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.

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Being a Better Writer: The Try/Fail Cycle and the Evolving Story

Sorry for the late post, guys. E3 stole some of my attention.

So, stop me if you’ve read this one before.

Hero enters the villain’s lair/stronghold/fortress/secret base/cave/space station. Hero immediately faces down a group of mooks.

Hero effortlessly defeats said mooks. Only to face down a trap. Hero also effortlessly defeats said trap—possibly before the trap can even spring. Hero continues forward, facing traps, mooks, plot twists, and minibosses, defeating each one in turn, without difficulty, before reaching the villain and the final confrontation. Hero emerges supreme and returns home victorious.

Now, I ask you … if you were reading that story, about how far into that “climactic” series of events would you get before coming to the conclusion that no matter what, the hero is going to emerge victorious every time? Granted, this was a pretty threadbare example, because I didn’t go into a lot of detail, but how many stories like that have we all read? A story where the hero goes into situation after situation, and by about halfway (or a quarter) into the book, we can already see exactly what’s going to happen because the hero always wins?

Now, I’m going to preface things with a caveat here: We know that the hero is going to win. Usually. 95% of the time, it’s a safe bet that the hero will emerge victorious in some fashion or another. But on the journey there? A hero who simply crushes all in their path doesn’t really make for an entertaining read because the reader always knows what is going to happen. If your hero fights mook after mook, takes down trap after trap, and comes out on top every time, well, even if your action is written in an incredibly well-done manner, you’re still going to start running into readers who just start skipping over things. Why?

Because they’ve gotten bored. Because the book becomes going to a sports match where the players and the audience already know who is going to win. It get predictable. The action loses its tension. A great fight simply becomes not so great because the reader already knows who is going to win: the hero.

Again, we accept that most of the time we assume this about the ending, but why would it matter during the story? The answer? Narrative tension.

Which is why today we’re going to talk about two things: the try/fail cycle, and the evolving story.

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