To err is human, but people don’t typically make blunders in a vacuum. When mistakes are critical to your plot progression, making the character’s error believable is the only way to lead a reader through the twists and turns of your story and keep them believing all the way to the end. Here are three ways to suspend your reader’s disbelief and keep your character’s actions—however irrational—as real-seeming as possible.
1. Do the Opposite of What Horror Movies Do
The simple fact is that people only split up and investigate in horror movies because that’s a convenient way to produce as much on-screen death and destruction as possible. Splitting up isn’t a believable mistake—would you decide to creep into the dark and dusty toolshed alone, armed only with a flashlight?
If not, what would you do? In fact, what have you done? What was the last big mistake you made? Did you sink a bunch of money into a project that didn’t pan out? Did you look down at your phone at the wrong moment and side-swipe an oak tree? Did you get an unfortunate tattoo, or break off a relationship for petty reasons?
None of these things is meant to be trite, funny or temporary; they’re all potentially devastating, life-changing mistakes. And if you’ve made a mistake like that, I bet you can remember why. You had some sort of want or need you were answering, some plan in your head, when you made that mistake, and your characters need the same sort of logically crafted motivation.
Takeaway: Create the need before you set the stage for your character’s fatal error. Sounds pretty simple, but that means looking at the blunder through your character’s eyes, instead of simply as the thing that gets the plot from Point A to Point B.
2. When Bad Things Happen to Good Intentions
Remember the law of unintended consequences? Every time a character makes a move he or she considers a good decision, or the “right” thing to do, there will be consequences. Perhaps the best way to get them to mess up is to blindside them with it. C’est la vie, right?
It’s pretty easy to establish a motive for a “good” or “moral” decision when you’re crafting a story, but what if that “good” decision results in a bad unintended consequence? For example, what if a character’s decision to care for her sick grandmother means she’s in the elderly lady’s house when neighborhood lowlifes decide to rob the place? What if a guy decides to go on a fantastic trip around the world, only to lose his bags on a connecting flight and be left in Madrid with only the clothes on his back and the US dollars in his pocket?
Good decisions, unintended consequences, plot movement.
3. Practice Owning Your Mistakes
Okay, I’ll go first. I have a tattoo that is pretty regrettable.
I got it as a surpassingly homesick college sophomore, attending school out in western New York, and it’s a silhouette of my home state… New Jersey. I moved away before I finished my senior year in high school, and never really regained the sense of place and belongingness I enjoyed in the place where I grew up. So I got a tattoo as an immature pledge of allegiance to the place I hadn’t called home in three years (by that point).
To make things worse, the silhouette is gently shaded with the colors of the Italian flag. My Italian-American mother was, at best, bemused when she finally saw it.
See? That was embarrassing. But I’ll always be able to take that emotion with me when I write about the mistakes of others, even when they’re fictional. Practice writing about your own mistakes. Outline why you made them, what happened when they did, and catalogue the reactions of others, if they apply.
And I still plan on getting my ink covered up with something a little less hokey, but there you go.
How do you tackle writing about mistakes?