‘What if?’ and the art of pessimism

One afternoon recently, I found myself contemplating ‘what if?’, and it struck me that my thoughts were tending towards the pessimistic. (What if I let the dog off the lead and he ran onto the road? What if I chopped my finger off with the secateurs through carelessness? …)

But then I realised that this is what we do as storytellers: explore the impact of choices and actions. For an effective story, the outcome of these needs to be bad — whether the result of chance or a poor decision. So we run all the scenarios in our mind until the worst outcome eventuates, and then we inflict these on our characters. The more we hurt them, the better.

I am not naturally a pessimist — I’ve always been more of the ‘glass half full’ mindset. As a result I’ve had to work quite hard at hurting my characters (I’m rather soft-hearted too). So when I find myself having these negative ‘what if?’ daydreams, I start wondering whether honing my writing craft is changing the way I think on a daily basis.

How much of a writer’s personality affects their ability to tell a story? It’s widely accepted that experience counts for a lot — writers with dark or troubled pasts have more grist for the mill and a wider range of emotional experience to draw upon. But basic personality? Perhaps a dash of pessimism helps when it comes to thinking up disasters. Yet I’d hate to think there wasn’t room for optimism and hope as well.

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