How Your Character’s Failures Can Map A Route To Self-Growth

So, failure. Ugh, right?

lost2Well, I was feeling like a failure today, like I’d let the team down because an idea of mine went sour. It sucks when that happens, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I found myself retracing my steps, looking at how I got from A to B to C, to what I should have thought of to avoid where things ended up. It comes down to a lack of knowledge, and I’ve learned from it. This led me to think a bit more about failure, and our characters.

Failure is something no one looks forward to or wants to experience. It doesn’t feel good to fight for something and fail. A knot of emotion (frustration, disappointment, anguish, anger) can quickly escalate to darker feelings (shame, self-loathing, humiliation, bitterness, disillusionment, and even jealousy and vengefulness).

However, failure can also lead to positive traits like determination, persistence, resourcefulness and a higher level of discipline. And once on that route, it will lead to change. To evolution. To inner growth, and finally that thing everyone seeks: success.

How each of us deals with upsets, disappointments and failure can say a lot about who we are deep down, and it is the same with our characters. Not only that, but their go-to coping strategies can also help us pinpoint where they are on that path of change (character arc) and open a window into where their weaknesses lie, and what attitudes need to shift to get them on the road to achievement.

Coping (or Not) With Failure

Here are some of the ways I think people (and therefore our characters) tend to react when it comes to failure. Have a read and see which rings true for your hero or heroine.

Blaming Others

For some, failure triggers the blame game. Rather than look within to what they might have done differently or take responsibility for their actions and performance, the blamer makes it about other people: What they did to cause this result. How they let one down. How it was rigged from the start. How one was held back, not helped, how others didn’t play fair.

The lesson that must be learned: be accountable, and be responsible. Whatever comes, whatever the result is, face it and take ownership for your own actions and choices.

Quitting

Quitters become so bruised and angry at coming up short they take themselves out of the game. Quitters may put in a lot of effort, but at the end of the day, they have a breaking point. Many have an expectation that hard work or wanting something badly enough should lead to reward.

The lesson that must be learned: lose the entitlement and become a force of will. Hard work and dedication by nature is about going the distance, about pushing through pain and giving as much as is required. It doesn’t have a finish line to aim for; you only find it when you cross it.

Minimize

Minimizers care about something right up until it slips through their fingers. Then they proclaim that the goal or prize is not as big a deal as people think. They protect their own feelings over failing by trying to minimize the achievement (also minimizing the victor in the process).

The lesson that must be learned: stop lying about what matters. Instead of pretending you don’t care, care deeply. The tide of negative feelings that come from failure shouldn’t stop you. If it’s important, proclaim it. Chase it. Try again and again because it’s worth doing.

failureRefusal

Refusers deal with failure by denying a failure occurred at all. In their minds they won, but simply were denied the prize. Convinced that they did everything right, they believe they were indeed the “true” victor. They cannot take criticism and convince themselves that any differing opinions are invalid.

The lesson that must be learned: take self-importance down a peg. No one knows it all, and no one is so perfect there’s zero room for improvement. Look behind the mask, and ask the toughest question of all: Why is the need to always be right or to win so important? What fear does it hide?

Recommit

Recommitters represent the point of the knife. In that low moment, they take failing hard. They question their path. They may toy with quitting. But something sticks their feet to the road. The goal, the closeness of it, the realization of the hard work it took to get this far…something pulls them back from the brink. They marry the goal, and go all-in.

The lesson that must be learned: don’t give up. The hard part is done and now it’s about that last 10%. Push, strive, and believe. Keep learning and growing and it will happen.

Adapt

Adapters see failure as part of the process, so when they fail, they adapt. It isn’t the end of the world; there are other thing to want and go after. They move on.

The lesson that must be learned: find your passion and believe in yourself. Adapters may appear well-adjusted because they move on quickly, but this can also be a manifestation of a fear of risk. They may think it’s better to settle for what is safe than risk being denied what they really want. Settling usually leads to regret, so if you want something deeply, don’t give up on it.

Assess and Adjust

The double A’s move past failure in the healthiest way possible: they assess their performance, objectively review what they could have done better, and then they adjust, seeking out the help they need to improve and get to the next step.

The lesson that must be learned: there’s no lesson here…they’ve already learned it:  you should never be afraid of growing and evolving, and asking for assistance if you need it.

Personalize

Personalizers take the failure to heart, and like the crumbly edge of a sinkhole, that darkness grows. Failing to achieve the goal becomes a spiral of falsehoods where a character convinces themselves that everything they touch is bad, that their life is one big failure.

The lesson that must be learned: your failure doesn’t define you, but your reaction to it might. Get some distance and perspective. Every day is new. Everyone fails and feels inadequate at times, but it is each person’s choice to make a change. Big or small, change happens because we will it, and we work toward it.

Wallow

Wallowers crumple. They become destroyed by failure, and are unable to move on from it or imagine feeling any different. They want others to cater to them, feel sorry for them, and jump through hoops to help pull them out of their funk.

The lesson that must be learned: wallowing isn’t attractive, and makes you weak. People may cater to you when you wallow, and this helps make you feel special, but this is just a patch on a leaky boat. You’ll never be happy if you let failure own you. Realize failure is really an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace it, and resolve to do better next time.

