Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Our Characters Must Fail

I recently read a novel but struggled to get into the story. Each time I put it down, I had no desire to pick it back up. Tempted to stop reading, I decided to forge ahead and figure out why it wasn't grabbing me. I made a list of its strengths and weaknesses.


- Excellent writing. The author balances dialogue, thoughts, action, and narrative with ease.
- Modern, relatable characters. The hero and heroine (it's a contemporary romance) are realistic and have believable conflicts and goals. Plus, I liked both of them.
- Logical progression of plot. The story arc made sense and proceeded in a way I would expect.


- Too many characters introduced in first chapters. This book is the second or third in a series, so extra characters should be involved, but too many too soon only confuses the reader.
- Sunday drive pacing. While the plot progresses logically, it does not progress quickly. There doesn't seem to be any urgency.
- The hero and heroine do not share enough scenes in the first half. They are in scenes together, but they rarely interact. How are they supposed to fall in love if they don't talk to each other?

Not every book is perfect, and the strengths in this one more than offset the weaknesses. However, I pinpointed one major area that needed work.

Each scene had a point, but the stakes were never high enough for me to want to read the next scene. 

Jack M. Bickham discusses what an effective scene accomplishes in his excellent book, Scene & Structure. I'm paraphrasing here, but basically each scene should be told from one character's viewpoint, and the character must have a clear goal, which is obvious from the beginning of the scene. The character will then experience conflict in reaching that goal until the scene ends with the character failing to meet the goal.

Summary of Scene Essentials:
1. Introduction of the viewpoint character's scene goal.
2. Conflict threatening the character's ability to reach goal.
3. Failure of character to meet goal.

But...the character has to win sometimes, right? Yes. This is why it's important to be clear about the character's scene goal. If the book requires your heroine to convince her coworker to attend a wedding with her, you might choose to split the section into two scenes. The first scene will be told from her viewpoint. She gets the courage to ask him, he puts up a fight, and the scene ends with him refusing.

1. She asks coworker to be her date for wedding. (Goal)
2. He gives lame excuses. (Conflict)
3. He refuses. (Failure)

But...he has to agree. It's a vital plot point. Okay, no problem. The next scene will be in his point of view, and his scene goal will be to get out of the wedding invitation. But the heroine is very convincing, and he finds himself saying yes when he wants to say no.

1. He must not agree to this wedding invitation. (Goal)
2. She has lawyer-like convincing skills. (Conflict)
3. He accepts. (Failure)
If we ignore the scene essential of the character failing, we waste an opportunity to keep the reader on edge. We could have written the previous scene in the heroine's point of view and had her ask the hero to the wedding. He could still put up a fight, but in the end he agrees. The problem with this is that the heroine wins.

As readers, we like to watch our heroes and heroines suffer. We love that gnawing feeling in our gut when things go wrong. We need the hero and heroine to fail repeatedly for us to keep turning the pages. If they only win, what's the point of reading more? Our goal as writers should be to provide a sense of urgency--regardless what genre we write--and have the reader constantly ask, what comes next? How is the main character going to handle this? I've got to find out more!

Let's talk about this. Anything to add? Any questions? 

Have a terrific day!


  1. I also often can't continue reading a book, it's difficult these days to find good ones. I like the classics, the English and American ones mostly.

  2. When I stop reading a book it usually has to do with goal and conflict. I'm just not caring enough about the story. as writers we know this too. Everything is so much harder to apply!

  3. I'm with Laura! Intellectually, we know this, but it's so hard to pull off in every scene.

    A great post - thank you!

  4. I have also done this--kept reading a novel in which I have lost interest in order to figure out why. For a writer, it's a great learning exercise. I generally lose interest for two reasons: I don't care encounter a character I care about, and even after I can see how plot threads are headed together, they take too long to get there.

  5. I finished a book recently and while things happened logically and the characters were likable, I didn't care for the story. I think it's because the author gave everything away too soon and I had nothing to figure out on my own. I don't like knowing everything, and of course that's a reader preference. I know some readers like that.

  6. Hi Jill, your post today was fascinating. I have often thought this too when I read my own writing and the work of others, and couldn't really pin point the problem. I like the point about having a sense of urgency. Sometimes writers, myself included will paint too fine a picture, with too much information. I remember someone telling me once that half the fun for a reader is to be able to use their imagination. So a writer doesn't haven't to control every single detail of the story. It can be overwhelming and weigh it down. You have a wonderful and informative blog and I enjoy reading it very much! Have a lovely day ahead. Delisa :)

  7. This is one of the areas I struggle - because I *like* my characters. I want them to's the pre-school mom in me, I think. When I make them fail, I feel like a bad-writer-mommy.

  8. I've been guilty of being too easy on my characters. When I began writing I wanted to create stories where the characters actually liked each other and got together instead of fighting their attraction for hundreds of pages. I succeeded, but my stories were boring.

    What I didn't understand was that the tension authors create is the very reason I race to reach the end of their stories. Once I learned that my characters want to get together and that my job is to keep them apart and make them earn their happy ever after, my stories became more interesting and, to my surprise, more fun to write.

  9. I happen to like making things hard for my characters. They've been hard enough for me. Like to pass that love around. :D

    This reminds me of a lot that I read in The Fire in Fiction.
    ~ Wendy

  10. Francesca: I do too. I go through phases. I've been on a "Paris Writers" kick w/F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway lately. :)

    Laura: Tell me about it! It's really hard to find that balance between conflict and likable characters. Ugh!

    Talli: It is! And some scenes don't need to be as intense as others. :)

    Olivia: So true. I have more patience for slower plots in certain genres, like historical, but for the most part I want a quickly paced plot!

    Jessica P: Exactly. Our readers are intelligent--we don't have to spell every last detail out!

    Delisa: Why, thank you! I still work hard to not give away too much in the beginning. We need to make the reader care enough to continue but not bore them. :)

    Kristina: Ha! Think of it as giving them a "time-out." Painful, but necessary!

    Keli: I agree. It's more fun to write problems than smooth sailing!

    Wendy: Donald Maass is awesome. :) And I don't mind inflicting pain on my characters either!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  11. Excellent point, Jill! This is something I must remember when I write each scene. Thanks.

  12. Once I've lost interest in a book, who cares why?! :) More power to you for soldiering through and sharing what you found with us!

    I used to have a terrible time letting my characters fall down. Now that I've been writing awhile, I've gotten over it. It's kind of fun to stick my foot out and trip them up on purpose.

  13. Yo Jill! Good stuff here, girl.

    I find it particularly interesting because something weird happened to me recently and I can't decide if I want to blog about it or not.

    I recently reread/edited one of my novels and as I was reading, I was not liking it. Not because I didn't write via scene and not because I didn't have my characters failing. But because I did.....too much. Is that even possible? I had a scene, establish the stakes, set up the conflict, end in disaster. Scene after scene after scene. And it just felt so....formulaic.

    It also could've been that I was reading it when I was in a weird mood, and it's never good to edit when I'm feeling weird (not funny weird, but "I hate my writing" weird.)

  14. Julie: Don't we all? :)

    Ayda: Ha! I love the idea of sticking our feet out to trip them!

    Katie: Oh, it makes total sense. We aren't writing serial cliffhangers, after all! I really think time and experience clue us in to the subtleties of writing effective scenes. We get an innate sense of how much conflict, how often, and when to push and when to back away. I simply didn't have enough experience with this when I wrote my early books. :)

    Jaime: I agree. And part of that goes back to writing likable, relatable characters. It's a balance. If our heroine is failing at everything she tries, we probably aren't going to like her!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  15. Oh, I definitely have to be worried about my characters. And although non-writer type readers might not realize they've put down a book for the reasons you mention, but I'm willing to bet if there's not enough conflict coming out of every scene and leading the reader into the next, the reader is bored and will head off to bed and forget what they were reading when they turned the lights out.

  16. You are so good at explaining things like this! That's why I love you to critique my work--you make it clear what I need and what is lacking.

  17. Heather: I agree. We usually know when something isn't working and, as readers, don't care why!

    Terri: Thanks, Terri, what a nice compliment! I feel the same about you. :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. Failing is realistic, right? We can't all win all the time. And nobody can relate to a character who wins all the time.

    Love this post--nice reminder of the point of goals in scenes, and not making them overly-predictable.

  19. Jill - what an AWESOME post! I LOVE this! And I'm going to use it as I go through my Nano novel.


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