characters fail
Characters Writing Craft
Scott Stoops  

Let your characters fail.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s quote is shocking. Should we really be sadists and do horrible things to our darling lead characters? I mean, they are the heros of our stories and we want them to succeed. Should our characters fail? How miserable should their existence be? Is there such a thing as too much failure?

Imagine this story: Tom wakes up in the morning and prepares for the day. He has an important meeting that will help to save his failing business. On the way in, his car has engine trouble, making him late. He gets the car into a garage and learns that the repairs are going to cost $1500 dollars, an amount he doesn’t have. Then he gets a call from his estranged wife’s lawyer with her latest set of demands. One of his employees has made some poor decisions at a customer site and jeopardized his reputation. To end the work, the meeting with the investors falls apart, and he is in even more dire straits than he was this morning.

What’s wrong with this premise?

Tom has an obvious problem: his business is failing, and he needs to do something about. He actually sets out to accomplish the goal of saving his business. Along the way, there are obstacles in his path that, even if they don’t directly relate to his primary goal, affect him. They place him in even worse circumstances. He will have to overcome some of these setbacks to achieve his goal.

None of these are failures on Tom’s part. It’s even possible that the failure of the business is something that he isn’t responsible for.

Depending on the skill of the writer, this might be an interesting story. Tom may come up with creative and possibly humorous ways of dealing with these situations. This could be a “day in the life of an unfortunate schmuck” story. So, what’s wrong with this premise? All these things are external to Tom. His character doesn’t fail.

Should our characters fail?

We need to let our characters fail. We need to make it so they will fail and fail gloriously. And we should tie their failures to who they are. To do anything less for them would be an injustice.

In my article Why you should have flaws in your characters, I talk about ways to make our characters flawed. Those flaws will make our characters far more empathetic and relatable.

And they provide for spectacular failures.

Character failure should arise from personal flaws

No story worth reading is a straight line from beginning to end. We expect the major characters to face and overcome opposition. In the story about Tom, we see him encounter several obstacles to achieving his goal. While they are setbacks and likely legitimate obstacles, they aren’t necessarily failures. At least not the kinds of failures we are looking for.

For a failure to mean something in the story, it has to be tied to a character flaw. He has to fail because of who he is and what he wants.

Tom having engine trouble and a costly repair is certainly a setback. He has to spend money that he can’t really afford to get it repaired. If the engine failure was simply from normal wear and tear on the vehicle, then there is little dramatic tension. Sure, it’s something he has to deal with.

But what if Tom was neglectful? He had seen the signs but didn’t get the car in for repairs. Perhaps Tom is also neglectful about other thing as well. His wife is divorcing him. Was he neglectful there as well? Is his business failing because he didn’t pay attention to it?

Tom’s neglectfulness adds a depth to his character. And it is serious enough to cause problems in multiple areas of his life. But is this a strong enough flaw to carry a story? Is it strong enough that Tom will have to work hard against it?

Can we take this further? Is there anything behind that flaw? Addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling or anything else that could drain his resources could explain his neglectful behavior. Perhaps Tom is an otherwise attentive and responsible person who got caught in an emotional trap and resorted to one of these addictions. Going further, we could ask what about Tom’s upbringing and character makeup would lead him to addictive behavior to solve his problems?

The flaw and the failure must be believable

Character flaws must relate to the story. Failures must truly impede the characters from achieving their goals. We expect our characters to act rationally. We expect them to use everything within their means to solve whatever problems arise, if possible.

I once saw a video where two equally skilled guitarists were having a guitar duel. This was a good vs evil fantasy battle. The battle ends when the hero plays two or three bars that the villain can’t do. The highly skilled villain couldn’t play the riff.

In the first book of a longstanding and highly successful fantasy series, the heros overcame the villain by stabbing him with a magic sword of truth. The villain’s flaw and ultimate failure was that he didn’t recognize the truth of his own existence. The flaw and failure, though fatal, was not believable, at least for me.

The character arc

Fall down seven times, stand up eight

Japanese proverb

The article, How to write a compelling character arc states:

“While main characters might face big challenges (Hungarian Horntails and evil Dark Lords), character arcs involve internal, personal change. Characters will find their strengths and weaknesses tested over the course of the story — so that by the time they arrive at the story’s end, they are a changed person.”{mfn]https://blog.reedsy.com/character-arc/[/mfn]

Over the course of the story, our characters will move forward and fall back many times. They may face many Try-Fail or Try-Yes-But cycles.1https://nelsonagency.com/2020/09/your-protagonist-must-fail/ These cycles should repeat throughout the story until its climax, at which point we should settle all important questions. How many times? That depends.

For shorter works, one or two failures are probably enough. We don’t have the space for more and the failures would feel tacked on gratuitously. For longer works, we can have more and there really is no upper limit. Too few failures and the character looks like he is getting off too easily. The failures themselves will feel insignificant. Too many, and the story will stall or become too dismal. In the end, the characters predicament will be so dire that readers will just stop caring.

Failure should lead to change

Of what stuff are our characters made of? Do they have the stamina and fortitude to pursue their goals, despite the challenges they will face? This is as true for the antagonist as it is for the protagonist.

When a character fails and learns that it was because of some flaw in himself, what does he do? Does she:

  • Blame others – They ignore their own faults and flaws and place the blame elsewhere. They don’t take responsibility.
  • Quit – Do they get so bruised and battered that they just throw in the towel and walk away?
  • Minimize – When they fail, do they downplay the significance of their goals?
  • Refusal/Denial – Do they not accept the failure? Do they deny it? They believe themselves to be the true victor, but one who was denied the prize.
  • Personalize – Are they the person who takes everything to heart? Having failed once, do they feel they deserved it? That this is just how things are? They may continue to fight, but doubt their ability to win.
  • Wallow – Their failures crushed them and they give up.
  • Adapt – Failure is part of the process. They learn from the failure and move on. They assess and adjust.

Each one of these responses is valid and none of them is necessarily the end of the story. Our characters may respond in any of these ways throughout the course of the story. The key is that they need to work through these failures and responses until they either achieve their goals or fail irrevocably.

Maintaining momentum after failure

When a character wins a victory, we need to get him into an even more challenging situation if we are going to maintain story tension. When a character fails, there is no need to increase the tension. He is in a worse place than he was before. He is still facing serious problems, and he has just lost a battle. If there is an external antagonist, then this also means that the antagonist is closer to achieving his own goals (or should be).

The character who has failed needs to find a reason to get moving again and a way to do it. And his solutions have to come from within. The concept of God in the Machine (an external force that comes in at the last minute to save the day) may have been popular in ancient Greece, but it doesn’t work today. He may go through the Try-Fail cycle several times – and probably should as long as we don’t get carried away with it – but he eventually needs to find an option that works.

Conclusion

Failure is a part of life. It should be a part of our characters’ lives as well. Failure can show us more about who they are and what they can accomplish than success ever will. To be effective, failure needs to stem from significant flaws in our characters.

When they win, it will have been through their own courage and strength. If they lose, it won’t be because they didn’t try.

  • 1
    https://nelsonagency.com/2020/09/your-protagonist-must-fail/

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