Lots of writers talk about being mean to their characters. Lots of critique groups tell writers to be meaner to their characters, to figure out what the worst possible thing is that can happen to that character, and then somehow make it happen. Of course, it has to happen believably, so if your character is terrified of drowning and your story is set in a desert, well, you’ll just have to change the setting. Or come up with a reason for there to be a pool or a lake or something out there, or for the villain to pick waterboarding as his/her preferred method of torture, or…
There are a couple of things wrong with this approach. First off, there’s the practical aspect: in this age of multi-volume sagas, if you use the absolutely worst thing that can happen to a character in the very first book, you’re either going to be repeating yourself a lot, or you’re going to have to make do with those second-through-tenth-worst things for later books, or you’re going to have to come up with a reason for the character to develop a new worst-possible-thing for every new volume.
More important, though, is the fact that “be mean; hit the character with the worst thing that can happen to him/her” makes it sound as if everything bad that happens to the protagonist comes from outside, from a decision that the writer makes. And while this is true from one angle (I am, after all, making one choice after another regarding who I’m writing about and what happens to them), it also encourages writers in some very bad habits.
Foremost among these is the attitude that the writer can make an arbitrary decision about what goes into a particular story at any time. There are certainly lots of decisions to be made as a story gets written, but if one wants a readable book at the end of the process, they aren’t arbitrary ones. Every decision the writer makes places limits on what can happen later on, and once one is past the first flurry of initial choices (is the ship captain the protagonist, or should that role go to the first mate? Is she coping with an enemy or a natural disaster or her own bad choices in the past?), every new choice is limited by the things the writer has said before.
The obstacles the protagonist faces can arise from outside circumstances (the bandit attack that separates the protagonist from his/her guide), or they can arise from the protagonist’s own emotions and misconceptions (losing his/her temper and chewing out the ambassador), but they have to fit the story the writer is telling. And they have to fit on lots of levels. Facing public rejection by her older sister may be the heroine’s worst nightmare and make for a wonderfully emotional, intense scene; but shoehorning that scene into a plot where it doesn’t belong can wreck the pacing, the structure, and the flow of the story the writer is actually trying to tell.
Which brings me to another problem: “Figure out the worst thing that can happen to your characters and then make it happen” pays no attention whatsoever to the story the writer wants to tell. Yes, of course, “…in the context of the story…” should be in there right after “…worst thing that can happen to your characters…” but it never is (at least, not any time that I’ve seen the comment made), and I know from bitter experience that there are tons of people out there who will take one look at this, decide that it’s really good advice, and proceed to jettison the neat desert setting they’d planned on, and instead send their protagonist on a sea voyage because he’s afraid of the water, or who’ll ditch the space-opera action in favor of a family saga because their protagonist’s family is a nightmare. And then they bog down because they don’t know anything about ships and they don’t like family sagas, and they wonder what went wrong.
The thing is, being mean to your characters starts with putting them in a story in the first place. Most stories do not involve happy people happily living happy lives without problems…and there’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” was a curse in ancient China. And there certainly are writers who fall in love with their characters and proceed to make everything much too easy for them, which is hardly ever as interesting as watching a character struggle with an almost-insuperable obstacle and triumph over it in the end.
The second part of being mean is that whatever happens, whether it’s an external problem like a bandit attack or an internal one like choosing to trust a long-time enemy, what’s at stake has to matter to the character. If the main character doesn’t care what happens to the princess, one way or the other, then they’re not going to worry about the delay caused by the bandit attack – it doesn’t matter to them whether the dragon gets hungry and eats the girl before they get there, after all. But if the princess is the protagonists One True Love, then the delay the bandits cause is horrifying and traumatic.
It is usually helpful to think a bit about why the character cares so much about whatever-it-is. OK, if the princess is his/her One True Love, then it doesn’t take much thought, but sometimes the reason isn’t so obvious. If you are going to confront the protagonist with his/her most awful nightmare, your protagonist had better want something else enough that he/she will deal with it and keep going, instead of saying “Face that? No way; I’m out of here.”
The third part – the one that gets left out a lot – is that the thing the character cares about has to be relevant to the story. Throwing in an angsty little subplot about the hero’s near-drowning in childhood has nothing whatever to do with trekking across the desert to find the cursed tomb, and trying to come up with a way to make it have something to do with it…well, if there’s some obvious and brilliant tie-in, by all means use it, but it is not worth bending your brain – and your story – all out of shape just so you can get that “worst possible thing” into a story where it doesn’t really belong. There are plenty of things that can get in the way of your protagonist’s goal that belong in a desert. Use one of them.