Friday, November 10, 2017

Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There's a popular TV show that I watched for several seasons, but finally had to stop. I tried to love it, wanted to love it, by all accounts should have loved it, but every time I watched it I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle every single one of the characters.

Because they were all too stupid to live.

Believe it or not, this is an actual literary term (no, really). It's a common trope that describes characters who act in ways no sane or reasonable person would act in the face of danger.

Such as...
  • Telling the corrupt politician who murdered several people you're going to tell the press all about their criminal activities. And doing it alone. Without telling anyone where you were going and what you planned to do.
  • Or following the blood trail down the stairs into the pitch black basement with the heavy breathing and the soft whimpering sounds.
  • Or doing exactly the thing you were told not to do, even though you know it will result in your death or the death of a lesser important member of the book.
I understand why this happens. Sometimes a writer wants to have a scene unfold a certain way and the only way to do it is to have a character act against their own best interests. People do dumb things from time to time, I get it. Heck, I've done it, both as a writer and as a person.

Now, to be clear, the occasional stupid decision or slip up in a story is perfectly okay. People make mistakes. I'm talking about characters who always or almost always do the dumb thing, and the only way the plot works is if they're acting idiots. These characters never learn no matter how times they mess up. 

If you're considering a "too stupid" act for your characters, please think again.

Too stupid to live characters lose reader faith as quickly as they lose their survival instincts. It's hard to root for or even like a character who repeatedly makes dumb choices, especially when they cry "how could this have happened?" after disaster strikes (again and again and again). If they make too many of these in a row, readers are likely to start rooting for the bad guys--if they bother to keep reading at all.

(Here are some good ways your characters can make bad choices)

How do you know if your character is too stupid to live?

  • Do they ever think, "Gee, that would be a really dumb thing to do" (in some fashion) and then do it anyway without very good reason?
  • Do they ever tell someone who can--and likely will--hurt them that they plan to betray or expose them?
  • Do they ever ignore the obvious signs of danger or take zero precautions against those dangers?
  • Do they ever act in ways that no sane person would ever act?
  • Do they make the foolishly wrong choice every single time?
  • Are they oblivious to life-threatening situations?
  • Do they make the same dumb mistakes multiple times?
  • Do they ignore people who tell them not to trust them or who have done bad things to them in the past?
  • Do they frequently act in ways contrary to their own best interests?
  • Do they often attack (or confront) in no-win situations?
  • Do they have zero survival instincts?

If any of these fit your character (especially if more than a few do) then that character might be too stupid to live.

But never fear, there is hope for these poor characters. They can learn those all-important survival skills and become characters worth rooting for instead of against.

Just take away the stupid.

Sounds obvious, right? But anyone who's ever needed a scene to go one way, and the only way to do that is to make your protagonist a little dumb, knows it's not as easy as it seems. Sometimes there is no easy way to get your character to behave how you need them to, and fixing it requires some heavy rewrites or re-plotting.

(Here's more on writing yourself into a corner)

Six Ways to Take Away the Stupid

1. Give the character a solid motivation for acting the way they need to act.

Doing a dumb thing for a good reason is acceptable, because sometimes we have to do things we know are a bad idea or something worse will happen. If the best option available is a stupid idea, but everything else is way worse, they have no choice but to do it.

2. Revise the scene so the character does what any logical person would do in that situation.

This usually takes more work, but worth it in the long run and even avoids creating contrived scenes or plot points. Forget what you planned to write--look at the situation and decide what the character would do in that situation and have them do that.

3. Meet the character halfway.

Maybe they start to do the stupid thing, then realize what a bad idea it is and back off. You can often still have the outcome you wanted to have happen, but the character gets to redeem themselves a little.We all slip up from time to time and a moment of idiocy during a stressful day is understandable.

4. Use it as a learning opportunity.

If they have to be stupid, let them be stupid in a way that will sear that lesson into their brains so they won't do it again later in the story when a similar situation comes up. Let it be an example of their character arc and growth.

5. Let them be smart instead and see how that affects the scene.

Readers like clever characters, so if your character can be smart, let them. Look for another way to get them into trouble down the road. Or better still--let them be smart and still fail. Smart antagonists are even more fun than smart protagonists. 

6. Make it their only choice.

If every other option is worse than doing something stupid, then a character has to do the stupid thing and readers won't fault them for it.

Readers lose respect for characters who constantly do dumb things, so try not to send your characters out in to the world without a little preparation. Give them the skills they need to survive, even if they struggle along the way. If they wouldn't possibly have those skills yet when the story opens, then give them the ability to learn those skills.

Do you know any characters who are too stupid to live? Have you ever written one?

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I love this. I think with the "following the trail of blood" thing most writers rely on natural human curiosity, which is true to an extent. And people who don't follow through make boring stories in that case. But I love your tips about having a reason to follow through, especially on telling the person who can hurt you that you'll tell the press.

