We’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