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My character is a police detective. But not the best one.

I'm trying to stay away from idealizations in this book. Characters will make normal, human, mistakes; they'll change their minds and be more like real people. Not perfect.

I know this book won't be for everyone. But for me, it's kind of a real story of an ordinary man doing extraordinary things. But not saving the world. He will be strong in his attitude, his moral code, and his behavior to the other people.

I'm expecting that some readers will be able to solve the problem early, before the detective does, and continue with the flow of the story. But my character will make a normal mistake. Not in procedures, and not a moral failing, but in ordinary things - like expertise, or people reading. And he will jail an innocent person, although it might be obvious to the reader that he's got the wrong guy.

How can I accomplish this without boxing this character as dumb in a reader's eyes?

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    I made some edits to your question, which make the question a bit shorter and (I hope!) somewhat clearer. Please let me know if there's something in this edit you don't like, or a point you had in that I misunderstood. Cheers!
    – Standback
    Mar 1 '16 at 11:53
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You need to make the mistake understandable. One way to do this is to make the falsly accused victim look guilty enough for people to believe the mistake. He could be framed in such a way readers would know what really happened, but the detective not. Or you could give the victim a reason to want to go to jail, so he will confess. Maybe he is threathened, or does he have something to gain? Maybe he is homeless and wants a roof over his head.

All by all you just need to make the readers believe and understand his mistake, and they will think no less of him.

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Challenge accepted.

First, allow me to patronise you with this lecture. I was asking myself a similar question recently and came up with this answer to myself. Your answer is In the last paragraph.

If you want to write a compelling story do not have your main character make mistakes without good reason. Just because 'it's realistic' is not a good reason. Arbitrary events are worthless in story currency. What's the moral of such a tale? 'Don't make mistakes'? That's a little unhelpful!

Most of the characters can be as dumb or random as you like, but the bond between your MC and your reader is very strong, almost psychic. In a way, your MC is your reader. If you have told your reader there is danger ahead, your MC's instinct should tell him the same thing. If it doesn't, your reader may get confused, or frustrated, or simply scornful of the strange or dumb ways your MC is behaving, and they may just take it out on your writing. You as the writer are held responsible for everything in the story. You won't be around to explain that random slip-ups are 'realistic'.

If you want your MC to make mistakes he should do it because he is visibly at fault. He's ignoring instinct, advice or clues because he's struggling with character flaws, e.g. pride, stubbornness, prejudices. His refusal or inability to do the right thing is the heart of your story.

You should look at the mistakes you want him to make, and find his reasons for doing those things. They should define his personal journey, whether it ultimately ends in success or failure.

Lecture over. You knew all of that. What you're looking for is a way around it or a way to subvert it. Try this...

Surprise your readers with a twist: reveal that detective is not the main character of the story. Somebody else is. Somebody else, whose personal story was actually deeper and more compelling (maybe his partner, maybe the narrator?) steps into the limelight to finish off the overall story, and his/her own personal story. Perhaps in the way Dr. Watson would have to step in to save an incompetent Sherlock Holmes. This gives you a framework to hang up the detective's story and poke holes in his judgement or lament his terrible bad luck, without the reader feeling they had been robbed of a satisfying and logical conclusion.

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  • I find the point you're making quite profound and would like to learn more. Can you guide me to the source where I can study relation between a reader and the MC?
    – Rico
    May 14 at 10:06
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Distract him. Exhaust him. Put him under pressure from his boss, from the press, from his wife, from the party next door that goes on until 4am when he has to be up at six, from the pain he thinks might be cancer.

Maybe his very horror at the crime and sympathy for the victim - good qualities in themselves - stop him from thinking clearly.

Think of the reasons that have caused you to have a day from hell and inflict them on him on the day he most needed to be alert to see the clues that were there all the time.

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When you describe the mistake your character makes, the reader's view of the character will be transformed. There is no way around that, in fact this transformation is essential to developing your character and your story. The only question is how is the view transformed.

Part of the answer, is that you want the character to be transformed from unknown to fleshed-out in some way. You want your character to be fallible. In effect you are asking how to unveil him as fallible in a sympathetic way.

One might distinguish errors as being a failure of observation, or of some technical failure (e.g. ignorance of a point of forensic science) or even of moral failure (e.g. jumping to a conclusion a suspect is guilty, and then shading interpretations of any further evidence in favor of guilt). All of these might be made sympathetic, but it is harder in some cases. Should your reader think the mistake is one he might make, that would count in favor of sympathy. For a fallible character to be sympathetic, he must care to avoid injustice, even as he knows he runs the risk of commiting it. Or maybe he is so inexperienced and naive, that he doesn't know, until too late.

I have offered several alternatives for constructing fallibility. I think one must consider these possibilities, and more, but it might not be necessary to resolve all these distinctions. The character might be in doubt as to what sort of errors he commits. If you like to use internal dialog, this presents a chance to develop your character, or your philosophy of justice (within the confines of the story) or both.

If you want to limit or avoid internal dialog, this exploration can still be done but it becomes less straightforward. Mention a twinge of guilt, or a surge of self-righteousness in response to some event. Have your character converse with colleagues or witnesses or bit characters presenting obstacles.

If the plot includes a trial, the defense attorney presents many oppotunities to explore fallibility.

Does your protagonist ever lock his keys in his car?

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