There’s a piece of writing advice which goes ‘do the worst thing to your protagonist you can think of.’
Taken literally, you end up in murder, torture, kidnapping, earthquake, fire and flood. Not exactly genre-appropriate if you’re writing The Ladies’ Sewing Circle Diaries. Or a rom-com.
The Worst Thing has to stay within your initial promise and within your genre. Take your reader out of genre, break the promise of your premise, and you’ve lied to them. It’s the fastest way to make your story a Did Not Finish.
Better advice follows the line ‘in fiction, bad things happen to good people.’ Readers want to see how good people fight to overcome bad things and thrive. The Worst Thing will vary according to genre and setting.
The Worst Thing for Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice is not torture or murder. Those don’t fit genteel romantic fiction. Her Worst Thing is ruined reputation followed by the choice of penury or a lifetime of Mr Collins.
The Worst Thing in a family drama is the revelation of a lie or betrayal. The characters work so long and hard forging family bonds, the damage seems irreparable.
The Worst Thing in The Ladies Sewing Circle Diaries is for the sewing rivals to sabotage each other’s work in advance of the Grand Embroidery Contest. Betrayals emerge, friendships break, reconciliations may or may not follow.
Do the Worst Thing is a catalyst for drama, for learning and for change. Jack Reacher’s response to life-threatening events is very different to Lizzie Bennett’s. They each grow and change in different ways.
The best writing advice is more specific.
‘Do the worst thing to your protagonist that provokes reaction, reflection and character growth.’