The other day, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and I saw a tweet from a fellow writer in the writing community (or #WritingCommunity). This was the tweet.

Now, if the tweet hasn’t loaded properly into this blog post at the time you’re reading this, it’s from writer Rey Roland using the hashtag @rrowlandwrites and goes like this:

#WritingCommunity do you think that characters have to make mistakes in a story?

I found the question stimulating, so after some back and forth between us, I decided to do a full post on the question (hope you don’t mind, Rey).

So, can and should characters make mistakes? First, let me start with can: yes, characters can make mistakes. In fact, there are plenty of stories where characters make mistakes which become integral to the plot. And yes, characters should on occasion make mistakes, though it depends heavily on the story. A character shouldn’t make a mistake just for the sake of making one when it serves no purpose to the story. Otherwise, the readers will think it’s weird.

Of course, this leads to an even bigger question: is there a benefit to having characters make mistakes? Actually, there are multiple benefits to having a character who makes mistakes.

For one thing, characters who make mistakes are easier to empathize with. Not to say characters incapable of making mistakes can’t be empathized with, but it does make a character more human and easier to identify with for the audience. The possibility of a reader continuing with a story can depend greatly on their connection to the protagonist, so showing them as being like the reader–more human–can be an advantage.

Edmund Pevensie’s mistake was a major driver of the story.

Another reason to have characters make mistakes is that it can help the story along or add to its complexity. Sometimes, it’s even the catalyst of the story. In The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Edmund makes the mistake of falling under the White Witch’s spell, and betraying his siblings adding both an extra dilemma to an already difficult situation and giving the character a redemption arc during the story. And in the manga Death Note, Light Yagami tries to eliminate suspicion of himself as the murderer Kira by killing the FBI agent following him, as well as the other FBI agents following other suspects. However, this eventually just leads to him becoming a prime suspect again, a problem which lasts the rest of the series.

Of course, it isn’t just protagonists who make major mistakes. Minor characters make mistakes all the time, and they often benefit the plot significantly. In Ania Ahlborn’s novel The Devil Crept In, the protagonist’s mother makes the mistake of not treating her son’s obvious mental issues, which has major consequences before, during and after the story. And in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Cho Chang’s best friend Marietta Edgecombe tells Umbridge about Dumbledore’s Army, leading to the organization’s dissolution, Dumbledore’s exile and Umbridge’s assent at Hogwarts, and boils to appear on her face in the shape of the word “SNEAK.”

And villains make mistakes all the time. Often, that’s how their downfall begins. Often, these mistakes are due to the villains’ pride, ignorance, or some other character flaw. Voldemort doesn’t believe anyone will find his Horcruxes; Bane talks too much and doesn’t watch his six; Annie Wilkes is so obsessed with her Misery Chastain novels, she falls for Paul Sheldon’s trick; the White Witch doesn’t read the instructions carefully and misses the deeper magic in the Stone Table; Kaecilius also doesn’t read the instructions and misses what actually happens when you join Dormammu’s dimension; and the Wicked Witch allows water in her castle for some reason, even though she has a serious water allergy (I guess the book version thought Dorothy would never think to use water against her?).

As you can see from the above, not only can and should characters be able to make mistakes, but there are numerous benefits to doing so. Whether to include one or not depends on the author, character(s), and story in question. However, if an opportunity comes up and you think it’ll ultimately benefit the plot, I say do it. Who knows? It could be a major turning point in the story, and the moment readers talk about for years to come.

I hope you found this post edifying, my Followers of Fear. I had fun writing it. And I hope Rey Rowland (whose Twitter page you can find here) enjoys reading this. Thanks for the mental stimulation.

That’s all for now. I’ll check in with you all very soon, I’m sure. So, until next time, stay safe, pleasant nightmares, and DON’T TAKE THAT ACTION! IT’S THE KIND OF MISTAKE THAT’LL LAND YOU IN A HORROR STORY! AND NOT ONE WRITTEN BY ME.

Comments
  1. I agree. Let the characters make mistakes. They’ll learn and grow. (Or regret and get caught.) Haha, love your sign-off.:-)

  2. Excellent points! I agree with them all and you used some great examples, too!

  3. You wrote, “Wicked Witch allows water in her castle for some reason, even though she has a serious water allergy.” Yes! I never understood why she had water there. If you know something is going to kill you, why have it so accessible? LOL

    You made excellent points, esp. about not just throwing in a mistake for any old reason. I think sometimes authors are tempted to do that for “conflict”, but it’s not something that helps the story out.

    • L. Frank Baum never explained the water thing either beyond a few vague references to her evil “drying her out.” It’s confused readers and scholars to this day.

      What’s really crazy are the things you don’t realize are mistakes because they start the story. For example, plenty of horror stories start off innocent enough, but then turn deadly when the characters realize they’ve walked right into an unexpected patch of Hell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s