, remember…readers will never know. You’ll look like you planned it that way the whole time.

Further Discussion

Have you ever taken a dull scene and injected some energy into it by making it worse?

How do you plan to “worsen” a scene?

Or does this whole topic make your skin crawl (you aren’t alone)?

Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.

A. Howitt