When I read or write fiction, I like seeing characters make bad decisions and then deal with the consequences. However, if they make those decisions for implausible reasons, they can appear silly or inconsistent rather than attracting sympathy. If they’re forced into decisions because of overwhelming external factors, they may come across as lacking agency. In both cases, the decision seems made purely to further the plot rather than arising naturally. For me, the sweet spot is when readers can appreciate straight off (or shortly afterwards) that a character has made a misstep with likely repercussions, but it’s understandable why they ended up in that situation.
In my day job in a pathology lab, mistakes can have serious, even fatal, consequences. We try our hardest to minimise them as well as spotting and correcting them as early as possible. When (not if—we’re human, after all) a mistake happens, we investigate the reasons and see what we can do to prevent a repeat. Additionally, at corporate level, we are expected to attend courses on how to make systems safer. Such training can be a chore, but for me it has one significant plus: it’s fertile ground for ideas about where characters may go wrong.
I’d like to share here how I set up my characters’ unforced errors, allowing them to make plot-influencing mistakes in a realistic manner. The concepts aren’t new, but using risk management ideas helps me to flesh out details. This isn’t an academic treatise, so I have cherry-picked knowledge from workshops on error, mandatory training and general wider reading. Also, the definition of “wrong” in this context might be fluid, but I’d view it as something suboptimal for the character’s intentions (and interesting for the reader).