I’m not trying to be all doom and gloom here, but I couldn’t help but think that my post last week could use a follow-up. So here’s a little bit of my thoughts on failure, and how an author can use it for inspiration.
Failure is an integral part of the writer’s life. It is the blood of your pen, spreading in a dirty pool around your work, leaving a sticky trail pointing directly back to you. It fuels your struggles, brings your characters to life, and marks the corpses of your children.
Failure is the primary means of connecting your characters to the reader. Conflict and tension keep the reader interested, but failure in that conflict makes the reader care about how they will recover. A good story will have conflict that has high stakes, up to and including the end of the universe. So when your character overslept on the day of the big test, or comes in second in the race, or is too slow to prevent the death of a loved one, we know there are consequences to the failure. The trial of the author is to tell us how this affects your character, and more importantly, how they will get past it and move on to face the next challenge.
All of us have failed at something in our life. We lose the game, or we didn’t study hard enough, or we miss the bus. Sometimes we blow the job interview, or we get caught speeding, or the person we love decides they want to see other people. As writers, there’s always the ubiquitous rejection letter. All of these experiences help us to connect with the reader in our stories. Remember how these failures affected you, and use it to help you tell how your character’s failure will affect them.
And don’t forget that most writers are psychopaths. They delight in taking a character and ruining their life. The more pain and suffering they go through, the better. Harry Potter started as a normal kid, but then Ms. Rowling decided it would be a better story if his parents were dead and his guardians hated him. Even after she relented and let him out of the closet, his adventures at Hogwarts just kept getting progressively more dangerous, until the fate of the entire world hung on his shoulders. Frodo was pushed through unfamiliar lands, being chased by monsters that outclassed him in every way, and only had Sam as a companion for most of the trip. He wound up on the brink of madness, and he only managed to complete his quest with the help of the already insane Gollum. The most powerful stories include a moment when the only thing the main character is sure of is that all is lost. The point where there is no hope, and they have no idea what to do next.
I’m at that point right now in my short story, “The Hunt”. I’ve got the main character holed up in a room with no escape, hiding from certain death. I have no idea how she is going to get away, and so by default I’m pretty sure she feels the same way. Other failures I have been dealing with in this story is that even the beginning section has been through three drafts, and still my critique group keeps telling me that it isn’t working. I’m starting to believe them.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? The test isn’t whether or not we can succeed at everything. It is how we deal with what happens after we fail. How we pick ourselves up and continue on, dragging ourselves out of the gutter to face the next problem. I have had plenty of practice dealing with the boots stomping on my face. I’m sure there will be plenty more black nights in my future, but I have to keep looking for the dawn breaking over the horizon. I have faith that I’m not alone, and all of my trials will make me a better person.
I hope this little bit of rambling helps you out. Keep plugging away, and I’ll see you again on Thursday!