The other day, my coauthor and I were talking about character motivations around a particularly central plot point.
“That’s really not a great decision,” I said, of the character’s reaction.
“Yes,” he replied, “but bad life choices make the best stories.”
I think Esteemed Coauthor was right on the money. If a realistic and relatable character must be flawed, the corollary is that they must make mistakes.
There is, however, ‘more’ is not always ‘better’ when it comes to character mistakes. After a certain point, we lose patience with the characters, either because they don’t seem to be learning from their mistakes, don’t display common sense, or are being a burden on the rest of the unnaturally tolerant cast.
Sympathetic mistakes are either ones that the audience can see themselves making were they in the character’s position, or ones that stem from the character genuinely trying to do the right thing. The characters are doing the best with what they have, and do their best to make a good decision. They may be impaired by a lack of correct information, their own misconceptions or personality flaws, or a calculus about what is ‘best’ that may not jive with that of the other characters.
Unsympathetic mistakes are ones that defy logic, character development, and the characters’ in-universe knowledge. These are the characters who charge like scantily clad teenage lemmings into the Creepy Haunted Basement of Doom even though it’s clearly eaten several of their friends. Or the cowboy cop who rushes off to confront the bad guy without asking for backup.
These type of mistakes can work when they stem from an established character flaw. If we know that the hero is impulsive and quick to overestimate himself, we will empathize and cringe when he runs into battle alone instead of waiting for his friends The key is that the character can only get away with this once, or audience eye-rolling and evaporating sympathy is likely to ensue. Furthermore, the character needs to experience real consequences for their choices, rather than have the rest of the cast put a positive spin on the incident and brush it under the rug*.
Pick some key moments for your character to make the wrong choice, and build those into your plot. Once you’ve established your character doesn’t have perfect knowledge or perfect judgement, it’s a lot easier to create suspense over the outcome of their struggles.
*Obnoxious but competent characters can hold audience interest based on this trope, since much of the conflict (and thus fascination) derives from the tension between the other characters’ need to punish the antisocial behavior and their equal or greater need for the obnoxious character’s unique skills.