Themes in Fiction #11 – Fear of Failure

Picture by Kevin B 3

Picture by Kevin B 3

“He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.” ~ Napoleon


Many characters, in YA novels particularly, find themselves thrust into worlds they don’t understand, or elevated into positions of power because of unusual circumstances, or doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily because of love or duty. In a lot of these situations, the characters have a lot to lose, and fear of failure becomes something they have to battle with, and ultimately overcome, in order to succeed.


Shadow and Bone by Leigh BardugoShadow and Bone

Bardugo’s protagonist, Alina Starkov, discovers far later than she should have that she is possessed of great power. She’s a sun summoner, someone who can call on light to do her bidding. Which is all very wonderful and lovely, but people suddenly have expectations of her. Alina is elevated from a lowly – and not very good – cartographer in training to the most important person in her country.

All of a sudden, people are depending on her to save the country from a terrible darkness, but Alina is crippled by the fear that she isn’t who they think she is, that she won’t be able to do what they all need and want her to. Alina’s fear of failure prevents her from manifesting her power for a good portion of the book – what she does by instinct in moments of need, she is unable to reproduce when she deliberately wants to.

By the second book, Alina is forced to face up to her responsibility and her power, and (I’ve not finished listening to it yet, so I don’t know what happens at the end) as the story progresses, she starts to realise more and more her own strength.

Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgeraldblackbrick

Sometimes fear of failure isn’t so much a thing that’s preventing characters from acting, more something that motivates them to act. When the consequences of failure are so dire, fear of allowing them to occur is enough to push a character to act.

In Back to Blackbrick, Cosmo is terrified that he won’t be able to find answers to help his grandfather overcome Alzheimers. He does everything in his power to find a way to prevent his grandfather slipping further away from him, and the inevitableness of it all is truly heartbreaking. You watch Cosmo fight and fight to save his grandfather, knowing all the while that there’s nothing he can do. In this case, the theme ‘fear of failure’ is much more to do with coming to terms with and accepting ‘failure’.

New Adult and the Fear of Failure

Almost every New Adult book I’ve read contains this theme. I think it’s one that’s particularly pertinent to the age group – you’re in your early twenties, you haven’t got a clue, but the big wide world beckons and that’s terrifying. So many New Adult characters battle with the difference between expectation and reality, and their own fears of mucking everything up now they’re outside of the safe, protective bubble of parents and childhood.

Finding your feet, learning who you are and being brave enough to embark on some new adventure – whether that be travelling, a relationship, a dream job – all require overcoming the fear of failure. And from personal experience, I think the key to overcoming it is realising that, actually, failure isn’t all that bad. A tad embarrassing, maybe, and disappointing. But the value comes from what we learn on the journey, and making a choice rather than being blindly swept along.

Cora Carmack does particularly well at exploring these ideas (though I haven’t read her latest book Finding It, so can’t comment on that).


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