Being a Better Writer: When Characters Fail

Welcome back, readers, to another Monday Being a Better Writer post! Today we’ve got a request topic, one that hopefully I’ll be able to do justice to the satisfaction of the one who asked. In addition, it’s also one of the last topics left on Topic List IX! We’re close to Topic List X, and I’m glad, because I’ve already got some pretty neat topics on there to go over.

But that’s in the future. For the now, let’s get going on today’s topic: When Characters Fail.

I’ll admit, I bounced around a bit on topic titles for this one, and not without good reason. For a moment it was “Failing to Succeed,” and then almost became “Letting Characters Fail.” But finally, I settled on When Characters Fail, rather than on letting, and I think that distinction is important.

See, if we go into our characters failing with the mindset that we’re “letting” them fail (and in fact, are), then we might be approaching our story in the wrong way. Sure, we’re giving our characters the “try/fail” cycle that they need, and they’re going through it, but here’s the thing about “letting” them fail. When we “let” our characters fail, then they’re not the ones acting on the try/fail cycle. We as authors are. We’re looking at our story and going “Okay, you can fail here, this is a good spot for it,” and letting the failure happen where we decide it works, rather than simply letting the characters be free to fail when their own choices drop it on them.

Now, I can already see two different mindsets appearing in some of you readers. Some of you are asking “But wait … As the author, aren’t you the one who decides and writes everything anyway? You make it sound like these characters are real!” And a few others are saying “Well, if I don’t place failure in my character’s paths and let them fail, then they won’t!”

I’ll tackle the first one first, since it’s more in line with the topic today. Those of you who were thinking “Yes, but I’m the author in here, I decide when characters do and don’t do things …” Well … you’re right. But you’re also wrong.

We’ve talked before about organic characters on this site. When we set out to write a story, be it a short or an epic, one thing that we all want to have (unless you’re writing literary fiction, perhaps), is characters that sound, act, and feel like real people. As opposed to, say … actors on a stage.

Which is why it can be dangerous to consciously think “Well, I’ll let this character fail in this chapter, and succeed in this chapter.” Because when we do that, like it or not we’re constraining a character to follow the script in our heads. And when we do this, we run the risk of “forcing” a character into a position or situation that feels, well, out of place for that character. We make them actors of our story rather than agents of their own. So if we decide when the failure (or success) takes place, we’re essentially taking away the character’s choice in the matter. their control over what they do.

Now, sure, these are characters in a story. I get that. They’re not real. But we want them to appear real. And they can’t do that if we’re the ones forcing decisions.

Crud, you’ve probably seen a movie or read a book where this has happened. Where a character has made a mistake or done something that felt out of place and out of character, as if they’d only done it to move the plot along? Yeah, that’s usually a case of the author “taking control” and forcing the character to be an actor rather than letting them act.

See, our characters aren’t real. They’re in our heads. But we’ve given them personality traits, ambitions, goals, and other features that make them seem real, and in a way they have their own sort of “life” as a result. And as authors, we need to let them have it. If you’ve come to a point where you want a character to fail, but the only way to do that is to “let” them fail, then don’t force them into it. Your character should be the actor, and you the cameraman, not the director telling them to hit the lines over and over again no matter what.

In the end, yes, you are the one who writes and decides everything anyway. But you can write a story that’s decided to let your characters be free to take their path with things, rather than a story that drops characters into prescribed sequence of events that may or may not work with their personalities.

Right, I think that’s enough to clear up the first question. Let’s see about the second one. That “But without me putting failure in my character’s paths, they won’t fail!” Thankfully, this one is a bit easier to break down than the one above. There are really only two responses.

First is that they likely will, you may just not trust them to. And if they actually don’t, then your characters may just be a bit too competent, and perhaps you should consider adding some more flaws or weaknesses. Because if your character never stumbles, never falters, then you may have created a sort of flawless archetype that isn’t actually very interesting to read about.

And yes, this applies if there are “failings” but none of them are the characters fault, though I’ll talk more about this later. For now, however, simply consider that if your character won’t fail or suffer setbacks through their own weaknesses, but only through you as an omnipotent force dropping them in his path, then you likely need to take your character back to the drawing board. Likely … because as always I can think of a few ways to break this rule. But more likely than not, you do need to reevaluate them.

So, these two questions (hopefully) cleared up, let’s get back to when our characters fail. Not letting them, but when they do. Because no matter what kind of story you write, if there’s a try/fail approach to it, our characters are going to fail. That’s an inevitable part of life and part of stories.

Of course, such failure will fall flat if there isn’t meaning behind it. So to clear something up, the failure has to mean something to your character. It can’t just be an arbitrary “Well, that didn’t work” or a sideways glance at a problem that doesn’t really matter. No, when our characters fail, for that failure to have meaning, to have weight, it needs to be at something that they care about.

This will vary based on your character and your story. For example, if you’re writing a teen romance, the lead character may have a goal of dancing with their love interest at a school prom or something, only for them to discover that they have all the dancing talent of a drunk factory worker on tequila two-for-one shots at the local dive bar—that is to say, NONE. Or, if you’re writing an action-political thriller full of spy intrigue and espionage, you may have your character build an elaborate explanation for two suspicious characters connections and motivations, only to have it all fall apart.

