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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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*This post first appeared January 2013. Mooderino is on break. New posts in the New Year.