I've recently become aware that I sometimes engage in catastrophic thinking. I like that term. It feels better than being called dramatic or a worry-wort. It suggests that I have a skill that might actually be useful in, well, a catastrophe. Should the zombie apocalypse hit, I will probably have all of the potential scenarios worked out -- and trust me, they won't be pretty. Of course, in my daily life, catastrophic thinking isn't all that helpful. I can pretty quickly work myself into a tizzy using this little formula: take one partial fact, add a little fear and a good dose of assumption. Shake like crazy.
However, it has just occurred to me that the same sort of thinking that makes me go to an irrational worst case scenario, could be extremely useful in my fiction. See, the thing about the worst case scenario is that it's bad. Really bad. And in order to avoid it, you'd be pretty desperate. You'd be willing to do something that you would not ordinarily do. And that's where interesting fiction can be born.
Take my new novel, for example. My main character, the only child of a single mom, believes that she must make the varsity lacrosse team so that she can improve her skills, get scouted by coaches and win an athletic scholarship for college. Her academics aren't great and her mother has no money. As she sees it, the athletic scholarship is the only way she'll be able to go to college and if she doesn't go to college, she'll probably end up pregnant in a dead-end job like her mom. Therefore, using catastrophic thinking: getting cut from the varsity lacrosse team=Teen Mom.
Okay, so you have a girl who is desperate to make the team. Now, let's assume that she gets cut from the team. What is she going to do? Will she go out and get drunk at a party, wreck her car and kill her best friend? Will she pull a Tonya Harding and eliminate her competition? Or maybe she'll sell her soul to the devil in exchange for killer skills that will ensure her a spot on the team. (Hey, if it was happy, it'd be a boring book!)
Now we have something interesting to work with. Considering how your character would envision a worst case scenario can reveal more about her and show you what she might do after she's thwarted in her efforts to get what she wants. The more you know about your main character, the more you can ensure that the obstacles you throw at her make sense for her story.
As I'm working toward the draft of this story (and not getting very far), I'm thinking about what those obstacles will be and I want to ensure that they are worthy obstacles versus simple stalling tactics. We all know that a character needs obstacles and difficulties to overcome in order to result in a good story. Tension, which is built as the character faces and then tries to overcome the obstacles, is necessary too. But if the obstacles aren't real enough, the reader will simply get bored and walk away. The obstacles themselves need to set up some tension, they can't simply be stalling tactics designed to keep the reader waiting.
If I think about my running -- stalling tactics include coffee, the computer, the laundry -- really, anything that slows me from getting to the door. But obstacles are road closures, bad weather, injuries, commitments that eat up my time. Thinking of it that way, then my character's obstacles must come from outside of her and must also be outside her control to change them. Instead, she will need to change her plans to deal with them.
Of course, in a quiet book, the obstacle could be a character's past trauma or another emotional difficulty that impedes her ability to access what she so desperately wants. In other words, the obstacle could be more internal, but it must be something over which the character feels that she has no immediate control.
Depending on which road my main character chooses to take, I can create obstacles that will force her to work and grow. If she has the drunk driving accident, she'll need to deal with facing her friend's parents, the kids at school and her own guilt. If she takes out her competition, she will be looking over her shoulder, always worried about getting found out. If she sells her soul to the devil, well, the possibilities are too many to list here. *taps fingers together and practices evil laugh*
In any event, if you're feeling stuck about your character or the drama isn't as intense as you need it to be -- get your character thinking about her Worst Case Scenario. Keep pushing by asking,"Then what? Then what? Then what?" And watch the options line up before you like so many hungry zombies.
(Road Closed sign from TXrunnergirl.blogspot.com, Homer from anxiety-problems.tumblr.com. Both via Bing.com)