So what are your thoughts on this? Do these lessons make sense? Do they help to reveal some of your character’s flaws, or give you ideas for emotional wounds? I hope so!

Failure is such an interesting topic, because no one likes failing and yet it is one of the building blocks that pushes a character find the resiliency to to keep trying, to fight…and that makes for compelling reading.

Which of these coping methods do your characters use? Or, do they handle failure in a different way? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

Image1 : Couselling @Pixabay
Image  2: Geralt @Pixabay

About Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a bestselling author, writing coach, and creative entrepreneur. She loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward.
This entry was posted in Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Character Flaws, Character Wound, Characters, Emotion, Fear, Motivation, Uncategorized, Villains, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to How Your Character’s Failures Can Map A Route To Self-Growth

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  3. Sherry says:

    Great post! I have so many different stories (most of them are random ideas floating around in different Word files), but one particular character came to mind. He is the villain’s right hand man, but he has been taught by the villain to be a perfectionist. He had this agreement with the villain: if he fails him, he will die. Nobody is perfect, so failure is inevitable. One day he does fail, and he Personalizes it. That is all he was ever taught. He chose to believe that his failure defined who he is. This is not true. My story was an allegory. The redemptive figure offered to give him a new identity, much like Jesus gives everyone who accepts Him a new identity. In Christ, our identity is not about what we do – it is about what Jesus has done for us. We do not have to take our failures to heart.

  4. Brmaycock says:

    Brilliant post, very inspirational and apt for me, given that I put aside 20,000 words the other day. They will be there for me to get back to in the future when I’m ready for that particular story and I’ve now moved on to something that excites me a lot more. Your post just made me smile and reminded me that I’m doing the right thing. Thanks so much:)

  5. Glynis Jolly says:

    Characters emerged in my mind while reading the different types of personalities during failure. My current project has a wallower/blamer and a personalizer/blamer. Looking at it from my own perspective, I’m one who recommits.

    • Yes I think both characters and people move from one to the next, and so much of how one reacts has to do with what the failure centers on. Some are so much more close to home than others, and so we feel more responsibility for than others.

  6. This was great, Angela. My middle-grade MC is the adapt-and-adjust type, with a little selfishness thrown in, but the biggest problems are exterior ones. (His internal arc is more a question of how brave he is.)

    The interesting thing is that I started reading not with my MC in mind, but me! In writing, I wallow for a bit but am mostly a recommitter – keep my head down and try to keep pushing forward. Too stubborn to quit. 🙂

    • So many of these posts I write are based in human psychology, so they apply to us as much as our characters. 🙂 But that’s good when we approach characterization through a real-world filter like this as it means we are creating someone really authentic! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post, Jennifer. 🙂

  7. Wow! A lot of this applies to the writer’s journey, doesn’t it?
    Thanks. Love it.

  8. This was perfectly timed! The hero in my next release, which is in edits right now, is a recommitter. He fails massively at the end, in his mind, and someone dies. It’s absolutely not his fault, but takes him some time to see that. He then recommits to his goal and vows to fight even harder.

    His love interest doesn’t really fit into any of the categories you came up with. But her big failure hasn’t happened yet either. I’m not quite sure how she’ll react when it comes. It depends on how much she grows as a character in the in-between.

    • I think there are probably other ways of dealing with failure, not just these, when when I was writing this out, this is where my mind went. The type of failure will impact how your character deals with it, so I think once you plan it out, everything will fall into place. 🙂

  9. Sara L. says:

    Great post, Angela! There are definitely points in my WIP where the protagonist experiences and feels failure. She tends to personalize those failures and wallow in them for a while (which would explain why she wants revenge for her parents’ deaths), but it also happens after a significant moment in the novel. So, part of her journey through the story is learning how to move to that “assessing and adjusting” phase – especially if she’s going to be able to achieve her story goal. 😉

    • Thanks Sara. I think characters (and people) probably hit a few of these as they process the failure, and our goal just needs to be to get to the healthier coping strategies a bit quicker each time. 🙂

  10. Paula Cappa says:

    This post was so good. I especially like the point that failure doesn’t define us, unless we allow our reaction to make us sink. In my new novel Greylock, the MC Alexei has failed in his career as a performer, a classical pianist. And Alexei does have negative feelings eating at him, especially since his failure is public via reviews and reputation. He fights the negatives and refocuses on a new musical path, which is a huge risk and challenge. Obstacles on the new musical path make the drama higher. He does have a mentor who urges him forward. I think sometimes, climbing out of failure totally alone is really difficult. We all need someone to throw us a life jacket to keep afloat and swim to shore. Relationships during times of failures are paramount, in life, and in fiction. Thanks for a stimulating post today.

    • Definitely dealing with failure alone is harder. With support, we can be more objective about what happened, but alone it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. It’s a longer process to get to a place where we move forward in a healthy way, and of course emotion factors in so heavily. When our emotions are unraveling, we aren’t in the best mindset to make decisions, but that doesn’t often stop us. This can lead to complicating the failure or compounding it, making it even harder to work past.

  11. Carol baldwin says:

    Tremendous post. Every writer in the world seeking publication needs to read this. Came at a timely point for me. Next step, apply it to my characters! Thanks

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