Monday, May 4, 2009

The Importance of Failure

This kind of comes in response to Rocket Scientist's blog about vulnerabilities in characters. She discusses how characters without flaws are not as compelling--or as interesting--as characters who show weakness of some kind. 

It's also important for characters to lose. I'll use my husband as an example. He becomes a fan of various teams at different times, but, except for his third-generation love of the USC Trojans, he's pretty fair-minded. If a team wins too much, he gets to the point where he wants someone else to win. I can't tell you how many times he's switched sides, rooting for unknowns up against the established power. For example, he loved Tiger Woods when he first came on the scene, but now he tends to watch golf more intently when someone else is really doing well and is likely to beat Tiger Woods. (And, yes, my husband watches golf, and I appreciate your sympathy.)

But my husband is not alone in his desire to see people defeated sometimes. A work of fiction (whether book or film) becomes far less interesting if everyone we like wins every time. That is part of the appeal of the film Star Trek II. Spock died. It was horrible, it was beautiful, it was poignant, it was brilliant. But the impact was lessened when the third movie came out and he came back to life (it also wasn't a great movie). 

Sometimes people we love die. Sometimes great characters don't win, or at least don't win the first time around (or the second, or the third), but this failure makes the final victory all the more meaningful because it was hard-won. 

So, as Rocket Scientist suggests, make your characters vulnerable. And as I suggest, make them fail sometimes. Your readers will love them all the more for such weaknesses. 


  1. Agreed. Failure is often necessary. A smooth talker who can't convince someone of something. A tough fighter who has to flee and engagement or die. A clever planner who finds himself outmaneuvered.

    All of these things can do a great deal to make a good character more approachable, appealing.

    As long as you don't take it too far. Always failing, always losing can be just as unsatisfying as never failing.

  2. Not to mention frustrating as heck!

  3. But who would want that? How pathetic...

    Especially if a reader feels as if that's the life she is actually living. It would be nice, at least to escape utter failure while reading.

  4. I've seen it though, with characters that fail and fail some more. It doesn't take long to get wearisome.

  5. I can understand your husband's point of view so well! I tend not to cheer for teams or players who always, always win and who are expected by everyone to win. How boring! (And it's exactly why I don't like Tiger Woods either.) (Which is entirely unconnected with the fact that I think golf is the most boring game ever invented.)

    To stay with the sports theme, though -- my original home city (Calgary, Alberta) tends always to lose to its northern neighbour, Edmonton. That city, at least for many years, just won everything, and Calgary always lost to them. It was very frustrating. And YET. On the few times when Calgary does beat Edmonton, and even go on to win a championship -- how glorious it is, how thrilling, how appreciated! Whereas Edmonton fans were all, "Well, of course our team won, duh." They didn't seem to enjoy it nearly so much.

    I decided that frustrating as it was, I much preferred standing in a Calgarian's shoes than an Edmontonian's.

    Um. Yes. So that would apply to fictional characters too, as you say. :-)

  6. Agreed, Phyl. Infinitely more exciting if it doesn't happen all the time.