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Creating the best-worst character. Do you need to? | Laura Pauling

Creating the best-worst character. Do you need to?

ENTER MY 200 FOLLOWERS BOOK GIVE AWAY AND ACT I CRITIQUE!

A couple friends asked if creating the worst possible character for your story was absolutely necessary. Remember that SAVE THE CAT is a book for screenwriters. And Blake Snyder assumes that when writing a screenplay a writer would like to snag an agent and go to Hollywood. If so, that means writing a high concept screenplay. Let’s investigate.

What does this mean?

Creating the worst possible character means finding the person who by just a glance would fail at the story goal, either because of lack of skill or lack of desire. (Loads of potential may lie beneath the surface.)

According to Blake Snyder this means finding the character who offers the most conflict in that situation and has the longest way to go emotionally.

Some examples?

Anna and the French Kiss – Anna absolutely did not want to be left at a private school in Paris. (How different would that story have been if Anna was headstrong and couldn’t wait to break away from her parents and travel?)

Before I Fall – Samantha was an unlikeable self-centered popular girl before she died and started living the same day over 7 times. (If she’d been a humble, kind outcast she wouldn’t have had as powerful an internal journey.)

Heist Society – Cat Bishop leaves the family business to be a normal girl – even though she has the skill to be a thief.

Princess for Hire – small town girl has to sub for royalty? Clearly worst possible choice – but turns out to be the best.

Harry Potter – Need I explain? What if Harry had been more like Draco?

How does it relate to high concept?

When creating a high-concept logline and story premise you want the reader to immediately think of potential scenes, see the potential conflict, and root for the character. And that means finding the best-worst character.

Is it absolutely needed for your story?

What do you think?

I don’t think you have to create a character like this. It depends on your story. But if your character isn’t the worst possible choice for the role then she/he must have flaws/problems – and lots of them.

Benefits:

  • Instant internal and external conflict
  • Creates reader empathy
  • Creates lots of potential in the reader’s mind for your book

Let’s brainstorm in the comments when it’s okay not to follow this concept. Can you think of any successful examples in literature? Sherlock Holmes anyone? There are lots of them. What made those characters successful then?

23 Responses to Creating the best-worst character. Do you need to?

  1. Anna February 28, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    Oh I really like this: “When creating a high-concept logline and story premise you want the reader to immediately think of potential scenes, see the potential conflict, and root for the character.”

    Great reminder – thanks!

  2. Jennifer Shirk February 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Hmm…that’s a good question to ponder. I want to agree with you too, but off the top of my head I can’t think of an example.

  3. anne gallagher February 28, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Thinking questions like this are just too much for me on a Monday morning, but I love your post and even though my story isn’t high concept, it has me reflecting about my MC’s internal conflicts. Okay, I am thinking now.
    Ugh!

    • Laura February 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

      anne – Sorry to make you think too early on a Monday morning. I wrote it last night. 🙂

      Jennifer – I read examples all the time but it is hard to recall those characters! Okay, I’m going to say Katniss. Honestly, she was perfect for that role. She’d had experience hunting. She came in with the skills. She was brave. But I think this story worked the opposite. Hunger Games showed that even coming in super prepared can’t truly prepare you for war. But the ironic part came in with the contrast between her simple life style and the world of the aristocracy.

      Anna – I’m constantly reminding myself of this!

  4. Matthew Rush February 28, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I think it’s an excellent guideline, but of course there are exceptions. I mean nothing specific comes to mind, except I guess for superheroes in comic books.

  5. Lydia K February 28, 2011 at 2:35 pm #

    I think there are lots of scenarios where authors haven’t followed this paradigm (Katniss is a great example), but you can’t help but feel interested when you do see it.

    Another stellar post, thanks Laura!

  6. Sherrie Petersen February 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    I’m having trouble thinking this early in the morning, too 🙂 But I do think that the stories where the characters have more to overcome tend to stick with us more. Which might be why I can’t think of other examples right now!

  7. Stina Lindenblatt February 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    This is a great idea. Mandy Hubbard had trouble with Prada & Prejuidice until she did this.

    None of my stories fit this idea, but it does open up possibiliites. Mostly I figure out the characters first. But it’s a great idea if you come up with the plot first–which a lot of writers do.

  8. Lisa Green February 28, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Hmm.. seriously great discussion. You know characters are everything to me, but I honestly have never consciously done that – picked the worst person for the job. Other than maybe a “type”. I’ve done the opposite – found the character and then thrown something horrible at them. I think if they were real, my characters might tear me to shreds – don’t they know I love them?

