I spent last time talking about a manuscript full of stupid mistakes that didn’t work. This time, I’m going to talk about some where it does. Because in real life, people forget critical information, give in to impulses that turn out to be a Really Bad Idea, and generally do things that, if they’d stopped to consider, are clearly likely to have a less-than-good outcome. If characters never did this kind of thing, they’d be unrealistically perfect (and quite possibly boring as well).
On the other hand, characters who make mistake after mistake, or whose mistakes conveniently occur whenever the plot needs a boost or twist, are equally unrealistic, and seldom work except in the sort of parody where the whole point is that they can never do anything right. Similarly, if the characters never face any consequences from their mistakes, or never appear to learn anything from those consequences, the story is unlikely to feel real or be satisfying.
So how do authors strike a balance between too-perfect characters who never make a mistake and unrealistically stupid characters?
First off, mistakes in a story work like coincidences, meaning that the bigger the mistake or coincidence, the fewer of them are likely to work in a story. A tale that opens with an enormous, life-changing mistake implicitly promises the reader that the rest of the story is going to deal mainly with the consequences of that mistake. That means that the author can’t use a second enormous life-changing act of stupidity in mid-book in order to change course; whatever happens has to flow in some way from that original giant error. If other characters make mistakes, it’s most likely to work if a) they’re small mistakes, b) they’re very different from the original giant error, and c) they don’t result in a major plot event or twist, but just push the story along in whatever direction it’s currently going.
If, however, the story doesn’t include one single, enormous mistake, the author can often get away with having two large-but-not-enormous mistakes, or three or four small errors of judgement, etc. One ought not to get too carried away by this, of course; there’s a point where one hits “too many” even if they’re all eensy-weensy errors.
Back to the large mistake thing. Once I started thinking about it, I could think of three or four novels that open with a ginormous mistake on the part of the major character, and they generally follow the same pattern. First off, the big mistake doesn’t occur on page 1; it’s usually near the end of the first or second chapter. This gives the author plenty of time to lead up to it…and they do.
In every case I could think of, the events leading up to the mistake are shown carefully and in sufficient detail to make it clear to the reader why the character made the mistake…and each of them has several points at which they could have backed out and changed direction. The characters hesitate briefly, but pride or inertia or drunken bloody-mindedness keeps them on track for the inevitable train wreck at the end of the first chapter.
As a result, the reader can see that the characters are being stupid, but they can also see and understand why they’re being stupid. For this one, it was a combination of being angry, drunk, and too proud to back down once he realized he’d dug himself into a hole; for that one, it was a combination of hubris and fear; for the other one, it was midlife insecurity combined with temptation and needing to prove something to himself. The reader can see and sympathize with the character, maybe even think “There but for the grace of God go I,” even as she’s shaking her head about the dumb decision itself. Yes, the decision is still dumb, but we believe that this character, under these circumstances, really would do it.
It is, admittedly, extremely difficult to do this kind of thing for mistakes that various characters made before the story even began. One can, however, show that they regret the mistake, and that they’ve learned something from having messed up so badly five or ten or twenty years before…and one can certainly arrange for them not to repeat the same mistake. A character doing the exact same stupid thing for a second time tends to really put readers off, even if the first time happened twenty years pre-story and we didn’t get to watch it.
If the pre-story mistake really is vital to the current plot, one can use flashback to show the circumstances and motivation, or one can have some really understanding other character explain it to everyone in the present story who doesn’t know.
In every case, though, it all keeps coming back around to making sure the reader understands the reasons the character made the mistake…and the bigger the mistake is, the more time the writer probably needs to spend setting it up. “Um, sorry, officer, I left my driver’s license at home” needs maybe half a line earlier about how fast she flew out of the house; “Er, I sort of told the Evil Overlord where our Sekrit Base is” needs a lot more advance justification.
About the only time this isn’t true is when one has a central character who is supposed to be an idiot – Bertie Wooster, say – and the whole point of the story is watching him bumble into trouble and watch Jeeves pull him out again. Which works in comedy, but seldom in drama.