Now, both of these are “personal” things, which I cautioned about earlier. They’re the mistakes of the character, personal things that they themselves contribute to or make up. Your characters need to be the reason for the failure, or at least assume proper responsibility for it. Why? Well, because if you push a failure onto a character externally, it stops being their failure and starts being just another obstacle and an inopportune time. For example, the teen romance example above, suppose instead of just being a poor dancer, the reason that they were a poor dancer is that someone had sabotaged one of their shoes to throw them off-balance for the evening? Well, then the failing isn’t their fault once they find out.

Granted, you could still use the first bit of “How could I?” as a failing, at least until they learned that they weren’t responsible. But for a failure to really stick, it has to be arrive at by the character’s choice, fault, or responsibility in some way. Otherwise, it’s not really their failing, but just an obstacle that’s been placed in their path by someone else.

Okay, now for a very important question for some: Why would we do this? Why let our character fail when we could just throw obstacles in their path, or have those failings be the fault of someone else?

The answer is actually pretty straightforward: Character growth. Did you ever learn to ride a bike? Odds are that you probably crashed a few times. Learned some subject matter? Most likely you forgot a few specific points here and there as you struggled to understand it and had to re-establish it. Began writing? You probably pounded your head against a desk more than once when you realized what kind of mistakes you’d made.

But each of these mistakes helped us grow. When we fail, there are a lot of ways to react, from denial to anger to acceptance, plus more … and each one of these helps us learn about ourselves a little and perhaps struggle to become better.

Likewise, so it is with our characters. Our characters make mistakes, mistakes which teach the reader about them. How they choose to react can move the story along, introduce the reader to new lines of thought, or even encourage self-reflection.

But even if they don’t do all those things, a character failing can impart gravitas and weight to the story. It can show the kind of odds and struggles that a character is up against. It can tell us who our character is, or what they’re like when things aren’t going their own way. And if our character tries their best and still doesn’t succeed, what does this say about the force that they’re up against? We’re dipping a bit into why we have the try/fail cycle a bit here, but a character failing can raise the stakes and show how much they’re up against. Which in turn can mean that their struggles lead to that much sweeter of a conclusion if they do succeed.

Okay, so, we put our character through trials and failures that are personally connected to them, be that the action-hero failing to save the day in a battle or the schoolteacher that just isn’t what their classroom needs to get involved. Our character fails to succeed, and then steps back in some way or another to react … now what. Do they have to come back and succeed? Where does that come in?

Well … it may not. Now, I know this is going to sound kitschy,  but bear with me. Sometimes a character doesn’t need to succeed at their failure in order to move forward.

Like I said, it sounds kitschy, but it really isn’t. For example, that teen romance character that can’t dance? They might jump back at the problem by joining a dance group or taking lessons only to learn that they really aren’t a good dancer, because guess what, not everyone is. But along the way, as they struggle with trying and failing to be a dancer, they might learn that while they’re not good at it, they still enjoy it. Or they enjoy the friendships that they’ve made along the way. Or crud, they might stumble onto an entirely new skill that their attempts to dance lead them too.

Here’s the thing: That story might have a pretty nice “happy” ending … even if the character never got what they started out wanting. In the end, they may have still failed at what they were attempting to do, but along the way their goals may have shifted. Or they may have realized that their goals weren’t as important as they thought, and that their failures didn’t have as much weight as they were putting on them. Or crud, maybe that they still need to grow before they tackle them, and while they won’t succeed at overcoming those failures for some time, they can continue forward anyway and eventually, someday, overcome them.

Simply put, there’s a reason the try/fail cycle is called what it is, rather than the try/fail/succeed cycle. Sometimes we don’t succeed in the real world, and that’s a perfectly acceptable thing to have happen in your story. You can have them face challenges, fail to overcome them … and still continue onward. You character will act and react, but that’s still story material. I hesitate to throw out yet another kitschy saying so quickly. but there is truth in the saying that life is about the journey, not the destination. Same is true in stories. So we get to the end and our character didn’t achieve what they set out to do when the story started? As long as they achieved something else of equal, or maybe even greater, value, then there is still some measure of success there, an achievement that you can end things on.

Now at this point, I’ve kind of reached the limits of what I can say and do to guide you, because if I get into any more specifics, then I’m almost answering questions about an individual story. Your characters and your story will determine how and where the rest of things will go. I can’t make those decisions for you.

But remember the general gist of what we went over today. It’s when your characters fail, not when you let them. Let the characters take charge of their own weakness and failings. Don’t push them into being actors, but let them grow naturally to their own mistakes. When they do fail, make sure that it’s a failure that is in some way personally connected with them. As in, somehow their fault or responsibility. Don’t “dump” a failure on them that has little bearing, influence, or personal accountability. That’s just an obstacle. A character’s own choices and abilities not being up to task, or being used improperly, poor choices, etc … These are failures. Then, let the character grow, change, or in some way work to accept, change, or otherwise react to the failure. This will let the character grow, both as a character and to the reader.

Then, last but not least … Your character doesn’t always need to conquer their failures in order to succeed elsewhere. Sometimes learning to cope with failure is a success in and of itself. A character doesn’t need to overcome their own shortcomings in order to succeed elsewhere. Don’t forget this.

So, your characters will fail. It’s a matter of when, not if. Give them the freedom to have it happen. Then see where things go from there.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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