Thursday, 3 January 2013

Let Characters Be Wrong



Nobody likes a perfect character. Someone who is super good at everything and gets everything right is annoying. 

Even the most suave secret agents of indestructible superheroes need to make mistakes in order to make the story interesting.  

There are two parts to using wrongness in a story. There’s the actual mistake (which sometimes isn’t known to be a mistake at the time), and there’s the consequences of the mistake, usually forcing the character to deal with powerful feeling of guilt or regret.

The mistake the character makes is more impactful on the reader if we see it happen. In some stories a character may be dealing with something that happened a long time a go. A cop who shot the wrong guy is now a washed up private eye. That sort of backstory is fine, but it won't have real meaning for readers if they don't see it happen.

A mistake in and of itself won’t automatically be fascinating. Like any element of a story, it needs to be interesting. If the guy mentioned above was chasing a thief and shot and missed, killing an innocent bystander, that’s perfectly plausible, but it’s also perfectly dull.

There are many reasons for a mistake beyond an accident, and the more intentional and purposeful it is, i.e. the more the character is responsible for his own actions, the better.

Stupidity
Some characters are just dumb. The useless guy in a gang of robbers or in an army unit. The girl who’s dancing with headphones on while a killer runs round the house stabbing everyone. The kid who never knows what’s going on. These sorts of characters can be very annoying, which is probably why they don’t make for good lead characters (and usually end up dying first).

It can often feel reasonable to attribute a character’s actions to their dumbness, certainly it happens in real life all the time, but you have to be careful not to use it as a convenient excuse for unlikely events. Characters like this are okay in small doses or for comic relief, but nobody wants to follow an idiot around for 300 pages.

Wrong Belief
Sometimes a character can have strongly held but completely mistaken beliefs. It can be a belief in someone or something. The thing about belief is you don’t need proof. Whether it’s a religion or a best friend, you take it for granted that what you believe is true. 

While it’s hard to show that, what you can show is how the character acts because of his or her beliefs.  Showing that belief being tested and how the character stands up for their beliefs establishes their position so that when they do make their mistake later on, we can see their reasons.

Wrong Conclusion
Unlike beliefs, some character have facts at their disposal that lead them to do terrible things. Taking clear, incontrovertible information and then logically coming to a mistaken conclusion is something that happens all the time. However, in order for the reader to be able to follow why the character does what he does, the writer needs to show that logical progression. 

This can lead to long, boring exposition, or it can become very convoluted and hard to follow. But when done properly (and hopefully concisely), it can be very effective. 

Misled
Sometimes a character can intentionally be given misleading information. Being manipulated by others is a powerful narrative device because it gives the character a definite next step and somewhere for them to focus their anger.

You do have to be careful that you give the misleaders a proper reason for wanting to mislead our hero.  Just because they’re the bad guys isn’t going to be enough, they have to have a goal of their own.

Discovery
Once the mistake has been made, at some point the character will need to realise their error. The way they find out can obviously be many and varied, but the important thing is for it to happen in front of the reader. It also helps if other characters are there to witness it, or maybe even profit by it.

The realisation that they were wrong really needs to be the focus. How a character reacts emotionally to this knowledge, whether guilt, remorse , anger or even denial, will set you up for the next stage of the story.

It can be difficult for a writer to put a favourite character through that kind of experience, but it’s the ideal time to really get the boot in. As long as you keep in mind that they will emerge from the ashes stronger than before, you should be able to convince yourself it’s worth the agony you’re putting them through.   

Reaction
It’s not enough to realise the error of your ways, you have to then decide what to do about it. Whatever mistakes the character made, there should be consequences and repercussions, and the character responsible shouldn't shy away from dealing with them. 

Running away and hiding from the world may seem like a reasonable reaction, and it may even suit the personality of your character, but it rarely serves the story. The whole point of putting a character in this position is to show what they do about it and how it changes them. 

A change of heart where we can see the process from beginning to end, why the character thinks one way and what makes them change their mind, is an incredibly powerful narrative device in fiction, and one that requires things to get worse before they get better. But the character that emerges after facing the mistakes they made will be all the more interesting for it.
If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. If you're not on twitter just mention it to someone in the street and tell them to pass it on. Cheers.

26 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My main character is a perfectionist, which makes the mistakes all the better. Most came from wrong beliefs - his view of others and the world skewed by past events.

mooderino said...

@Alex - always entertaining to watch a high fall (if a little wince-inducing).

