Why Characters Must Pay for Their Sins

Thu Feb 04 2016

I read a lot of books for a lot of clients, and I have to tell you there's not much that kills a story's drama like characters that can get away with anything.

That is, stories in which characters can make the worst possible mistakes, yet walk away free-and-clear every single time.

I'd argue that it's fine for characters to make mistakes. Indeed, they should screw up from time to time, landing themselves in gravely perilous situations. Mistakes makes them human and relatable. Mistakes help us believe that they're figuring their way through the plot like a real person would, rather than always miraculously doing the right thing because they're the author's puppet.

But every mistake they make must carry a consequence or your story's drama dies.

The Drama is in the Danger

To understand why, remember what drama is: a reader's emotional reaction to their uncertainty about the outcome of a situation.

When a character screws up, that inherently makes their situation more uncertain--more dangerous--in some fashion either physical or metaphorical. Thus, you can fairly expect readers to feel some drama.

Will the fianceé catch the character cheating on her with the bridesmaid? Will the broke cashier who swipes ten bucks from the till get caught and lose her job? Will the mountain climber who slips off the icy rock face get injured and die of exposure before help can arrive?

That's drama.

And you can expect readers to feel it at least the first time they encounter such situations in your story. Readers will give you that first one for free, because up to then they'll assume consequences in your story's world work the same way they do in ours.

The Consequences Prove the Danger

But if the wedding goes off as planned, if nobody notices that the cashier's till doesn't balance, or if the mountain climber miraculously lands in a ten-foot-deep drift of soft powdery snow and walks away, that's game over.

Do that, and readers will realize the danger was fake all along. They'll know you were just yanking their chain.

Readers don't like that.

And it's you who will pay the price for that mistake, because the next time the character screws up readers won't be worried about the consequences. They won't even be expecting any because they know you're pulling your punches.

The consequences are what prove to your readers that when your characters screw up, you're not going to bail them out. The consequences demonstrate that when you show a dangerous situation, you're serious. So the next time one comes along, readers will feel more drama, not less.

Consequences in Star Wars: A New Hope

There are many great examples of characters making mistakes in the first Star Wars movie, and of George Lucas making them pay for it in one way or another.

I won't map out the whole movie, but here's a few if we follow Luke Skywalker's activities:

Mistake: Luke goes out into the desert, unprepared, looking for R2-D2.
Consequence: He gets jumped by sand people, knocked on the head, and almost killed. C-3PO gets partially dismantled.

Mistake: Luke gets in a bar brawl in Mos Eisley, and Han shoots Greedo first
Consequence: The good guys draw the attention of local spies, who rat them out to the imperials, causing them to have to blast their way out of port.

Mistake: After not finding Alderaan where it was supposed to be, they follow a lone TIE fighter that seems like it shouldn't be that far out in space.
Consequence: The Millenium Falcon is captured by the Death Star's tractor beam; imperials recognize the ship as matching the description of one that blasted its way off of Tatooine.

The pattern continues on that way. How many more can you think of in just that one movie? What about in The Empire Strikes Back? What major mistakes did Luke make there, and what were the consequences?

Make the Mistakes Work for You

Just because you have to punish your characters for their mistakes doesn't mean the consequences can't advance your plot. After paying the consequence, characters will find themselves in a new (and typically worse) situation; nothing says that situation can't lead to progress in the plot.

Again, Star Wars is a good example. Sure, the Sand People beat Luke up, but if they hadn't he might not have met Obi-Wan. And Getting pulled into the Death Star seemed bad at the time, but without it they'd never have rescued Leia.

This leads to a key plotting strategy: if you already know the characters are going to get something good out of a bad situation, figure out how to make the bad situation be the characters' fault in the first place.

Or from the other direction, when the characters mess up and you have to choose a consequence for them, see if you can find one that creates the conditions for a subsequent gain.

Just don't go crazy with that. If every dark cloud's silver lining turns out to be golden, that might start to feel a little suspicious too.