I recently looked back on my very first novel, written many, many moons ago to impress a girl I had NO chance with (Hi, Allison!). One of the things that struck me as good in that giant morass of crap is that the hero, who looked nothing like me whatsoever, failed a lot. It was the first time I realized that tension and conflict were part of the formula for good storytelling, not “And then Captain Big McLargeHuge fired the mega-proton-totally-not-a-euphemism-for-my-penis cannon and obliterated the entire alien armada. In one shot. Because he’s Big McLargeHuge, savior of the galaxy. And he has sex all the time.”
As a younger reader, I read a lot of Mack Bolan and Phoenix Force books. Those guys never failed. Ever. Unless someone needed to die (hint: they got to have sex or we learned their backstory), it was one long bullet-fueled fantasy. I loved those books because a ten year-old doesn’t necessarily need character development when they live in an abusive household. They need escape, and those books provided it. “I’m gonna be so badass when I grow up. I’ll swagger around, positively festooned with firearms.”
Don’t judge me.
As I continued writing, I incorporated a lot of failure into my characters. In the Annotated Chronicles, Tracy Hickman told about a reader who was amazed to see an elf character, with a bow, who missed his target. It rarely happens in a lot of stories. Big McLargeHuge would never miss with a laser. How could he? Then I wouldn’t get to write a four paragraph description of the wound!
In Stormcaller and now Eldritch Legacy, I’ve got a young witch who controls a bit of magic. The temptation is to let her nuke everything in sight, but that’s not very compelling tale-spinning. That’s escapist crap, something I want to avoid. She’s still tough, but she takes more than her share of knocks. She’s not the smartest character in the room. She’s not the prettiest, and possibly not the bravest. She is, however, the one who won’t quit, who doesn’t let the bad guys keep her down…even when every fiber in her being tells her to give up.
In those moments, she shines.
So let your characters get a bit dirty. Let them run into obstacles. Let the bad guys gain the upper hand. Let the heroes fail, because that’s when the reader identifies with them. And when (if?) they achieve their victory, it will not be a cheap or shabby thing, and the reader will share in it.