This past fall, I went backpacking for four days in the Canadian wilderness with a good friend. It will be an adventure, I told myself as we planned the trip, when I read online about the “rugged,” “challenging,” “demanding” trail. It’s good to get outside your comfort zone. The trail included “steep climbs,” and “boulder hopping.” I’m tough; I can push myself. It didn’t occur to me to question whether pushing myself was a worthwhile goal; it was what I always did.
What happened was that I did indeed push myself, to the point of absolute physical and mental exhaustion. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done; it is the scariest thing I’ve ever done; I would never do it again, and I’m beyond glad I did it. It was one of the few experiences in my life that really and truly shifted my understanding of myself in a profound and lasting way.
And the experience made me think that that is exactly what needs to happen for my characters when I write: I need to put them into situations that force them to confront some of their deepest fears and deepest insecurities and emerge changed. Notice I didn’t say emerge “better,” because that’s not always the case; sometimes living through a worst-case scenario alters people in ways both profound and tragic. But they need to emerge different, to be transformed in some way, major or minor, by their experience.
I play a game in one of the creative writing classes I teach for kids, in which I ask students to make up a character and that character’s greatest fear. Then I ask them to make up a setting. THEN I mix up all the characters and fears and settings and everyone gets new combinations and has to write a scene or story in which the character they’ve been given has to live through their absolute biggest fear coming true, in whatever setting they’ve been given. It’s a challenging and fun game, and I play along with the kids every time. In one of the students’ stories an old man terrified of cats finds himself in an isolated cabin in the Canadian wilderness filled with cats; in another a young woman with a deep and irrational fear of teddy bears is buckled into her airplane seat on a long flight behind toddlers who keep throwing their teddy bears into her lap; in yet another a woman who is terrified of failing at everything she tries in life makes a desperate attempt to make her mark on the world by engaging in an act of ecoterrorism.
Some things to think about as you get into your character’s story:
What is your character’s greatest fear? Why?
Imagine your character in a situation in which they encounter that thing/situation/person they fear most. How would they react? Why? Is the way they react consistent with their personality, with who they are?
How does this encounter change your character? Does it make them kinder, braver, stronger, more compassionate? Or does it make them sadder, more pessimistic, more fearful? Whatever this change is, is it earned, that is, it the change consistent with who that character is and what they have just been through?
My trip to Canada wasn’t my absolute worst-case scenario (that would be getting trapped in a cave underground), but it did force me to confront some of my deepest fears. I had to face what happened when I pushed myself beyond my limits. I had to face my fear of giving up and my fear of failing, and acknowledge I was in over my head and ask for help. I had to say, “no, I can’t do it,”—something I’ve almost never said. It also forced me to acknowledge that sometimes the things that threaten us most are not the familiar fears, but the unexpected ones. I was afraid of getting attacked by a bear or breaking my leg in a fall; instead, I got serious hypothermia, which was equally life-threatening and actually much more probable than the things I’d worried about (I was lucky my hiking buddy is experienced and smart and intervened in time).
What I learned from it all was simple: It’s important to listen to your own inner voice, to say “no” when you need to, and to give yourself permission to stop and rest and even give up if you have to. These are quiet epiphanies, but no less life-changing than more dramatic ones.
How do you use worst-case scenarios in your stories?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!