The title should be descriptive enough in and of itself, but just in case: I’ve said an awful lot about how authors should allow their protagonists to make mistakes more often and not simply know “intuitively” or “somehow” what the right thing to do is. But I appreciate that a protagonist who does so can look awfully stupid.
1) Give the protagonist limited access to information, for a good reason.
I’m currently reading Judith Berman’s Bear Daughter; the main character is Cloud, who was born a bear, but abruptly becomes a girl one day. She continually tries to learn more information about her bear father and exactly what happened when he kidnapped Thrush, her human mother. Since no one knows why she became human and her relatives are still in mourning for the men who died trying to rescue Thrush, they’re reluctant to tell her what she wants to know. Thus Cloud makes mistakes when she gets tossed into the wider world. A very large chunk of knowledge about her own past that most human children in her culture get the chance to absorb simply isn’t there.
This is the kind of plot that can actually work well with a child or a teenage protagonist, but also with adults. Someone who’s been in exile, is low in status but suddenly achieves social mobility, or could present danger to others with a little knowledge might also be cut out of the loop believably. And, of course, they’re going to stumble headlong when they come up on one of the unanticipated gaps in their conception of the world.
How do you differentiate good reasons to hide knowledge from bad ones? First of all, the time reason (“We don’t have time to tell you what you want to know right now”) is generally crap, because most of the time the author doesn’t actually engage the characters in constant high-speed running from the enemy. Second, the knowledge has to be actively painful or dangerous or sensitive; why should anyone care if the protagonist knows her grandmother had blue eyes or not, unless that is somehow significant? Third, it’s better when the protagonist has no means to force someone else to answer her questions, as a child or servant wouldn’t have. Just getting dragged along in sullen silence and not asking questions at all is dumb, and worse, passive.
2) Create a situation where anyone would be out of their depth.
That’s the situation of Lilith Iyapo in Octavia Butler’s Dawn. She’s informed that the Oankali, aliens who have preserved the remnants of humanity in suspension after a devastating world war, are going to breed with humans, no ifs, ands, or buts. She’s assigned to awaken other humans and introduce them to their new overlords. She makes mistakes about who the best people to wake up are, even with access to their life histories, because this is a completely new situation for everyone.
This is, I think, probably the best way to show your protagonist being mistaken, for all sorts of reasons:
- it involves thinking about the plot as well as the character
- it allows other people to make mistakes as well
- it allows your protagonist to make some right guesses, if only because of chance (Lilith, for instance, manages to correctly predict a few people’s reactions)
- it shows how admirable character traits might develop as the protagonist struggles to deal with the situation
I think this one isn’t used more often simply because of the very strong bias to have the protagonist triumph completely no matter what. Prolonged struggles and compromised victories are often not on the agenda. Well, they should be; they’re more interesting stories and less likely to be wish-fulfillment than the story where the protagonist goes forth against “impossible odds” but does everything right from the beginning.
3) Build a tendency to a certain sort of mistake into your protagonist’s personality.
Another book I recently finished reading is Tanith Lee’s White as Snow, a retelling of “Snow White.” Arpazia, the evil queen figure, is both ignorant because of her sheltered upbringing and so self-absorbed that no one else is really real to her. Thus she continually alienates other people. Her daughter, Coira, has some of the same problems, but overcomes them because she can more easily open her self to others and accept that she’s not the most important thing in the world.
If your protagonist is proud of her intelligence, she may very well propose a clever solution to a problem, and then be astonished when she tries to apply that solution and it doesn’t work because of other forces she figured to take into account. (This is a sort of mistake that I’m very familiar with from my time in academia). If she’s obsessed with going on a quest to find her kidnapped friend, she could ignore short-term “distractions” that might actually advance her goal in the long term. If she has to work with someone she finds distasteful, she might set out to prove that person a fraud in hopes of getting them dismissed, only to find out that her colleague is actually a good person but has been disgusted by her automatic distrust. (This is the sort of mistake where the protagonist is equalizing “I don’t like her” to “She’s evil.”)
This strategy might be easier for many writers, as they do generally agree that their protagonists have to have flaws. Now what needs to happen is the consistent treatment of flaws as flaws, rather than just opportunities to make other people laugh indulgently.
4) Set up several conflicting attitudes towards and explanations of the protagonist’s actions.
The most powerful of these in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow are, respectively, the notion that everything in the story is ordained by God, and the notion that the failures—the collapse of a Jesuit mission to a planet named Rakhat that’s found to be inhabited and the deaths of seven of the eight people involved in the mission—are simply the result of blind caprice and chance. The main character, Emilio Sandoz, believes in God’s will for most of the book, but his faith is challenged and challenged and challenged again until it shatters. Yet other characters remain convinced that he’s a martyr or a saint. That these same characters often die randomly and horribly adds more weight to the other side. The reader is left with differing rationales according to which Sandoz can either be blamed or exculpated from blame.
This is probably the most delicate way of creating mistakes for your protagonist to make. For one thing, there has to be actual evidence in the book that things can be interpreted more than one way. If everything is clearly the result of Destiny in this world and only an idiot would believe in free will or that the prophecy would not be fulfilled, why should the reader? (And thus we arrive at the core of my problem with every story that uses Destiny but tries to show the hero as making important choices). For another, you have to go for important mistakes. If two characters argue about their opposing principles and inflict psychic damage on each other as their relationship collapses because neither will compromise, the author has to show that those principles are vital to the characters involved. A simple healing kiss or surrender of principles by one of the characters later, or—my least favorite—a loophole according to which they’re “both” right, simply implies that the mistake wasn’t really a mistake and all the angst about it wasn’t justified.
Russell chooses several important issues for her protagonist as the core of her story: the problem of faith, the death of everyone else on the mission, the apparent betrayal by Sandoz of his vow of celibacy, and the murder of a child at Sandoz’s hands. Without these, and seeing how they came to happen, The Sparrow would be much less powerful.