Friday, November 14, 2014

How and Why to Make Your Characters Fail

Make characters fail in writing
It's Dan today, and I want to talk about failure in fiction. I don't mean failure on the author's part -- failure to finish a book, make it good, get an agent, get a book deal -- we all know those failures pretty well. I'm talking about when characters try to accomplish something and don't succeed.

I wrote a short story recently about a con man in a secondary (fantasy) world. Kind of like Ocean's Eleven in King Arthur's court. He was witty, charming, devious -- everything that your ideal con man should be. I wrote up one of his heists as a flash piece, and sent it to my online workshop. A few of of my fellow writers remarked that while this guy made for a strong character, he was too strong. There wasn't a problem I threw at him that he couldn't handle. 

I loved that about my character, but it was also a problem, because there was no drama. I'd forgotten Pixar's first rule of storytelling:

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

It's the opposite of a character that's too flawed: a character that's not flawed at all. Basically, I needed my character to fail at something.

Having my characters try and fail doesn't come naturally, at least not yet. Maybe that's because (like many writers), I often base my characters on romanticized versions of real people. More capable and more successful = better, right? 

Then I started thinking about The Incredibles, one of my favorite Pixar movies. It's about a family of superheroes, all of whom were pretty much born awesome. The problem is that their purpose isn't to fight crime and stuff, it's to re-integrate themselves as normal members of society. Which, as superhero-type people, they really have trouble doing. I won't ruin the movie for you, but I'll say that when they achieve their goals at the end of the movie, I appreciate it much more, because I saw how hard it was for them. 

And that's why I'm trying to make my characters fail more than they succeed. What about you? Do you have trouble having your characters fail at things?

Caitlin This is definitely a problem I continue to struggle with. The MC of my first completed novel is telekinetic and can remote view. Great, right! But my writers group pointed out that she could deftly handle anything I threw at her. Like you, Dan, I thought at first, yeah, isn't she great! But I realized it made for a pretty boring novel. I gave her powers some challenges (she loses her vision when she uses telekinesis and grows weak when she remote views) and also increased some challenges within her personality to make her struggle more. It was hard, at first, but ultimately I like her as a character even more now that she fails at things (and certainly relate to her better!).

Lisa: What an interesting post. I can't say that I've conciously had my characters fail to make them more realistic or relatable. I've had them fail for the sake of the plot, etc., but thanks to you I'm going to consider those things more. Because you're totally right - if they continue being successful, then there's less tension, less will he or won't he...succeed. We can also relate to someone who doesn't do things perfectly every time. Afterall, we're only human. Thanks for this, Dan.

Karlie: Sometimes I worry my characters fail too much. I tend to hurt the ones I love the most (Lisa can probably relate to this, *cough White Star cough*). But sometimes I get lazy - it would be so much easier to just give them their way this time, instead of writing out the whole process of everything going wrong and back again. However, I usually end up going back and redoing it anyway - so I might as well go ahead and go the extra mile the first time around. Great post, Dan!

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