Failure is Dramatic
by Jason Black
I've heard lots of writers and writing experts preach the gospel of failure—that is, letting your characters fail at their endeavors—saying it creates drama. There are many reasons why, but the best ones relate to what failure teaches readers about your characters.
“Never tell me the odds” – Han Solo
The first reason failure is dramatic is that it reduces a character's chances of success. This only makes sense: any normal person, not acting under the influence of plot motivation, is going to attack a problem in whatever way seems to them most likely to succeed. Their Plan A is whatever they think is going to be the best, simplest way of overcoming a challenge. It's the plan about which both the character and the reader alike are most confident. If that plan succeeds, well, that's not much of a surprise, and it's not very dramatic.
But if Plan A fails, the character is left with Plan B. Whatever Plan B is, it is by definition more difficult and less likely to succeed. If it was better, it would have been Plan A to begin with. Characters and readers alike will have less confidence in its success. Drama rises in exact opposition to confidence. So with confidence down, drama is up. And what if Plan B fails, as do plans C and D and E? Now the character is grasping at straws, trying anything they can think of no matter how improbable. Drama is way up, and perhaps high enough that it’s time to reach the book's climax and see whether the character ultimately succeeds or fails.
“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want” – The Spice Girls
Still, having a plan demands first that your character have a goal. What are they after? Why does it matter to them? I see so many first-time novelists fall down right here. Their characters drift along through the story without a central goal to drive them forward. They may be doing things from scene to scene, but the things they're doing aren't motivated by any cohesive plan that persists across the scenes. They have small-scale scene goals, but no overarching story goal.
Such characters are difficult for readers to sympathize with. A reader's sympathy for the character comes largely from what we believe is important to the character, which is in turn demonstrated through the goals the character chooses to pursue. With no goals, readers have nothing to attach their sympathy to.
But give a character good goals, and they become likeable. Even an otherwise unlikeable dark hero earns readers' sympathy by pursuing goals we can relate to. This is good, as readers generally don't want to spend hours in the company of someone they don't like.
For example, Martin Q. Blank from the 1997 movie Grosse Point Blank is a hit-man. Not someone easy to sympathize with. But in the movie, his goal is not to kill anybody, but to re-connect with people from his life who he has fallen away from. That goal is very easy to sympathize with. We've all had friends who have fallen by the wayside, or the one that got away who we wish we had another chance with. Martin Blank's goal tells us that, career choices aside, he wants what we all want: the good company of others. Instant sympathy, even for an assassin.
“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth
So the character has to have a relatable goal, and it's good if their plans get foiled several times along the way. But why? Because of the third piece: the goal is what sympathizes the character, but it's the character's dogged pursuit of that goal that tells us what kind of a person they are. It's not enough to simply like the character. We also want to know that this character has the courage of his convictions, that he won't quit simply because the job isn't easy.
To me, one of the most memorable scenes from the 1982 bio-pic Gandhi is when, as a young lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi held a rally to burn identity cards in protest against the apartheid government. He tries to put his own card in the flames, and the police beat him down with a baton. He rises to try again. They strike him again. He tries a third time, and a fourth, with the same results. I don't remember if he ever got that identity card into the fire. What stuck with me was his conviction. In seeing him relentlessly pursue that small, symbolic gesture even against such direct personal violence, I knew this was a character who would stop at nothing in his pursuit of justice and equality.
That determination is what elevates characters from sympathetic to admirable, and enables us to root for them. When we see characters try and try again, even in the face of repeated failure, that's what tells us just how much they want—no, need—to achieve their goals. A character whose goal we approve of, who never gives up, is someone we can both like and cheer on. That's the combination that makes readers love the character and deeply care how the novel turns out.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com