Monday, August 07, 2023

7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Making the wrong choice isn't good in life, but it's great for plotting a novel.

As people, we want to make the right choice, so it's only natural that those are the choices that first come to us as we write a scene. The problem there, is that "doing the right thing" doesn't usually cause the wonderful conflict we need to craft compelling stories. (But when it does it's writing gold.) 

Lifehack had a great post about how not to mess up your decisions. The writer in me instantly saw what a fantastic guide it was for crafting characters with bad decision-making skills, which of course makes for more interesting plots. Nobody likes a smarty pants who gets everything right all the time. We want characters with flaws, and issues, who make snap judgements and totally mess things up while trying to make things better.

You really don't want your characters to act like they've three weeks to consider their options just because you took that long to write the scene (and probably had input from fellow writers and friends, too). A decision made in the heat of the moment isn't the same as one made after weeks of considering.

And characters making "in the heat of the moment" decisions can make or break your plot.

Because they're real, they're human, and they let you take the story in all kinds of unpredictable ways. Anything can happen when someone makes a bad decision. 

Here are some handy ways your character can make the wrong choice next time they're faced with an all-important decision:

1. They're impulsive.

This is one of my favorites, since Nya, my protagonist in The Shifter, is always jumping in before she thinks. I use some level of impulsiveness in every book I write, because characters don't always have a lot of time to make a choice, or they get caught up in the excitement or emotions and make snap judgements. 

This is a helpful flaw for characters who need to learn patience, or who don't always consider how their actions affect others. Snap judgments, quick decisions, charging full-speed ahead without thinking beyond the nowif you need to get your protagonist in over their head fast, consider this mistake.

(Here's more with Why You Should Have Judgmental Characters)  

2. They make decisions under pressure.

A ticking clock is a reliable way to raise stakes and increase tensions in a story, especially if a decision must be made. The greater the potential consequences, the higher the stakes, and if readers care about those consequences and that character, the tension goes through the roof.    

But you don't need life or death stakes to put your character under pressure. Small annoyances can build to big problems, so if you need your characters to blow their tops, try looking for small ways to eat at them leading up to that explosion.

This mistake is wonderful for all characters, because everyone faces this situation at some point. 

(Here's more with The Power of Small Problems: Elevate Your Plot with Little Conflicts)

3. They over-analyze everything.

What to do what to do? Analysis paralysis is the perfect mistake for a too-logical character who needs to view a situation from every angle before they make a decision. and sometimes, when they're so busy trying to figure out the right thing to do, they miss the opportunity to act at all. 

And this is a fabulous mistake if that "lost opportunity" comes back later in the story to bite them. Maybe it causes a huge emotional trauma during that Dark Moment of the Soul at the end of act two? The harder the choice, the more they debate the right thing to do.

Over-analyzing is also and useful way to slip in possible dangers and outcomes for the reader to worry about, helping to raise tensions and keep things unpredictable.

(Here's more with The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)  

4. They assume they know it all.

This can stem from any number of places—maybe they think they have all the information. Maybe they consider themselves an expert in that area and can't imagine they're missing a key detail. They might be arrogant and sure of their own intelligence, or could even sure of what the right course of action is.

This is perfect for the protagonist who needs to learn a valuable lesson about working with others. Let them be convinced they're always right, they don't need advice from anyone else, and they have no problem stating that fact to anyone who will listen. The fall when reality strikes will be devastating, and all the more satisfying. The more people they piss off, the fewer there will be when they really need them.

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Make Your Characters Hate You (And Why You Should))

5. They don't consider all the options.

An informed protagonist can be a boring protagonist, and it often leads to them understanding every facet of every decision they make. Yet choices made without the benefit of knowledge can lead a myriad of delightful screw ups. Maybe there's no time for research, or there's something they just don't want to think about (denial, much?). Missing key information can send a character into a mess of their own making.

This is a handy mistake for characters refusing to see the truth in front of them, and one who needs to fail multiple times before they realize where the right path truly lies.

(Here's more with 3 Ways Moral Dilemmas Can Strengthen Your Novel)    

6. They don't ask for advice.

Who needs a long-winded story from some old geezer about how he did it when he was younger? Times change, and what worked then surely won't work now. This is slightly different than the "know it all" mistake, as a character might realize they don't know it all, but are still reluctant or afraid to ask for advice. Maybe your character is too shy to speak up when they need help, or asking advice will expose them as a fraud, or they believe no one will help them even if they did ask. 

This is a flaw for the protagonist who either doesn't respect tradition or the consul of others, or feels alone and abandoned, afraid to seek the help they need. 

(Here's more with Why Should Anyone Help Your Protagonist?)

7. They don't make alternative plans

Who needs Plan B? An overconfident protagonist might never see the need for backup plans, because everything is going to go just like they expect. When things start falling to pieces, they're likely incapable of wise action to correct their mistake. Which causes events to snowball, getting them into more and more delicious trouble.

This is a great mistake to make when you want to yank the rug out from under your protagonist and show them they need to understand that plans might not go as they expect.  

(Here's more with Come On, What's the Worst That Can Happen?: Plotting Your Novel)

Making smart choices is vital in the real world, but making bad choices is a must for the fictional world. While you don't want your characters to be stupid (unless it's by design), mistakes lead to growth, and a good character grows by the end of the tale. Try adding a few bad decision-making skills to your characters and enjoy the fun.

How often do your characters make bad decisions? 

*Originally published January 2013. Last updated August 2023.

