The Worth of Failure

Not too long ago I picked up a new book in a genre I really enjoy. I sat down and dove in, expecting a tense, exciting read. The story was a new twist on a familiar scenario, from a unique enough perspective to catch my attention. But within a few chapters I felt disappointment. The book lacked the gut-wrenching tension I had hoped for. Why? Because the author never allowed the characters to fail. There were no try/fail cycles.

I’ve been told by a few people that I’m “too hard on” or “too mean to” my characters. Perhaps I am. I don’t expect other writers to put their characters through the degree of torture and torment to which I subjected Tristan Sergey in GANWOLD’S CHILD and ECHOES OF ISSEL, or Akuleh Masou in RUNNING FROM THE GODS, but I did want to watch these characters exert their brains and brawn, to see how they would work their way out of their situations, to truly earn by sweat–and maybe a little blood–their eventual victory. Yes, the characters faced setbacks through the story, but even those were resolved too quickly and far too easily, often by the influence or actions of others rather than by their own efforts and creative thinking. I wanted to pull for those characters, to urge them on through their trials and challenges, but I never got the chance. Time after time the difficulties ended before they’d barely begun.

I know that authors sometimes find it hard to pick on their characters. They become like our children in many ways, and mother instinct often urges us to blanket them in cotton and bubble wrap. But we can’t do that to real children, and we shouldn’t do it to our fictional ones either.

Like the loving God who gave us our freedom of choice–and doubtless groans and winces and weeps at how often we fall or fail as a result of how we choose to use that freedom–we must also step back and allow our characters to face not only the consequences of their actions, but also the hurts and injustices imposed by others. We do it knowing, just as in real life, that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

Failure is part of life. It’s one of our greatest opportunities for growth and gaining insight and knowledge, if we allow it to be. We gain strength from picking ourselves up time after time, dusting ourselves off, and pressing on–with course corrections. Likewise, failure is an essential aspect of a strong story. It proves our characters’ mettle, makes us root for them, and–perhaps most important–ratchets up the tension to the story’s climax.

A couple of years ago I attended a writing workshop called Million Dollar Outlines, taught by NYT bestselling author David Farland. One of the first things he discussed was story structure, including the necessity of at least three try/fail cycles for each major character’s storyline. The character’s first attempt to solve her problem may be small and simple, but its failure must exacerbate her situation, making her second attempt and its outcome more crucial, and increasing the stakes for both character and reader. If you don’t have the opportunity to attend one of Dave’s workshops in person, his text for Million Dollar Outlines is now available on Kindle and Nook. I highly recommend it. You can buy it here:

Just as toddlers fall down and get up, and finally learn after many bumps and occasional bruises how to run, our characters must also be allowed to fall down and get up, over and over again. Please, please don’t wrap them in cotton! Instead, hand them whatever weapons may be available in their world, then step back, grit your teeth, and allow them to fight their way out of the conflict you’ve dropped them into. They’ll end up stronger for it, and your readers won’t be disappointed.


About diannread

I'm a 23-year USAF veteran, wife of a NASA rocket scientist and martial artist, "mom" of four crazy cats, and author of military science fiction and YA military space fantasy. Yep, it's a wild ride! Dare to get aboard?
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6 Responses to The Worth of Failure

  1. benschwensch says:

    GREAT post on why conflict is necessary—thanks for the reminders! Every writer—whether beginner or pro—needs to know this, be reminded of it, and ACT accordingly!

    • diannread says:

      Thanks, Brenda. The author of the book I referred to is new at this. It was published by a small press. I’m going to recommend that they get and read Dave’s book.

  2. Love this. My problem is my hubby hates all the conflict. I keep reminding him that if we get to the point in the book where all the problems are mostly over, it’s the end of the book. lol

  3. Amen. This is usually the difference between a “Mary Sue” character and a well-handled author insertion. Mary Sue doesn’t get try fail cycles. Real characters do (even if they are based on the author, or the author’s spouse, or the author’s best friend.)

  4. “But we can’t do that to real children, and we shouldn’t do it to our fictional ones either.” Well said! I totally agree with this post.

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