There is one thing your characters must do in every story. (At least, in every good story!) They need to make mistakes. Huge, wonderful, fantastic, messy and massive mistakes!
Last week, I asked for stories from some friends to illustrate this idea.
“I have way too many stories of bad choices that make for interesting narratives. The most recent is from yesterday, when I decided to pass two slow cars on the highway. Unable to get past the second one before the road narrowed to one lane, I was mightily annoyed to notice that the first car had sped up and tried to slip past me RIGHT where the second lane ended! The nerve! Muttering a couple words not suitable for young children, I slammed my foot down on the accelerator, giving me the burst of speed needed to overtake the driver I had dubbed “Jerky McJerkerson.”
Successfully wedged between the two vehicles, I may have done a smug little happy dance…right before noticing that the car in front of me was a hearse.
YUP.” –Kimberly VanderHorst
“I do have a funny one about my son putting dozens of rolly pollies (pill bugs, potato bug) in his underwear for safe keeping.
We found them at dinner time when he could not sit still at the table.
After that, we had a bucket outside for him to store his bugs in. But the next day, he put more in his underwear because he forgot where the bucket was.
When we called him to dinner, he just started crying. It took 10 minutes to calm him down enough for him to admit his bottom was itching because he couldn’t find the bucket.
Those. Poor. Bugs.” –Erin Lewis
(“I’m glad you’ve taught him the proper scientific names for things. You wouldn’t want him to be an adult and not know that it’s called a roly-poly.” –Sachiko Burton)
“So today my wife took her car through the car wash. Somebody had distracted her and, long story short, the car went through with her back window rolled down.
So she learned something she’ll never forget: to double-check the windows before handing it off to get washed.
And me? I learned two life lessons.
The first was that a good response to hearing about this is to give her a hug and say, “We all make mistakes.” Or something. In my defense, I didn’t really have a lot of prep time for a situation like this. Well, it turns out, the incorrect response is to belly laugh and say, “I thought you didn’t like to car pool.”
And the second lesson? This couch is not comfortable at all!!” –James Duckett
“When I was 15, Mom and I went to see Doc Hollywood in the theatre. A sweet Michael J Fox movie. Well, Mom leads us into the theatre and the movie is already showing. We sit down and think it’s pretty weird that it’s so dramatic and then Sharon Stone comes in and cracks someone’s neck with her thighs.” –Sydney Strand
“Nearly two decades ago, my family stopped using index cards for recipes, opting, instead, to put them in sheet protectors. It all started when my sister was making double chocolate cream puffs. Because there are seven people in my family, and because a dessert like this warrants seconds, my mom instructed her to double the recipe. My sister is a great cook, had proven her kitchen prowess and so mom left her to it while she and I went out to work in the yard.”
“Time passed and all of a sudden my sister threw open the kitchen door, calling to my mom that something bad was happening. In the oven, instead of happy puffs of chocolate, a cocoa goo spilled over the pan all over the bottom of the stove. It was a stinky, sticky mess. Once it was all cleaned up, my mom and my sister sat down to go over the recipe, trying to figure out how something they’d both made before without a problem could have gone so horribly wrong. My mom said the ingredient, my sister said how much she put in. Flour, check. Cocoa, check. When she got to sugar, my sister said, “Eight cups.”
“Yes, because I was doubling it and 4 cups doubled is eight.”
“Oh,” my mom sighed, scrapping leftover something from the card. “The recipe said 1/4 cup of sugar, not four cups.” –Tasha Seegmiller
“My family loves to retell the story about my oldest brother, Fred, who was teasing my sister by riding her bike around our backyard in the Florida swamp. She chased him all over the place, yelling at him to give her bike back.”
“Well, Fred decided to ride her new bike with it’s stylish banana seat toward the wide and deep canal which ran along the back of our yard. He was going very fast. I imagine, he planned to go over the boat dock and then curve back into the yard. However, Fred forgot one important piece of information.”
“Her bike didn’t have handle bar brakes. Consequently, he zoomed out over the canal and sunk my sister’s bike in the murky water, home to fish and manatee and large gators.”
“Fred hightailed it out of that water. Then he and my siblings fetched a large anchor from a neighbor. They repeatedly cast it out into the water until finally managing to hook the bike and drag it out. That bike turned into a sad, completely rusted, beast.
(I still think my brother should replace her bike. Banana seat and all.)” –Erin Shakespear
What is it that makes these stories so fun to tell?
The bad choices, of course!
If my brother had been teasing my sister, riding all around, not letting her have her bike, but then decided to just give it back to her because her tears and cries finally got to him, that would be a boring story! (Although, her bike would’ve fared better.)
It’s his decision to keep going, to keep pestering her, to head out toward the canal, forgetting about the bike’s lack of brakes that makes the story so enjoyable.
Recently, I finished reading The Night Gardener by Jonathon Auxier. And, boy, oh boy, this book sure does a great job of letting Molly, one of the main characters, make mistakes. Her and her brother are desperate for work. They end up in a spooky old house on an island. And there are some rather strange things going on. But do they leave? Even when her brother wants to? No way! Molly continues to make bad choice after bad choice. She hides an important truth from her brother. And then she lets herself get wrapped up in some pretty dark magic as she continues to keep things hidden from him. And boy does she lie. A lot.
My heart ached for her. I understood why she made those choices. I understood her fear and grief and worries. I understood why she made all those bad choices. But I wanted her to stop. I wanted her to fix things. And I flipped the pages faster and faster, needing to see how it would all play out, wanting to see if her brother would learn the truth, wanting to see what would happen with the magic. Would her brother forgive her? What would the consequences be for getting wrapped up in the twisted magic? Would they be able to get away?
Let your characters blunder, make bad choices, take wrong paths, and choose the irresponsible and most damaged options.
Let them make mistakes!
Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist.