Thursday, May 17

Did I Just Say That? When Characters Say Dumb Things

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are moments in my life I wish I could take back. The kind where I opened my mouth and inserted my foot right up to my hip bone. They still haunt me even though it's been years and I'll never see those people again (it's worse for the ones I see all the time, ack).

And sometimes, a verbal slip got me into trouble I would have gotten out of if Id just kept my mouth shut. 

Characters can say stupid things too.

It's a lot easier for them to come up with the perfect zinger, or to carefully consider their words before they speak, but come on, who really does that every time in real life? 

Letting your characters make verbal gaffes is a fun way to mess up a situation that should have been easy. It's also a great way to show flaws or even a darker side they'd prefer to keep hidden. They might:
  • Give away a secret
  • Call someone by the wrong name
  • Tell the truth instead of lie
  • Lie instead of tell the truth
  • Say what they think someone wants to hear

Of course, you don't want you character to make a fool of themselves all the time, because then it's hard to take them seriously. Sometimes there's a fine line between ditsy and idiotic. Be wary about letting them slip up too often. (unless, of course, that's the whole point of that character)

They can also be on the receiving end of a gaffe. Bad guys the world over have slipped up and revealed something they shouldn't have, but it also works when the protagonist's friends do it. The wrong comment at the right time might force your protagonist to reexamine something they'd been doing or a belief they'd been firmly entrenched in.

If you need a character's brain to a break so they're not thinking clearly, consider letting them (or someone else) speak out of turn. Having to deal with a verbal slip definitely takes the focus off what they intended to say.

And if you embarrass them enough, they might hold back when they really need to speak up at a critical time later.

Do your characters always say the right thing? Are there any times when a verbal slip would make the scene more interesting? 


  1. Wow this is an excellent idea, I mean it happens in my daily life where I say something and realize it wasn't the appropriate time, it would work the same for my characters!!

    Great Post!

  2. Excellent! These are great things to think about.

  3. Characters can do stupid things, too, though their (I hope momentary) stupidity of action or speech needs to have some sort of reason behind it. I get irritated by books in which the character thinks "This is stupid" right before doing something and then proceeds to do it anyway for no apparent reason.

    In one book series I like, at the end of book 3, the narrator decides to do something that really isn't the best decision, if you think it through logically. I was concerned enough that I contacted the author, who said that yes, she'd done that on purpose—and book 4 demonstrated why that narrator's decision didn't work. I happily reread those books every so often.

    This is a handy reminder to make sure even the MCs have their flaws, though.

  4. One thing to remember, is that characters aren't always logical. They make mistakes, misunderstand things, and just act in ways that aren't in their best interests. While you don't want to have them do anything that doesn't feel plausible, sometimes you have to think "is this what the character would do based on these facts and their personality?" It might not be something you'd do, but they have different experiences. It's a tough line to walk sometimes.

  5. True, characters aren't always logical, but they do have reasons behind what they do. I've recently found The Emperor's Edge series by Lindsay Buroker. The FMC seems to lack a self-preservation instinct, but it's presented as an oddity and a problem—and the recklessness is a natural offshoot of her personality.

    As a writer, I have fun with this one. ^_^ I have one character whose slips of the tongue will get her in a lot of trouble, through the series.

  6. I was actually thinking about this subject recently. Or rather, the general subject of someone messing up in the heat of the moment.

    I'm not sure if there are any moments in my story where there is a verbal slip-up, as of yet, but I'll think about it.

  7. You're so right. Saying the wrong thing could lead to all sorts of complications and really rev up a story.

  8. I have found that is times of High stress, character tend to say what they're thinking, rather than what they intend to say. This is good for both Revelations of character and information.

  9. I have had fun with this in my WIP. The best friend of the male protag lets slip a secret and the female protag gets really upset.

    The fun thing is that even as the reader (who knows all the facts at this point) is holding their breath, the heroine only follows the info to its logical conclusion, but not as far as the big reveal, because she's mission one more piece of info.

    She knows she's been deceived by the boys, and is naturally upset, but she doesn't realize the enormity of the cloak and dagger stuff going on because she's been working at it from the other end.

    It works to keep the tension high as they go into the last stages of the finale.

  10. Great points Janice. It's a way to build up the tension. I think having characters not tell the truth is one many authors use. It creates tension for the character lying and between characters when the truth comes out.

  11. Great post! I totally agree. This was a flaw in one version of my WIP. My character usually said "the right" thing. She didn't hurt people with her hasty words. Others hurt her with their words instead. That made her too much of a victim, instead of someone who also hurts others. Now that she messes up with her words (the way I do many times), the story has more tension.

  12. Carradee, that would be fun :) Readers would probably anticipate when the next cringe-worthy line would happen.

    C0, there might not be, but it's one more tool you can add to your toolbox. You never know when this might be the perfect thing to do to improve a scene.

    Traci, it can indeed. And it's fun to write :)

    Kathie, good example. And a high stress moment probably already has good tension, so that slip up would likely add to that.

    Amelia, oo fun! That's great since it works as both a tension raiser and a reveal.

    Natalie, it's also good to have them simply misunderstand each other, too.

    LinWash, great! Flaws make characters so much more interesting, don't they?

  13. Great idea! Verbal slip ups would make a character more human too :)

  14. This is something I try to work on with my stories. Acutally, something I'm tinkering with right now in the story. Something the MC's potential love interest says makes her even more leery of a potential rival.

    It's definitly interesting to play with. :-)

  15. While occasional verbal slips can be interesting, what should not be forgotten is that "words once spoken and hearts once broken, cannot be fixed" ;-D

  16. We all have said and done things we're not proud of, but just like our characters, we can't always stop it, and however mean it sounds, we have to remember that conversation, and arguments have one thing in common, they take more than one person to instigate.

    I really believe most people don't like to argue for the fun of it, but sometimes things are difficult to talk about, and just because what comes out isn't calm and rational, doesn't mean it's pure immature babbling, and I know no one's saying anything like that, I'm speaking generally here, and think it's a fair and on-topic point to make. Just a discussion point, okay?

    Sometimes people do not make it easy to ignore hostility we didn't imitate first, and there are moments when leaving the room isn't an option, I know you probably meant this in a jokey and wispy way, but I've had to battle through this very thing in much this year, so forgive me.

    Getting back on topic, I do this more often now than I used to, sometimes you don't do what your story demands because reliving, however indirectly, those feelings of letting others push your buttons are hard to type, no matter how far removed you are from what your writing.

    Just a friendly warning to not underestimate how what your writing makes you feel.

    Still, it's a skill worth having, because you never know sometimes when you need it most.

  17. Zena, exactly :)

    Sbibb, oo sounds like fun! Good luck.

    Lukkydivs, ah yes, the great consequence. That's why it's such a useful device.

    Taurean, good point, it does take two, and having one character push another too far is a good way to get these situations to happen.

    I actually knew a guy who liked to argue for fun, and he was infuriating to be around sometimes. This could be a very interesting trait to bring to a character. (I have a character like this right now)

    I didn't mean it in any particular way, just that sometimes people say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Like all my tips, what the writer chooses to do with it is up to them. This can be used seriously as well as flippantly. (my titles are always cheeky, but the advice isn't meant that way)

  18. True Janice, Having read The Shifter I can see how it can work to your advantage, I think I might've gotten a bit mixed up, but you put what I was thinking in better context than me.