As writers, we tend to love our characters. We’ve created them, after all, and we don’t like to see bad things happen to them.
I’ve been working on a YA superhero novel recently that focuses equally on the personal life of the hero as his crime-fighting exploits, and, during the writing process, I ran across an issue that something just seemed….off. At first, I couldn’t place it, but then I realized that I had a basic problem that many early writers face:
I had removed any sort of stakes or suspense from the story by making things too easy for my characters.
Basically, I didn’t let them fail.
The main character succeeded at everything he did. This was mainly seen in his personal life, where he always said the right thing at the right time, and events always seemed to work out in his favor.
Now, not only is this unrealistic, but it is also quite uninteresting. No one wants to read about a character who does nothing but succeed. (Conversely, characters whoÂ onlyÂ fail are just as boring). I decided I had to address this issue, and did so by making things a little bit harder on my main character.
By making your characters fail, you can build on their characterization and expand their personalities. You can really see what a person is like when they fail, based on their reaction. You can tell how important something is to them.
To take a small example from my novel: The main character wants to ask a girl to the school dance. Getting the courage to ask her is a major part of his emotional development in the first act of the plot. However, when he finally screws up the courage to ask her, he finds that she’s already said yes to someone else. He’s disappointed, and the moment allows for character growth and study.
This method also allows you to utilize the “Yes, but” technique. For instance, “yes, they fail, but…” or “yes, they succeed, but…” Either of these little twists will instantly add more depth to a plot. For instance, the main character, we’ll call him “Pete”, asks this girl to the dance. No, she can’t go with him, BUT…I won’t give away the “but” because that would spoil part of the plot.
Anyway, all this to say, if you want to see your characters grow, if you want to see your plot develop, you have to let them fail. You have to let them give something their all…and then not succeed. Because it is then that you can grow your characters and advance your plot.