October 18th, 2021

Failure, Conflict, and Character Arc

by Becca Puglisi

The change arc. The process whereby, over the course of a story, the protagonist becomes aware of their weakness and evolves in whatever way is necessary for them to achieve their story goal.

Joseph Campbell called this kind of character The Hero with a Thousand Faces because, while each protagonist is different and they each have their own problems, their journey is the same. Their success and happiness are being blocked by a specific flaw that must be dealt with. And most of the time, when their story begins, they're blissfully unaware that there's even a problem.

So how do we turn our ignorant, stuck character into someone who recognizes their fault and actively works to overcome it?

Failure.

Yes, you read that right. Failure is the key to growth.

When a character makes poor choices, acts impulsively, or lets fear get the better of them, things don't end well. Failure generates more (and bigger) problems and conflict—which lead to more chances for them to either dig a deeper hole or climb toward the light.

Failures are learning opportunities. And just like parents have to sometimes let their kids fall down, authors must provide those same chances for our characters if we want them to grow.

Failure Accents the Character's Flaws

The fatal flaw is your character’s antiquated and ineffective approach to dealing with life’s problems. It consists of mental and behavioral components that work in tandem to protect the character from experiencing emotional hurt. For example, someone who believes people will exploit his vulnerability if he lets them get close may embrace unfriendliness. Technically, this approach works; it certainly keeps people from taking advantage of him. But it does a lot of damage because no one is willing to risk a verbal lashing to have a relationship with him. Over time, he’ll feel isolated and lonely and will probably start to doubt his own worth because he can’t seem to build connections with anyone.

At the beginning of the story, your character is likely oblivious to their fatal flaw. But then conflicts arise, and as they maintain a death grip on their ineffective but comfortable old habits, they become aware of the flaw and how it's holding them back.

Just like real-life self-awareness, this is a slow process for our characters. They may not want to see the truth at first, but as each failure brings their weakness into focus, the character eventually becomes aware of it. This is the first step toward growth, and the only way for the character to get there is to fall on their face multiple times.

As authors, we have to provide the conflict scenarios that will provide these important failures.

Failure Highlights the Need for Change

But awareness doesn't necessarily result in change. How often do we recognize a flaw or shortcoming in ourselves and actively take steps to correct it? Your character will react the same way.

With each conflict that comes along, they'll stick with their old ways because those are familiar. But each instance of digging in their heels and refusing to change will create bigger problems—not only for them, but for the important people in their life. And those choices will bring them no closer to reaching their story goal.

It's painful (for them and for us), but these repeated failures are necessary if the character is going to not only recognize their flaw but realize a need for change.

Failure Pushes the Character to Embrace New Methods

Once the character acknowledges that something's got to give, they'll begin altering the way they respond to conflict. Instead of always resorting to dysfunctional methods, they'll toy with new, healthier approaches, taking baby steps toward change.

But while the character is now moving in the right direction, they're still going to struggle and make mistakes. As the story progresses, the character's plight will worsen until they're faced with a situation where half-measures just won't work. They must fully embrace the change they've been flirting with. At this point, the character will finally reject their old, ineffectual habits and replace them with new ones that will allow them to become the person they were meant to be.

“Finally” will always show up toward the end of a character’s arc because growth takes time. The character will need multiple conflict opportunities to face their demons. In the beginning, they'll fail spectacularly, which will reinforce (in their mind) the need to cling to methods that aren't working. Toward the middle, they'll have more successes—but those will only be partial victories. Growth still needs to happen. And then, in the end, once they fully commit to their new way of dealing with conflict, they'll finally be able to win.

This is the one-step-forward-two-steps-back formula that works so well in stories because it mirrors real life. It takes time and courage to see flaws for what they are and choose the hard road of discarding them and their limitations. Success and failure are intermingled, both parts of a process that eventually result in meaningful growth. And conflict is the vehicle through which we provide these necessary opportunities for our characters.

Do you agree or disagree? How does your protagonist handle failure? How many times does your character have to fail before they learn to overcome their fatal flaw? We'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Note: If you're looking for more information on conflict and the role it plays in a character's arc, The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1) is now available! You can also see the 110 entries (plus a few extras) with a free trial at One Stop for Writers.

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About Becca

Becca Puglisi

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 700,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that's home to the Character Builder and Storyteller's Roadmap tools.

8 responses to “Failure, Conflict, and Character Arc”

  1. Jenny Hansen says:

    This is a thought-provoking post, Becca! I've got to really sit down and think about my protag failure. In the story that I'm editing, there are many little failures in the first half of the story - she fails to fit into her sister's world, she fails to win over her sister's best friend (who hates her), at the midpoint, she leaves the order where she's served for more than a decade as a nun. Even as you move toward the end of Act 2, she worries that her sister will die (and that she has failed to keep her alive).

    Until I read this post, I hadn't sat to think that the first half of the book is full of failures, and the back half is moving toward success. So THANK YOU. 🙂

    • beccapuglisi says:

      Yes! It sounds like you've got it! There are many, many failures in the first half. Then the second act starts with them making a partial revelation that leads to more successes (but still some setbacks) until they finally fully commit themselves and are able to overcome.

      This was an interesting topic to learn about, myself. I'm so glad it's resonating :).

  2. Eldred Bird says:

    Okay, this one is near and dear to my heart. My late father always said that you learn more from your mistakes than you do from your successes, and you only fail when you stop trying. I use this a lot when developing characters and their arcs. I especially like it when a character succeeds, gets a little over confident, then gets slapped in the face by reality. It cements the lesson much firmer in both the character's mind and the reader's.

    Great post, Becca!

  3. Barb DeLong says:

    Such an informative post! I find the various thesauruses on onestopforwriters.com to be invaluable. I refer to them almost daily. I like Eldrid's comment on a character's success, then they get slapped in the face. My protag enjoys some small successes before she gets slammed. Lesson learned.

  4. K.B. Owen says:

    An intriguing post, thanks! This reminds me of one of Bell's key scenes when discussing structure, the "argument opposed to transformation," aka a core belief of the protag which is overturned later. I find his key-scenes method of structuring a story very helpful.

    My question about fatal flaw is this: what do you do with a series character? Each novel has to be complete, where they've successfully navigated and overcome their flaw, but it seems odd for them to deal with the same flaw over and over again in a ten-book series. Do you give them different flaws each time? Or have them deal with permutations of the flaw as different scenarios arise, where they (and the reader) thought they'd had it settled, but it keeps returning to stir up trouble? I think the latter option is kind of what I've been doing, but I really hadn't been thinking of it in terms of "fatal flaw."

    Thanks!

  5. dholcomb1 says:

    The road to success is paved with those rising above failure, time and time again.

    Those Black Moments in books are everything.

    denise

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