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Thanks for that article. It's inspiring to read all those possible flaws I can torture my characters with later ;)

    I think I might have flaw number 8: Pride. I have one character who knows what the right choice would be (or at least the simplest way to solve a problem) but he ist too proud to do it and so sticks to the wrong decisions knowingly that it will cost him a lot. He created a certain image of himself and that right choice means he would have to change (become more humble for example).It will bring him into trouble until he finds himself confronted with a choice that is important enough for him to let go of his pride.

  2. I love this article because it sounds like my decision-making process at its best. LOL Thanks Janice. This helps me today.

  3. Fantastic post! I typically don't write characters who are "stupid," but we all make stupid decisions sometimes. These tips are the perfect way to make characters do the same thing without seeming out of character or too convenient. :)

  4. Very helpful post. It's got my brain working because one of my character definitely needs more conflict. She's a bit yawn inspiring at the moment. Thanks.

  5. Great post Janice. I've used the impulsive kid before as a way to make mistakes. Now I'm trying the person who thinks she can handle it all. You're right. Our characters do need to make bad decisions. Like us, unfortunately, but true.

  6. Frauke, oo that's a great one.

    Cat, lol. Glad to help :)

    Jami, we totally do. We could probably just think back to the dumb things we've done and flesh out the list.

    Jennifer, hope it helps! I've found crafting an inner conflict that opposes the external problem a great way to add conflict as well.

    Natalie, I like that. I'm kinda doing the same thing now that I think about it. Nya was all impulse, but my new protag is all about her training and what she can do. Fun to play the other side, isn't it?

  7. Another "Other Side" post I'm bookmarking to come back to. Thanks, Janice.

  8. Great way of looking at things. I have the urge now to run off and just mess with my characters... Not sure what that says about me!

  9. A character that can respond to every situation with the perfect answer or decision just doesn't work for readers. Where's the humanity in perfection? Where's the flaw? Some missed or not-so-wise decisions really do add conflict, moments of tension and provide something for the character to overcome or be humbled by.

  10. Excellent list! Mine are always over-analyzing... just like their writer, lol! Love all the others, though. New ways for my characters to make bad choices. I'll be referring back to this one. Thanks!

  11. LD, most welcome!

    Raewyn, that you're a writer :) I'm filled with delight every time I think up something horrible to do to mine.

    Angela, absolutely. Well said.

    DB, hehe, they do tend to pick up our habits, don't they?

  12. Excellent stuff! :D
    My protagonist is impulsive and unwillingly inconsiderate, and she thinks she's always right and everyone else is just trying to slow her down. Even after she "wakes to reality" she still believes she must handle it all by herself, until help is forced unto her and she must acknowledge she'd be screwed without others.

  13. Actually, a character who makes those well thought out rational decisions can cause conflict also. Someone who always makes rational, carefully analyzed decisions can conflict with another character. Consider Spock and Capt. Kurk. Spock always makes logical decisions, while Capt. Kurk's decisions were more emotion driven. This type of interplay leads to a fascinating story.

    I like to use a right decision leading to unexpected negative consequences also. Mixing in both types of decisions, right and wrong, keep the tension up as long as the motivations are there.

  14. I know this is an old post, but I can't help jumping in. :) My character is bull-headedly loyal. She ignores things that suggests those close to her are `gasp' in the wrong.

    She's teamed up with someone who is incredibly impulsing. So far he hasn't gotten her killed, but they've had a few near misses.

  15. Veronica, sounds like my kinda of character! All the delightful things you can do to someone like that :)

    Lynn, I agree. The more you mix it up the better the story. I LOVE a right choice leading to trouble. It's usually so unexpected. Thanks!

    Chicory, not too old, I think it was Friday's. Ooo what a great pairing. Two great flaws that work great (for the author) together.

  16. Okay, so it's already been a week since you posted this. But I keep re-reading it and thought I'd finally jump in and tell you I love how you make writing sound so simple. Thanks, Janice! :-)

  17. Aw, thanks Tracy! That means a lot to me :) That's what the whole blog is about, so it's good to hear it's working.

  18. These are excellent suggestions! I probably have too brainy or wise of characters, who usually make the best decisions under any given circumstances. Great reminder that under stress (or not having enough info, etc) that's not necessarily the case!

  19. Carol, people make mistakes, even smart people. Maybe your characters over think things? That could be fun to play with. That old "too smart for your own good" adage.

  20. Your Fiction University applies well to comic book writing too! Thank you for this insightful article. The mistakes that heroes make means they're human, and how they overcome the strife those mistakes cause makes them super.

    1. Good storytelling is good storytelling no matter what the medium. :) And comic books have some of the best, flawed characters out there.

  21. I was surprised that this post is 10 years old. Nevertheless, it still holds true, and gives some excellent ideas.
    In my WIP, my protagonist is being attacked by two men and a dog that are running towards him. He misjudges a fireball spell and its area effects. When he releases it, he if caught in the heat from the edge. While not fatal, he is badly burned.
    Oh, cruel author! And to add more pain, his 3year old daughter, on seeing his scarred face, says, "Not Daddy."

    1. The nice thing about most writing advice, its that it's evergreen and always helpful. Writing hasn't changed much over the years.

      Ooo, I love that! A mistake that certainly had serious consequences.

  22. Hi Janice, I wish to complement you on a great post. I read these "writing advice" posts every so often from many "coaches" and then tend to pick them apart. I am an awkward old fellow (Yes, but that wouldnt work in sci-fi etc.). But this is all good advice which will help writers of all genres. Thank you for the post.

  23. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. In all fairness, not every bit of advice works for all genres, but I do try to point that out when I write those posts :)