    • Laura February 28, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

      Stina and Lisa – Yes, I think the various ways we create our characters show that we don’t have to do this. But sometimes if we’re struggling, it might be what’s needed!

  9. Susan Kaye Quinn February 28, 2011 at 5:05 pm #

    This is a great post/discussion!

    First, I’m going to disagree about Katniss – yes, she was perfectly suited to win The Hunger Games. But she was the worst-best character to be The Mockingjay – she didn’t want to be the hero, the leader of the resistance. She just wanted to save Prim. So, I would say Katniss is a good example of a character that seems perfect to accomplish the (immediate) goal, but has underlying flaws that make her ultimate triumph seriously in doubt. This is a “strengths as hidden flaws” paradigm, the opposite of your “flaws as hidden strengths” paradigm (the worst-best character).

    I think the “flaws as hidden strengths” is more appealing and more high concept – we all secretly hope that our flaws will be our hidden strengths in the end. Or at least that we will overcome our flaws outright to succeed. So, I think that those characters can be a much easier “sell” to hook readers right away.

    You’re really making me think about this now! 🙂

  10. Tana Adams February 28, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    I think most of the stories I read (the ones I sweep up in a hurry from the library) seem to break the high concept mold. I think some stories are just too complex to properly distill into one sentence. An example would be the Luxe trilogy (YA). I won’t even try to break that one down.

    • Laura February 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm #

      Tana – I haven’t read that series. But I don’t think I haven’t read a book that can’t be stated in one or two sentences. Usually it’s in the front of the book. No, sometimes the one sentence doesn’t do a story justice. And I love many books that aren’t high concept and I love many that are. 🙂

      Susan – It’s gotten me thinking too. Characters are complex – which they should be!

  11. Kelly Polark February 28, 2011 at 10:26 pm #

    Great examples. I see how this works well in some stories. Another option for your main character!

  12. MG Higgins February 28, 2011 at 10:29 pm #

    My excuse for not wanting to think is that it’s afternoon and I’m sluggish. But I did want to give my 2 cents on Sam in Before I Fall, that she was ALMOST too worst–she had so few redeeming qualities, I almost didn’t continue past the first couple of chapters. Glad I stuck with her.

  13. Abby Annis February 28, 2011 at 11:13 pm #

    Something to think about as I tackle my revisions. Thanks! 🙂

  14. Juliana Brandt March 1, 2011 at 12:22 am #

    This is great and has gotten me thinking more about a main character of mine.

    I think this involves the type of story too. The main character in the MG manuscript I’m working on is much simpler and follows along this shallowly. A YA book, on the other hand, must have complex characters to keep the reader involved.

  15. erin March 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm #

    Great question… and one I don’t know the answer to. Kinda makes me glad I don’t write fiction… it’s so complicated.

  16. Patti Nielson March 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    It’s something I really hadn’t really consciously thought about before now. But I think the more I read about character development, the more I think I really need to be a plotter.

  17. Carolina Valdez Miller March 1, 2011 at 4:52 pm #

    Such a great tip! I didn’t’ realize it, but I think I do this anyway–and why I’m rewriting an old ms now. Because the character wasn’t right for that scenario–or actually, too right for that scenario. I have got to get this book.

  18. Jennifer Hoffine March 1, 2011 at 9:19 pm #

    This is a great discussion and tip. I agree, there does need to be conflict between who the protag is and where they need to go.

    I’m worried, though, that the advice to pick THE worst person for the job, plot wise, could sometimes lead to cliches and/or such a steep story arc that the change would be difficult to pull off believably.

  19. Amie Borst March 2, 2011 at 5:52 am #

    i just finished reading BEASTLY and the MC was so perfectly awful. but that’s what made the story work so well. if the beast had been perfectly lovely, there would have been no need for an internal change.

    it really is the perfect formula.

  20. Margo March 4, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    I’m sorting through all the novels I’ve read recently.

    Amy and Elder in Across the Universe – okay, this is hard to do! complex characters – hard to pinpoint the best-worst thing.

    John in I am Number Four – he’s a superpower which is sort of an exception.

    Cam in Nightshade – I think she’s positioned well for her role to break her people out of their “slavery” – she’s sort of the reluctant hero type.

    Nina in XVI – she’s the daughter of the leader of the reistance. She’s well-suited to become important in the resistance as well

    Susan had an interesting point about Katniss’ dual role in being both best for winning and worst for being the symbol of the resistence.

    I need to think this one through more! At this point I think if you don’t have a character that’s the worst candidate for the job, then he/she MUST have some flaws that make his/her success questionable. We gotta have that conflict in some sort of form.

    I love posts that make me really dig in and analyze! Thanks!

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