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Monday, October 5, 2009

Owning Up To Your Mistakes

Okay, not really your mistakes. But those your characters make. By the end of the novel, do they need to own up to their mistakes?

As authors, we want to create characters that grip the hearts of our readers. This means that we put them through horrible things. We make them choose things that some might see as "wrong" or that could be illegal. We do this to show them as 3-dimensional, real people.

All these bad things your characters go through is good. The bad choices they make are even better. I mean, the more layers your characters have, the more levels on which your readers can find a connection. (I mean, come on. How many of us have made bad decisions? Go on, raise your hands. Yeah, me too.) Those are the characters we identify with, the ones we love--the ones who are imperfect yet lovable.

Because that's how real people are.

So back to the question at hand. At the end of the story, does the character have to own up to the things they've done wrong?

My advice: Make it authentic. If a punishment is necessary for character growth and plot development, then yes. Absolutely make your character go through that ring of fire and brimstone. Give them emotional consequences. Real-world consequences. Allow them to grow. And allow us to experience all of that with them.

Now, that doesn't mean that every little infraction they've committed has to be brought to light. In real life, people get away with things all the time. I do believe, however, that if you bring your characters to the fire--and then pull them through it--your readers will identify more strongly with them. Think about it. Who wants to read about someone who gets away with everything? Never has to pay for a mistake? Go on. Raise your hands now. Mine's not up, because I'd rather experience the growth of a character that comes from learning the hard way.

Creating memorable characters is essential in good fiction writing. If you make them pay for the (major) things they've done wrong, they'll be richer, deeper, unforgettable. So go on! Make them suffer, just a little bit more.



Richard said...

Good call. We need to see them suffer, but that doesn't mean that everything has to be resolved. That rarely happens in "real life" the storybook ending, everything wrapped up in a bow. BUT then again, fiction is exactly that...fiction. We LIKE to see the "bad guys" get their punishment, we like to feel good walking away from a novel. Sometimes we are vindicated, sometimes we are sobbing, but some sort of catharsis, redemption should be in order.

I'm rambling, but for example THE ROAD. Many see that as one of the most depressing stories ever. I thought it was SAD for sure, but in the end, I felt empowered, that this boy was prepared, his dad giving him every bit of knowledge that he had. I may or may not have cried a bit, but it was a powerful and for ME, fulfilling ending.

Neo-noir fiction

Nisa said...

Wonderful post! As characters own their mistakes, too, they become even more likable.

Tere Kirkland said...

I think that a "bad guy" who owns up to his mistakes can be made sympathetic despite doing despicable things. But the trick is that redemption usually comes at the end of a novel, so there must be other reasons to sympathize with the character from the start.

All characters, whether good or not-so-good, need to learn something from their mistakes (especially since those mistakes are usually a device on the part of the author to advance the plot. ;)). When the story is wrapped up neatly at the end, including the character's remorse or growth, it makes for a more satisfying ending for me.

Scott said...

I'm a firm believer that every action has a reaction. I try to make this point shine through with the characters I write about. Sometimes, even the simplest choice can have a catastrophic impact.

So, my characters experience the highs/lows of life and, for the most part, learn from their mistakes.

I'm also with Richard that not "everything has to be resolved". The major issues - yes. The middling issues - maybe. The really minor ways - a bit of yes and no.

I have one WiP that is devoted to a horrible secret that would impact and devastate so many lives. The MC (not the person the secret is about, btw) is trying their best to stop the secret from coming out because of the devastating consequences.

Now, does that mean the person who did the horrible thing, and the person that aided in that horrible thing, get's off Scott free (hey, always wanted to use that in a sentence - woo-hoo)? No. I show the suffering of those characters as the story progresses from beginning to end. There is a price to pay, but sometimes the price isn't visible to everybody. Sometimes, the price is truly internal.

Great post!


scott g.f.bailey said...

At the end of the story, does the character have to own up to the things they've done wrong?

No. Firstly, because not all stories work that way. Secondly, because sometimes dramatic irony has a stronger affect on readers than does the playing out of cause-and-effect with characters. Thirdly, because sometimes, the point of the story is exactly that someone has gotten away with something. You talk about real-world consequences, but sometimes in the real world, bad guys win, good deads go unrewarded and bad acts go unpunished. All of this is as true to life as the sort of morality play you're discussing. But maybe, because I don't write YA/MG fiction, I'm on a different playing field?

Rebecca Knight said...

I agree with Scott Bailey :). I think sometimes the point of the story is that the character has made a mistake that no one knows about and has to live w/ the consequences.

However, it's to Elana's point that there might be emotional consequences, be it for the character who got away with it, or the people who are affected.

Janna Qualman said...

Excellent! This was a great and timely follow-up to the post I had Friday. Thank you!

Paul West said...

Great post. Things we need to remember.

I pull my MC in my novel through literary hell, and he almost makes a mistake that could ruin his life forever.

Thanks for the reminder lesson.

Sarah Jensen said...

Great post. I'm really working on inking out my characters right now. This will help.

Lady Glamis said...

Excellent thoughts, Elana! I've been dealing with this in Monarch for awhile, and I'm finally realizing what needs to happen.

Love the new look of the blog. :)

Jemi Fraser said...

Terrific post, Elana! Characters have to be believable to be likable, and that means they've gotta pay when they mess up. I find it hard to put my sympathy on hold for them at times, but I make myself do it :)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

i think it was b/c i didn't resolve everything miraculously by the end of the book that got an editor's attention at the conference i just went to. sometimes, esp. dealing with mental illness...you've got to stay true to reality!!

and for those who need to know on this blog:

I wanted to let you know about my blog address change. *sigh* If you're following me, my posts now won't show up in your feed, dashboard, sidebar, whatever. So please forgive me, but you'll have to change the address for my main writing blog, Where Romance Meets Therapy, to http://jeanniecampbell.blogspot.com. To do this, you have to "unfollow" me and follow me again. Sorry for the confusion!

The Character Therapist

Jill Edmondson said...

I agree with what you have said about making them honest and authentic. Moral slips, errors in judgement make a character readers can believe in and commit to.

What I have done ith my main character is make her question her motivations and choices all along. She recognizes upfront when she is bending the rules and tempting fate.

Cheers, Jill

writer said...

I'm bookmarking this post. I'm not sure if the MC in my current WIP makes enough wrong decisions. This definitely gives me something to think about. Thanks!