Letting characters fail
The basis of a character arc is change. By letting characters fail, you will force them to move forward in their arc. If they never lose, they will never learn.
Creating Character Arcs
This is from the Pixar’s Inside Out. If you haven’t seen this movie, watch it with your notebook in your hand. It is a perfect example of contemporary plot structure.
The typical character arc has six steps
- Mistaken belief- Joy believes that Riley always needs to be happy
- Belief this tested- Sadness turns a core memory from happy to sad
- New information- Joy sees Sadness help Bing bong feel better
- New belief is tested- At the pipe, Joy begins by trying to get them both back to headquarters, but when she realizes Sadness will change the core memories, she drives Sadness away
- Second new information- Joy learns Riley’s happiest memory started sad
- New belief- Joy understands that sadness and grief are important to healing
In this model the character fails twice.
Why is two the magic number?
It isn’t. Read a dozen books, the number will vary. Notice how many times a character fails and then notice your reaction.
1 failure= change was too easy= reader dissatisfaction
5+= does this guy ever learn?= reader annoyance.
This number only includes failures that are part of the character arc. This does not include the subplots or the inciting incident. Why? Usually, the failure at the inciting incident was not a result of planning. It is an involuntary, desperate response. Readers expect the character to fail here. Otherwise, the story would never happen. It also does not include subplots because these are wild cards. Do you keep an eye on how many times your character fails in the subplots because your reader is still counting.
Failure is progress
Effective failure causes self-reflection. Failure needs to be a result of the character’s flaw, otherwise, the antagonistic forces will seem random. This will also take away character agency. If the character’s failure is not the result of his flaw then he cannot overcome those obstacles through personal growth. The NaNoWriMo hint of adding zombies or blowing something up may add to your wordcount, but it won’t help your story make meaningful progress. Readers like characters who cause their own problems. Characters need to have agency in their own stories.
When your character fails it needs to cause him to reflect on his personal flaw. Your character will recognize a disparity between his view of the world and reality. At first, he will not understand why these two are not in sync. As he learns new information, he will begin to change his view to match reality.
A character who never fails is a character who never learns
Effective character arcs are based in failure. This failure becomes the driving force behind the character’s transformation, making their arcs dynamic and more interesting. When your characters lose, your readers win.