Don’t Go In There!

greendoor1amp8We’ve all made mistakes, and in the same way, our characters will, too. How we handle these mistakes, however, will dramatically impact our readers. My favorite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, did a cast on this issue in November of last year, and they made some good points. I highly recommend hopping over there and taking a listen.

I’ll weigh in on the subject, mention a few things they mention, and a few things they don’t.

It’s important to remember two things about characters making bad choices. The first is that everyone makes mistakes, and these mistakes can humanize our characters. They can solidify them as real people. The second thing to remember is that their bad choices must be justified. If they do stupid things only to keep the plot moving forward, readers become very irritated. They can smell plot gimmicks a mile away (because they’ve already seen the same thing done a million times). Because of this, it’s our jobs as writers to find the opportunities for our heroes to make bad choices and have to deal with the consequences.

There are two common shapes stories about mistakes can take. The first is the shadowy past. A character has made a questionable decision before the opening of the story/novel, and is now dealing with the fallout its created. He or she must learn to overcome their past and move forward, or must fix whatever mess he or she has created for everyone around them. The second is the critical mistake made throughout the course of the story. This often will lead from Act I to Act II, or Act II to Act III. I’m thinking of The Crucible here. In Arthur Miller’s classic play (also adapted to film), he creates a character that never lies. It is well established that Elizabeth Proctor has never said an untrue word in her life. Yet, when her husband’s reputation, perhaps his very life is on the line, she tells her first lie—to save her husband. Of course, her lie inadvertently causes the death of her husband (and several others by extension). If she had told the truth when she should have, the whole tow could have been saved. Instead, her single mistake culminates in a tragically beautiful ending. Likewise, her husband, John, made a mistake before the opening of the play. In a sense, The Crucible is a great example of both shapes used together.

Bottom line: allow your characters to do dumb things, just make sure that the reader understands why they’re making that choice. It must be a believable choice, no matter how bad the consequences might be. LOST does a good job of this. Through the use of flashbacks, they show snippets of past events in the characters’ lives. As the story in the present progresses, the character is faced with a choice very similar to the choice they made in the flashback. However, now, they make a different choice, or they make the same choice, but we know why they make it. The flashbacks are used to great effect in this way (at least in season one. We won’t talk about the subsequent seasons).

Until next week, good writing

Aaron D. Gansky

15 thoughts on “Don’t Go In There!”

  • Mistakes are an essential part of character development. Nobody wants to read a story with a perfect hero/heroine that never messes up, never shows his or her flaws, and never owns up for the stupid things that happen because of a choice he or she made. We’ve all seen those and let’s face it— they’re boring. Why did your character make that choice, and what happens because of it? Think about that for a long, hard moment. Everything has consequences, otherwise the story is typically a flop. Allow your dear characters to make poor choices.They will grow from it, and so will you as a writer.

  • Most characters do mistakes and they have to pay the price for whatever they did. People think that heroes do the right thing all the time, but sometimes they do the wrong thing and some people get hurt over the things. If your character decides to do the wrong thing sometimes you can’t fix what they did. Everything your character does has consequences for those actions. Sometime you need to let your character make poor choices and see what happens to them. As a writer let your character do the wrong thing and maybe they will learn and never do that particular thing again in their life.

  • Some of the characters make mistakes and get away with it but others have to pay for their mistakes. people think that the heroes do the right thing and the the bad guys can’t do anything nice. if someones character is deciding to do something wrong the shoud fix there mistakes and instead do something nice for everyone.

  • Mistakes are what make a character human (or whatever the character is alien, cow, sea monster). Mistakes are all fine and dandy until a writer gets carried away with the mistakes and then they ruin a character. The whole point of a mistake(s) is to let the character grow and fix the mistake or not make the same one twice. But are mistakes really they fun to read about, or write about for that matter? Who enjoys reading someone fail? I certainly don’t, though I see how it carries a story. I don’t think a story should be based of the mistakes of a character though. Sure its tied into the plot but it shouldn’t make the plot. Even in The Crucible where the whole town makes mistakes, where the plot was irrevocably twisted with the mistakes, without other aspects the story would have been so boring. No really sure where I’m going with this…
    Oh! also a few silly mistakes can add comic relief… but I still don’t think the mistakes are the important art of the story, the journey the character takes to fix the mistakes is the important part.

  • All characters should make mistakes. There’s no fun in it if the character is completely perfect. The characters should make mistakes, and later on learn from the mistakes that they have made. The character needs to grow and gain knowledge.

  • Everyone makes mistakes. It’s part of life. To make our characters more realistic they should make mistakes. the character should be able to learn and move forward or they can keep making the same mistakes and lose everything. Mistakes are obstacles that people should overcome.

  • Nobody wants to read a book about someone who has no real issues or somebody who constantly makes the easy decision. But then again- if all a character does is make bad decision after bad decision and they never grow from their mistakes or nothing ever improves, and we’re just reading about the character’s life spiraling downward, that’s not very intriguing either.

  • umm..Everyone makes mistakes were all human. It would be very weird and wouldnt make any sense, for the writer of a story (who is human) to write about characters without flaws. Thats not even the real world and as I have always been taught the reader must somehow be able to relate to the character or the story as a whole or some kind of conection that makes the story seem real and beleivable. On top of all that, “you cant have a story without conflict”.

  • All characters should make mistakes. There’s no fun in it if the character is completely perfect. The characters should make mistakes, and later on learn from the mistakes that they have made. The character needs to grow and gain knowledge throughout the story. They should also become way different at the end of the story from what they originally were in the beginning of the story.

  • well…………characters make mistakes, and they should, but some of the mistakes or bad choices can irritate the reader. like, i was reading this book where this girl wanted to do things, but didnt do them because she wanted to act ‘cool’. so it irritated me because i wanted her to do it, but when she didnt, its just like, “WHYYY!?” and so yea (totally specific about what i am talking about here). but i guess it keeps me reading to see if she ends up making the choice, or changing what she said about it. but when she does not do anything about it, i feel like i want to slap her for it. I hate stories like that, yet, i keep reading them. hahas

  • i wouldn’t want to read a book about a character who has no big issues or other charcter who conutines to makes the easy decision. then in the other hand if all of the character does is make bad decision one after other and they never learn from their mistakes or nothing has improved, and we are just reading about the character’s life spiraling down, and that is not very interesting

  • Everyone makes mistakes some bad and some good but i think its the bad mistakes in life that will benifit you in the end.

  • I dont think anybody would want to read about someone who is perfect and never messs up. There is no conflict in that and the story (if any existed) would be bland and boring.

  • WE ALL MAKE MISTAKES!! So should our character. Give them something they regret! They won’t seem so 2 dimensional, flat, and boring. We want someone to sympathize for and relate to, not another miss perfect to hate!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *