Have you ever watched a movie, TV show, or read a book that seemed to grab you? As if an invisible force has you by the nape of your neck, thrusting your nose back into the book every time you would part from it. You’re mesmerized by how the hero, your champion, seemingly weaves and bobs through every obstacle in their way. Their talent, skill, and cunning seem supernatural as they thwart the evil that seeks to destroy them.
But would it surprise you to learn that this is an illusion? It’s shocking, but even the most stalwart of our heroes adventures are based on their own bad decisions. Most of the modern gods we’ve created in our literature and cinema only blunder their way to victory.
In this article, I’m going to show you why that’s a good thing and something you should emulate in your own writing. Over the coming pages, I’m going to give you several examples of stellar fiction that are based on the bungling of their heroes.
From the beginning, it would seem that “The boy who lived” was destined to become an icon of modern fiction, and for good reason. The character is resourceful, intelligent, compassionate, and hopeful. This paints an especially sharp contrast given his treatment by the Dursleys.
It’s because of his rightly defined heroic spirit that audiences, including yours truly, fell in love with him. The books were masterfully written, and we joyed in watching Harry grow up and explore his powers. As an adult reading the books, I can’t help but admit a certain nostalgia for them. Not because I read them as a child; I was already in college when the first book came out. It’s because I could remember meeting each of the faculty of Hogwarts in my own high school.
Minerva McGonagall was my favorite math teacher. Madame Hooch was my P.E. instructor. Mr. Lupin oversaw our computer lab. Mr. Snape was one of my English instructors – my favorite one, oddly enough. And Dumbledore was my actual school principal. Funny how that works out.
Like many of you, I also shared Harry’s pains and tribulations as he struggled against “He who must not be named” and his various minions. I recoiled as Professor Quirrell revealed the horror beneath his turban. I smirked seeing Gilderoy Lockheart hoisted on his own petard in the Chamber of Secrets. I gasped with you as Cedric Diggory’s body lay sprawled on the quidditch field. And I also felt the rush of victory as Voldemort finally got his just desserts.
And yet, all this was based on one mistake. Harry made one blunder that could have resolved the entire conflict without a single loss of life. And what was it?
Harry should have gone to Dumbledore.
That would have been the smartest thing to do, wouldn’t it? If you’re an 11-year-old boy and you discover magic Hitler may have infiltrated your school, what would you do? Not thrust your two best friends into peril and spend the year breaking every school rule to hunt him down. You would recognize that your preteen brain couldn’t sleuth this out, turn over what you know and leave it to more experienced adults.
But then where would the story be? Wrapped up by the end of the first book, probably. Or at least the end of “The Goblet of Fire.” Dumbledore was enough of a wizard to mop up the shell of a man Voldemort had become. I’m certain the Ministry of Magic could excuse one “Havardacadavra” if it meant ending the most powerful dark wizard the world had ever known. Telling the Headmaster would have been the smart thing to do, but then the story couldn’t have happened.
So, what’s the first key to making characters’ bad decisions work for the story?
Key #1: Aptitude
The first key is aptitude. The audience needs to believe that the character can actually do the things he does in the story. Audiences are very willing, eager even, to suspend their disbelief, but you need to give them a reason to do so.
Let’s look at Harry. An ordinary boy, by all accounts. There’s nothing special about him. He even refers to himself as, “just Harry.” But we learn differently, don’t we? Soon we learn that Harry is not only a wizard, but his mother and father were two very accomplished wizards themselves. We also learn that somehow Harry, as a mere baby, stumped the greatest dark wizard the world had ever known. We don’t know how, but somehow “the boy who lived” reduced the terror of the wizarding world to a shadow of his former self.
So, we can completely believe that, even if only in a bumbling way, he could defeat a mountain troll. Or become the youngest seeker in a century. Or best a dragon. Or even defeat Voldemort… again.
But there’s more to making your characters’ bad decisions count than mere guts and guile. Let’s examine another show and see if we can fit a few more pieces together.
Camp Cretaceous is a CGI animated program in the Jurassic Park series. It centers on five kids who were left behind on the island after the events of Jurassic World.
It’s worth watching because it’s far better than it needs to be for the audience it’s aimed at. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old who insist on watching it ad nauseum and, truthfully, I don’t mind. It’s engaging and well written, which is good since I can now quote the entire three seasons almost verbatim. It’s worth checking out if you want a case study in good storytelling and I intend to refer to it in future articles.
To the point of this article, we’ll be studying the story arc of season two today. And, in case you didn’t guess, spoilers abound.
At this point, the kids have spent about a month or so on the island. They manage to activate a distress beacon and help arrives soon after. A husband-and-wife pair of nature photographers, Mitch and Tiff arrive on the island. Hap, Mitch and Tiffs’ guide, is a surly wildcard, but Mitch and Tiff seem friendly, if not also a bit rich and snooty. They offer food, water, some much-missed creature comforts, and promise to help the kids escape. The kids, having explored much more of the island, agreed to show them where all the good dinosaurs are.
But, it’s soon discovered that Mitch and Tiff aren’t who they claim to be. They’re actually poachers who are looking for heads to adorn Mitches mancave. The kids spend the rest of the season in a pitched battle with the hunters to save the dinosaurs on the island from re-extinction.
So, where’s the bad decision here? Poaching is wrong, and surely we can all agree to that. Lying is wrong. Causing the extinction of entire species to decorate your man cave is wrong. So what? Should the kids have gone along with it? Helped the hunters bag their trophies for a ride off the island?
Yes! That’s exactly what they should have done.
Think about it. These nice people are literally offering to kill the things that ate everyone on the island and have been trying to eat you for the last month. On top of that, they are giving you food from their rations, a tent to sleep in, and, if that wasn’t enough, a solar-powered shower. And then you can leave with them at the end of it. Who cares if Mitch wants a T-Rex head above his pool table? It still counts as a win, in my book.
But what about causing the extinction of the dinosaurs?
Do you mean the same dinosaurs who were extinct in the first place? Who people brought back to life through science and the work of minds more talented than most of us can comprehend? The dinosaurs who aren’t really dinosaurs to begin with? Dr. Grant, in Jurassic Park 3, even said,
“What John Hammond created were not dinosaurs. They were genetically engineered theme park monsters.”
By definition, these creatures owe their existence to humanity. We gave the dinosaurs life and we can take it away. And the same science that gave them life before can give them life again. There’s no real loss except for the big, ultra-rich corporation who played God to begin with. And they’re already going to be in the tank after creating not one but two monster filled murder parks.
The kids should have kept their heads down, played along, and got off the island. But then where would the story be?
So, we’re back to the question; What makes our characters’ mistakes so engaging? What’s the secret sauce that makes watching other people fail so intriguing?
Key #2: Motivation
A characters’ motivation must flow from their established traits and worldview. If a character gets violently sick on boats, they won’t suggest a cruise for their next vacation. This doesn’t make sense. They are far more likely to oppose such a suggestion in favor of more land-locked options. Their actions must be consistent from within their own worldview.
What does this mean for the kids?
Darius, the de facto “leader” of the group, feels a special attachment to the dinosaurs. This trip to Jurassic World was going to be the last trip he took with his dying father. Darius wanted to experience these creatures with him. Watching Mitch and Tiff kill them is like watching them kill his own father. If they die, then a piece of Darius dies with them.
Now we see the truth. We can empathize with his decision, even if it doesn’t make much logical sense. We understand that it has nothing to do with the dinosaurs at all. It’s about Darius dealing with the death of his father.
But there’s one more thing that we need to make a characters’ poor decisions work for us. Let’s explore the final piece by delving into one of my favorite shows of all time.
The Walking Dead
I’ll try not to go into too many tangents here, but you may need to forgive me if I nerd out a little. This show is fantastic and even the worst episodes are excellent case studies in great storytelling. As a testament, the show has jumped the shark more times than I care to count and keeps ticking. The program is starting to show its age, but it’s still full of delicious tension and drama. Much of this tension and drama is due to the bad decisions of some of the characters. Let’s look at a few of those now.
But first, a brief primer on the show for the uninitiated. The world is overrun by zombies, which the characters call “walkers”. The show focuses on a ragtag group of survivors and their desperate attempts to stay alive in this horrifying new world. And that’s it. Simple in concept, deep in execution.
My examples come from the actions of the primary character through most of the series, Rick Grimes. Before the zombiepocalypse, Rick was a cop. He was on a call when a perpetrator shot him during a robbery and he slipped into a coma. He woke up a month later to find the world had gone to hell while he was out.
His partner, and best friend, was Shane Walsh. When the world died, Shane presumed that Rick was dead after the hospital he was in got overrun by walkers. Again, a bad decision based on a) his experience as a cop and b) his desire to keep Ricks wife and son alive. He helped Ricks wife, son, and a small group of survivors get out of Atlanta to safety. Together they formed a small community on the outskirts of the city.
After Rick wakes up he manages to track Shane and the group down and for a moment all was well. Since Rick was the senior officer, he slips into the role of leader and Shane follows suit. The pair are bros for a while, but it’s not long before cracks begin to form. Rick thinks they should be more active in searching for survivors and bringing people into the fold. Shane thinks they should be more isolationist and less diplomatic in their dealings with other groups.
The pairs’ relationship continues to decline until things come to a head in the climax of season two. With Shane feeling more isolated as the series progresses, tensions boil over and Shane attempts a coup against Rick. The coup is unsuccessful and Rick kills Shane, his best friend. Afterward, Rick leads the group with his hopeful enthusiasm and desire to help as many people as he can.
The problem? Shane was right.
Over the coming seasons, Rick leads the group from one disaster to another. Sometimes it seems as though everything they touch turns to lead and they lose many friends and key allies throughout the series. Rick could have avoided all these deaths if he had taken a more hard-line approach, as Shane wanted. Throughout the series, Rick learns from this new world and becomes as hard-lined as Shane ever was. One might call this character growth, but that it leads to its own poor choices.
One day the group came upon a settlement called Hilltop. Hilltop was being extorted by a group of thugs who had holed up in a compound not far away. In exchange for supplies and ammo, they agreed to go in and clean them out. They broke into their compound in the dead of night and murdered 24 people in cold blood.
Problem solved. No more extortion and Hilltop is safe, right? Not exactly.
Rick should have done a little recon first. What they didn’t count on was that this enclave of thugs they wiped out was an outpost for a group called the Saviors. The Saviors were a feudalistic, quasi cultic group of militant survivalists whose empire had been expanding in the area. Their leader, Negan, was a ruthless tyrant who relished inflicting the most savage punishments on anyone who defied him.
And now Rick had his full attention.
Here we can see the first two elements of making your characters’ poor decisions work. The first is ability. Over the last 6 seasons, we’ve seen Rick and the others overcome obstacles that would have crushed lesser men. They secured a prison, cleared it of walkers, and turned it into a safe, vibrant community. The group took down a despot named The Governor who was hell-bent on their destruction. They fought their way out of Terminus, a compound full of cannibals who massacred victims like pigs for slaughter. And that’s not even to mention the hordes of undead they’ve cleared along the way. If anyone could take care of an outpost of thugs, it was Rick and the gang.
The second element is motivation. In this case, it was simple; power and resources. By helping Hilltop, they would gain influence in the area and the resources to enforce that influence. And the third element?
Key #3: Consequences
The third element, and arguably the most important one, is consequences. Actions have consequences. The greater the action, the greater the consequence. And if there is one thing The Walking Dead excels at, it’s delivering gut-wrenching consequences.
The consequence of Ricks’ actions was a bloody war over the next couple of seasons of the show. The fighting was brutal and pushed both sides to the breaking point. Ricks’ alliance destroyed an empire that, though ruthless, was imposing stability in the region. Negan destroyed homes and lives in his desperate bid for control. Even Ricks’ own son, Carl, couldn’t escape and perished in the fighting. All because Rick couldn’t do a little recon first and learn about whose anthill he was trying to kick over.
There is a provocative author named Ayn Rand, who may sound familiar to some of you. She’s a controversial figure, to say the least, and not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m one of her fans and she’s not even my cup of tea all the time. Though I like her work from a literary point of view, her bombastic egotism on certain topics does rub me the wrong way. Quite often, actually. But she was an extremely talented writer, and the divisive nature of her writing is a testament to that. With that in mind, I would like to give you a quote to write by from her grand opus, “Atlas Shrugged.”
“You can ignore reality, but you can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”
If you want to ensure your characters’ bad decisions result in proper comeuppance, first ensure that they ignore reality. Fill them full of hubris and swaggering arrogance, self-assured ignorance, or even well-meaning, naïve hopefulness. Then you need to document as they reap the consequences of ignoring their reality.
And make those consequences stick. Mild inconveniences can’t carry a story. Give them a challenge. Don’t be afraid to make your hero lurch uphill on a broken leg to kill an overpowered enemy. For good measure, have death nip at his heels the whole way up so he couldn’t turn back if he wanted to. Learn this and you will never have a lack of tension in your work.
Bonus Key #4: Beware the Fool
But now a warning.
You can craft a well-meaning character who pushes the story along with bad decisions. That’s great. But don’t craft a moron. We need readers to identify with our characters and no one wants to identify with a moron.
It’s almost a formula. They can identify with a character’s ability. They can identify with a character’s motivation. If they can identify with these, they can empathize when reality turns around and bites him in the backside. But no one wants to identify with a character whose abilities don’t measure up. No one wants to identify with a character whose motivations are unclear or random. And they can’t have empathy for a character who experiences little comeuppance. Or, even worse, none at all.
If I have crafted a simple recipe for making the best of your characters bad decisions, then the recipe for crafting a moron is just as simple. First, give them no ability and no reason to think that they have any. Second, give them no clear motivation and make their every action nonsensical and random. If you do this, you will guarantee that no one has sympathy for them when their just desserts arrive heaped on a silver platter.
Now, that’s not to say that there’s no value in this to a skilled writer. The astute among you may have noticed that this is also a fine recipe for creating a proper comic foil. A jester to fool for the delight of the reader and provide a contrast to the hero’s virtues. But take care. In the hands of an unskilled writer, it can be a fine line between hero and fool.
In this article we’ve discussed three keys to making your characters bad decisions work for you. Let’s recap this briefly before shutting down.
This first key is Ability. In some capacity, your character needs to demonstrate that they have, or that they think they have, the talent to do what they want to do. Don’t tell us about this. Show it through their actions.
The second key is motivation. First, you need to establish your character’s traits and then make their actions flow logically from these traits. Remember, random or meaningless motivations won’t resonate with the reader.
The third key is consequences. There needs to be just recompense for the actions your character takes. And make your consequences sting. The consequence of not delivering on your consequences is like extending your hand expecting a nice firm handshake but getting a clammy, limp, wet fish instead. Your readers will be utterly unsatisfied. Remember, to paraphrase the quote above, “Your characters can ignore reality, but they can’t ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”
And your fourth bonus key is, don’t craft a moron. Keep in mind that one plus one equals two here. If your characters abilities are believable and their motivations are sound, then your audience will empathize with whatever consequences they receive. If any of these are off, the character and their arc will be off.
However, if you are skilled enough, you can use this to your advantage in creating a comic foil for your protagonist. Actively and purposefully reversing the techniques I’ve discussed here will help you craft a character that readers will look forward to seeing fail. Or the foil, by highlighting their own lack of ability and motivation, can emphasize the hero’s own ability and motivations.
I hope this article was helpful to you. It helped my writing when I realized the importance bad decisions make on your plot.
Thank you for reading, and good writing.