Donna Hole said...

In the second Sherlock Holmes movie, Holmes makes a terrible miscalculation which results in some dignitaries getting blown up. He's all smug about how he prevented the disaster, then the bomb goes off. His "OMG I made a mistake" reaction was perfect, and mirrored my own as a viewer. Highly effective device to keep the hero humble (somewhat).

......dhole

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

This is a great post. I love flawed characters. For example: some people say Superman is boring. That's true because he's too perfect...too powerful. Characters need weaknesses and wrongs to make them interesting.

mooderino said...

@Donna - hubris is always a nice way to take a character down a peg or two.

@Michael - whenever Superman and Batman face off, Bats always beats him because nobody wants to see Mr Perfect win.

The Golden Eagle said...

I love it when a character makes a mistake. It's interesting to see someone you want to prevail run into a roadblock of their own making.

mooderino said...

@Golden - watching them realise their mistake is always fun.

Margo Berendsen said...

It's helpful to see these broken down into different categories. This is certainly one area in my writing I just pants, without thinking about the specifics of my characters' mistakes. Something I may need to take a closer look at. Tweeting & bookmarking

Louise Gibney said...

Interesting blog post... I am currently in a predicament trying to work out if my horrible character (secondary character) needs to do 'discovery'.... He's a bad 'un!

http://www.misswrite.co.uk/1/post/2012/11/my-next-big-thing.html

Louise

@misswriteuk
www.misswrite.co.uk
www.facebook.com/louise.gibney.writer
www.borntobeatourist.co.uk

Lydia Kang said...

I like flawed characters too, but it's funny when readers are like, "I hated this book because the main character did so many stupid things!" I guess there's a fine line between frustration with characters, and pure annoyance.

Nate Wilson said...

Well put, Moody. Perfection is stupid. And stupid only works for so long. But characters being wrong -- and then overreacting or blindly following their mistaken beliefs -- is the entire basis for my novel. Without that, my story would be dumb as toast. And not nearly as tasty.

mooderino said...

@Margo - I think most writers have an ingrained idea of this already, but useful to go back and check when things aren't quite working.

@Louise - Villains have a great capacity for making themselves believe their mistakes are justified.

@Lydia - You can get away with stupid up to a certain point, but beyond that I think you need to show the mistake as being for a valid reason.

@Nate - Well said. And now I feel like a snack.

nutschell said...

Mistakes definitely make for a more interesting plot. I loved this post and will be tweeting it :)
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@Nutschell - Thank you!

Rachna Chhabria said...

My character is prone to making mistakes, I think that makes him more human. We can identify with him.

mooderino said...

@Rachna - human characters tend to be best, I find. Even when they aren't technically human.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love when characters make mistakes in mysteries, otherwise it'd be solved all too quickly. Mind you, when some of the clues are too obvious and the detective still gets it wrong because it's too early to identify the villain, I do struggle with that (makes the detective seem thick).

Irene said...

Great post!

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - mistakes just for the sake of it tend to be easy to spot (and annoying).

@Irene - thanks!

Laura Diamond said...

Excellent post. It's imperative for characters to have flaws--makes them interesting. I like how you break it down into different categories.

Julie Luek said...

Great post and a big congratulations on your blog recognition. Well earned!

mooderino said...

@Laura - Breaking it down is the easy part. Applying it to the characters in my story is the bit I find hard.

@Julie - Cheers. I didn't even realise I'd won until you mentioned it.

Barry Hoffman said...

I agree completely that characters should be allowed to be wrong. As a matter of fact, in all of my writing whether it for a YA audience or adults my characters all have their flaws. Sometimes they overcome them. Other times it's far more difficult. There's no one right way to create a character. What I often do is start off with the warts of a character and as the book progresses that character works on becoming a better person, or a better cop. In my Shamra Chronicles the main character, Dara, has warts galore. Over the course of the trilogy she confronts them. Some she overcomes. Others (being stubborn and impatient) continue to plague her even though even with these she grows with time. So, yes, create characters with flaws. There are no humans without them and it makes little sense (and it's often boring) to create characters too good to be true.

mooderino said...

@Barry - there aren't many humans without flaws, but quite a few who think they have fewer flaws than everyone else. They're the ones who tend to mike life miserable for the rest of us.

addictivestory said...

What a great post, you're absolutely right. Perfect characters are boring, and we need to make room for flaws. They're what make a story interesting. Epic thoughts!

mooderino said...

@Addictivestory - cheers!

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