Measured and Found Wanting: Failure as Characterization

As a teacher, I spend a lot of time talking to my students about failure—what it is, and isn’t, and why it has value. Often, I find myself paraphrasing this story from Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, about a councilman advocating a promotion for a man who had previously disgraced himself. Confronted with the question of why someone who has erred should be trusted, the councilman claims:

“If we were to cast aside every man who had made a mistake once, useful men could probably not be come by. A man who makes a mistake once will be considerably more prudent and useful because of his repentance. . . . I can guarantee him by the fact that he is a man who has erred once. A man who has never once erred is dangerous.”

Or, to use another bromide well-known in the martial arts world: “Fall down seven times; stand up eight.”

Perhaps it’s human nature to spend so much time being afraid of the negative consequences of failure,we spend relatively little considering the value of (to borrow from A Knight’s Tale) being measured and found wanting.

The basic idea behind Yamamoto’s anecdote is, of course, that failure teaches us to persevere. A person who has never failed is dangerous because they have no idea what comes after: how to stand back up, make amends, turn wounded pride into productive action. Failure tempers us, hardens us against succumbing to our darkest moments. Indeed, failure is so important in Yamamoto’s story that it’s a qualifying factor in one’s character. In a similar way, characters in stories qualify themselves to us as real through their failures and, equally important, their reactions to them. How do they cope with being measured and found wanting? What comes next?

In sff stories in particular, failure tends to come with consequences far beyond the mental well-being of a single character. Indeed, failure’s stakes can be so vast—if Thanos snaps his fingers; if Sauron retrieves the One Ring; if Voldemort gathers the remaining Horcruxes—that characters risk becoming vanishing points consumed within them. In this month’s column, we’ll look at the importance of centering character failure as a technique for sharpening their reality and strengthening the reader’s bond with them.

We read stories for reasons various and personal: to enjoy the feelings of escape, inspiration, delight, pathos, shock, horror, or mystery they can offer. Often, we look to the characters in stories as our chief source of these emotional drugs, and no wonder. The characters of the stories we read inhabit richer-seeming worlds than we do, if the story is sff and any good. They’re people on a journey we would like to imagine as our own. It’s for this reason we need to see characters fail every bit as much as we need to see them succeed. We might even need it more. If you’re going to tell stories (sfnal or otherwise) that invite us into the realism of a place where it rains, you need to consider what character failure looks like, and what failure teaches us about who these imagined people really are.

In reality, we judge people by their failures: both what they fail in, and how they cope with the failure itself. In fiction, how, or if, a character can pull themselves together from their many scattered pieces speaks to something primal in the reader. It’s the plucked string, a resonance of imperfection and recognition, the admission of fragility and durability living in the same person, in whatever unequal measure.  

Consider Helene Wecker’s critically-acclaimed The Golem and the Jinni, a powerhouse debut of historical fantasy, crowded with lovingly-drawn characters and period tableau of 1899 New York. Wecker’s titular characters, the Golem (Chava) and the Jinni (Ahmad), spend as much time failing as they do succeeding in their quest to masquerade as human without losing—or succumbing to—their true natures. These failures, along with the failures of other characters in the story, create the verisimilitude necessary to invest in them as people, not just because we see in failure the shadow of our imperfect selves, but because we see in the reaction to failure everything we hope for (or fear) about what will happen to us when we fail.

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

(Nb., if you’re keen to avoid spoilers about Wecker’s novel, skip the next three paragraphs, each in italics. You have been warned.)

Chava fails to restrain the part of the golem nature that revels in destruction in service to a master. Unable to destroy herself to prevent another such failure, she marries a man ignorant of her true nature, and in trying to use him as a new master to protect others from herself, she puts him at ultimately fatal risk.

Ahmad bonds with a young boy who needs his guidance and mentorship, but fails to help him under the most impossible of circumstances. When frustration causes him to lash out at the grieving boy, he refuses to deny his cruel words, or to recant or explain them. His defiant honesty casts him out of his community.

The corrupt magus Yehuda Schaalman searches for the forbidden lore that will grant him immortality, terrified of his own impending death and divine judgment for his many crimes. He uses what he learns to attack the remnants of his past lives, punishing them for living in misery and ignorance of having already achieved their ultimate desire, and absolving himself for having done the same.

And the list goes on—or it could, if I had blog enough and time. With each of Wecker’s characters’ failures, we see new dimensions of their true selves: their self-abnegating scrupulousness (Chava), their excess of dignity (Ahmad), their resentment and entitlement (Schaalman). To write a character well, one must not just give them flaws, but give them failures they react to in a way that explores and deepens the fundamental nature readers might otherwise take for granted. The very things that make Wecker’s characters memorable and sympathetic (or at least engrossing) are the sources of their worst impulses, their most misguided decisions.

For that matter, without failure, these characters—however multifaceted—have no story to occupy. If all the beats of plot revolve around the actions of other characters and their impact on the protagonist(s), then we’re being asked to share a story with a character lacking all agency, someone who is the subject of others’ decisions, not their own. Characters must make mistakes to be truly human and to propel the narrative forward. At the final moment, Frodo must put on the One Ring so that he can come to realization that no trial of courage could have ever proven him that power’s equal. Luke must succumb to fear and abandon his training with Yoda to rescue (only some of) his friends. Robb and Catelyn Stark must accept the hospitality of Walder Frey, because they believe in the system that’s meant to protect them, despite their own misdeeds. They “must” do these things not because it’s part of a literary formula, but because their personalities and experiences drive them to make these mistakes—even the fatal ones. Failure and consequences give characters’ actions meaning, remind us of stakes, show us what can and can’t be redeemed when we fail.

Failure reminds us that stories are about us, as people. The next time you sit down to write something of your own, or read again a much-beloved book, look at what failure offers to the characters you love. If it means a character is measured and found wanting, perhaps it also means they have been measured to size specifically for you.