Characters Need to Be Perfect! Real People Can Screw Up!

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen several authors talk about reviews complaining about character intelligence.  Specifically, readers hate when a character makes a ‘stupid mistake’.  They feel it ruins the story and go on a rant.  I think we’ve all seen this in action and had this reaction as well.  Yet, there is something to consider: REALITY.

First, let’s admit that we’ve all gotten annoyed with a character who makes a stupid mistake.  It’s usually something that ruins an established plan or causes the plot to take a sudden turn.  We think it’s contrived and done entirely to extend the story, which isn’t entirely true.  A character could be perfect and make every right decision to reach the ending fairly quickly.  That would be boring, but it’s feasible and what people unwittingly ask for when they rail against character mistakes.  Oops.

This reaction is born from frustration and does show an emotional investment has been made by the reader.  Authors want this, but is is a double-edged sword that loves to smack its wielder in the face.  Emotional investment means you start putting heroes on pedestals and thinking you know exactly what they will do.  So, a bad decision will seem incredibly unnatural even if it makes logical sense.  I’m not talking about characters suddenly forgetting to use their powers, tools, and skills at a climax when they’ve been doing so under other stressful situations.  I’m talking about a realistic mistake where a decision is made based of bad logic or missing information.  Those are the ones that seem to really rile up a reader because they come with a level of confidence from the character.

Here is a question that we should ask before we run off to write a review or continue reading out of spite:

Is the mistake realistic?

Everybody makes mistakes, which is a phrase we’ve grown up with.  It’s used to help a person not feel bad about screwing up.  It’s a phrase of forgiveness because we understand that mistakes happen.  In reality, we’re very quick to help people get through even some major bad decisions.  Yet, we don’t extend the same flexibility to fictional characters.  It makes some sense since we see their mistakes as plot twists instead of legitimate errors by a thinking being.  This is where we need to step away from the story and analyze what is going on.

Consider these other questions:

  1. Does the character have the same amount of information as the reader?  If the reader knows more than the character then they’ll know what the right answer is.  The character will not because they don’t have the benefit of the full puzzle.  It means, they are more likely to make a mistake in a situation where the reader would be able to succeed.  We put our own knowledge on the characters without realizing we’re being shown all the pieces.
  2. How stressful and time constrained is the situation? If you have all the time in the world, you can make a good decision even with partial information.  A reader has this because they can put the book down and walk away to think about how the hero will get out of their situation.  The character doesn’t have that luxury.  They may have seconds or minutes to make a choice.  In reality, this is where many people will screw up because of stress and panic.  We’re talking people who may be brave and wise, but crack under the right amount of pressure.  Characters should be treated no differently here.  At least I think so.
  3. Is the character going to learn from that mistake? As I said, mistakes are very common in reality.  This is one of the ways in which a person learns and grows even if they’re already an adult.  ‘Trail and error’ is the term instead of ‘do it perfectly on the first try’.  If the character realizes their mistake and grows stronger because of it then that makes them more relatable.  Think of every time you’ve screwed up and had to improve to avoid making the same mistake.  People gave you a second chance, so the fictional characters should get the same.

That third question is key for both readers and authors.  You need to show that the mistake had an impact in order to justify it being made.  This is especially true if it’s a mid-story decision.  It is harder to pull off a finale bad decision, but those are still realistic if set up correctly.  The alternative is to make characters perfect and never fail, but then you get complaints that there are no stakes.  Just can’t win in some ways.

So, what do you think about characters making mistakes?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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38 Responses to Characters Need to Be Perfect! Real People Can Screw Up!

  1. This is a place where notes and rewrites can help. If you set the stage early on, readers will know that mistakes are possible. Maybe you tie it to an irrational fear and early failure. If it’s something like a spider, then later on a spider is involved there could be another failure. This gives the hero a couple of things to overcome at the big finale. You’re almost training the reader in the early chapters.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Isn’t that fairly unrealistic though? We have to prepare a reader for a character to make a mistake. Yet, a real person can do that without an irrational fear or early failure. It’s really strange how people can’t accept that a fictional character can trip up the same way that a real person can. They need it to be some great challenge to overcome instead of them making a wrong choice in the heat of the moment. Showing that they’re flawed beforehand is still important and most people do that. It still results in readers getting angry about a ‘stupid’ mistake even if you can see a real person coming to the same conclusion and action.

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  2. L. Marie says:

    What a great post! And great questions. A friend and I had a conversation in which I suggested that her character might be too perfect, which didn’t seem realistic. So, this topic is very timely for me. I admit that I have sometimes railed at characters for making what I thought were dumb mistakes, your question—Does the character have the same amount of information as the reader?—is worth considering. What I find frustrating in some cases, is when a character makes an uncharacteristic decision without any sort of foreshadowing. Like for instance, a hero goes on a killing spree in the last act for no apparent reason (like pressure causing him to suddenly snap).

    People complained about Rey in Star Wars being too perfect and not learning from mistakes. It’s interesting that people complain about characters being imperfect.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There seems to be a lot of perfect characters out there. Rey is a good example where her mistakes were minor or fixed so fast that they never impacted the plot. Contrast that with Spider-Man whose screw up is the basis for his whole career. The recent movie even had the plot hinge on him making a mistake. Both had their haters and defenders too.

      Liked by 1 person

    • V.M.Sang says:

      I read a book recently where the male protagonist was so perfect I wanted to throw a brick at him. He was something of a cardboard cutout. Rich, handsome, kind, thoughtful etc. etc. He made no mistakes with the rather damaged heroine. I hated the book.
      But another I read afterwards had a character who was much more real. He made mistakes, and I loved him for it.
      In my current WIP, my protagonist is seen by two enemy soldiers and a dog who charge for him. He needs to take all three out and quickly as they are rapidly getting close. As he’s a mage, he quickly casts a spell. Sadly, it’s a fireball he decides on, and although he gets his attackers, he also gets himself–fortunately only at the edge of the fireball, and as he is in a stream, he is severely burned, but not killed.
      A serious mistake, but in the panic of the moment, he misjudged the distances. I hope readers will accept that and not think he’s stupid. (In a prequel, he makes another terrible mistake, too.)

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      • I’ve seen the perfect protagonist turn up a lot more often these days. I think many people see it as a portrayal of empowerment and confidence. There really is a big push to not make or accept one makes mistakes these days. Maybe I’m just running into more narcissists as I get older.

        Magic is a great tool for the ‘mistake under pressure’ event. People panic all the time. Even those who have the power to manipulate the energy of the universe can flub when stressed.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There has to be setup for the character’s mistake. Like, we’re shown they care about something so much they’d make rash decisions. Or we know they have a blind spot. Or that someone is purposely misleading them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s what I don’t get. We expect a build up or hint that a character will make a mistake. This means a momentary lapse in judgment isn’t allowed. Yet, we allow this in real people. It’s like fiction can have dragons, magic, and elves, but not a character who makes a mistake without major foreshadowing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My first character John Cannon made mistakes all over the place. A couple of times I heard about it but for the most part most who reviewed the book thought the mistakes were in keeping with the character. I’m in favor of characters making mistakes. Makes the story more real.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. petespringerauthor says:

    I’ve seen this criticism in reviews, which makes no sense to me. People consistently (myself included) make decisions that leave us scratching our heads. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has been right in their decision-making 100% of the time. On the other hand, if a character acted totally illogically (i.e., signing up to run a marathon without doing any training), I’d like some explanation or indication of why they made that choice.

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  6. In reality, our mistakes ultimately shape who we become. We learn from our mistakes or we don’t. In a tragedy, the character doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and that’s why it’s a tragedy. In great character arcs, the hero makes a mistake, learns from it, and moves to higher ground. He might even make a bigger mistake, but learning from it will produce even higher ground. If a reader doesn’t like my character’s mistakes, I’ll toss the reader out the window.

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  7. I think characters should make mistakes, because this is the reality of life. But writers are forced to overthink when mistakes are possible, and how the character is able to solve, by himself or with help of another character. Thanks for discussing this, Charles! Indeed, very interesting! Best wishes, Michael

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