    1. There's a fine line between curiosity and TSTL, and that'll certainly depend on the character and the situation. Characters *can* be stupid (and often are) when it fits the story.

  2. Sometimes, if a character's built as rash (or subconsciously suicidal), I can buy the TSTL, but they have to learn from it. (Case in point: October Daye. She's rash, learns from it, later has something happen that turns her suicidal, and gets smacked out of that. A certain character's reaction when she stopped fighting his help is one of the re-read scenes in that series, for me.)

    But YES, if someone's doing something stupid, make sure it's well built in the character and situation, not just something needed for the sake of plot.

    1. Absolutely, rashness or other traits can be perfectly acceptable. It's when it tips over into TSTL it can become a problem.

  3. Wow, is this ever a familiar problem! I've done it over and over … but there comes a point where the character will just balk, refusing to do anything I want done. Then I realize I've written someone who is too stupid to do what I want accomplished, and I have to go back and put some brains in.

  4. Love this! And cracked up over Pat's comment of going back and putting brains in! :)

    I like to make readers wonder if this character is really that stupid, then have them show some backbone, then get forced into a situation where they know what they have to do would be considered stupid - but they have no 'out'. I can then set up all kinds of unforeseen (by the character and the reader) ways to squeak past or through danger that reveal the character's unrealized capabilities.

    Never works that way in real life - I do something stupid, it usually hurts... :D

    1. That sounds like a fun way to handle it.

  5. Great list of fixes. I'm glad you mentioned the difference between naive and stupid. I just finally saw `Frozen' and the main character has a habit of not looking before she leaps, but it's believable and doesn't make you hate her at all (especially since she doesn't remember the time it had very serious consequences.) And she does learn from her later experiences.

    1. That's a great example of someone who isn't TSTL, just foolish in some ways due to their circumstance. If you never learned that impulsive behavior can cause problems, then it makes sense to dive in.

  6. Janice, I don't know how you keep coming up with such excellent posts with things I would never have thought of, but you do. ANother one for my writing students--and for me too! Thanks for all the fixes. Your blog rocks!

    1. Aw, thanks! This one was all my friend Alex. I had dinner with her the other night and we were talking about TV and tropes and this one came up. I thought it would make a good addition to the site :)

      But usually topic ideas come from things I notice when I'm writing, questions people ask me, things I see in the RLDs, or random things that inspire me.

  7. This bugs me about some characters too.

    1. Sometimes it can ruin an otherwise good story.

  8. I've seen a few shows, very popular ones, where I've glared at the TV and thought, "Really. Really? Did you seriously just do that when you could have done 10 other things" about some character actions/reactions. I've had the same reactions to some things I've read in books. I will have to review my works in progress to make sure I don't have any characters doing really dumb things unless it's like that last example, as in a last resort.

    1. It does happen fairly often, especially in TV (I think the shorter format makes it harder to work around it sometimes). I think one reason is that authors know how they want a scene to turn out and write it that way, even if it doesn't quite work from a logic standpoint.

  9. This is something I had to handle with care regarding my debut novel, GABRIEL, regarding my antagonist and his gang. I wanted them to be seen as three dimensional and not just hapless comic relief.

    I wanted to invert male stereotypes and didn't want my antagonist especially to be seen as a idiot thug, that's not who he is, anymore than my protagonist is a snobby "Genius."

    I know in children's books especially, it's common to play characters against type, the whole "Opposites Attract" or react thing but I didn't want it to be cartoonish to a fault, that wouldn't serve them of the story as a whole. As much as we emphasize the need to humor and levity (and truth be told, folks doing dumb things do bring levity, however illogical) we still need characters that are multi-faceted and real, even though they're talking rats...

    Unless it's a story that HINGES on absurdity, that depth needs to be there.

    I had the plot work in a way that required the protagonist and antagonist to learn from each other.

    My protagonist is shy but isn't the classic anti-social outcast, when he trusts someone he'll be open and sociable, in that sense similar to myself.

    My antagonist is extroverted, and isn't afraid to do quirky (not necessarily "Stupid") things, but has a harder time talking about or acting on his deep inner feelings, even with those he trusts most.

    My protagonist is smart but doesn't use it as a weapon or to make others feel dumb. He's not ashamed of his intelligence. He just doesn't use it as a means to feed his ego, but has a tendency to lack healthy confidence in his abilities.

    My antagonist is a rough and tumble type, not afraid to be aggressive or bust chops, but is capable of warmth and emotional nuance, their rocky relationship works because they're different enough to be their own character, but similar enough to be open to learning from each other, both directly and indirectly.

    I certainly hope that's what some readers will take away when GABRIEL comes out. I know you helped me get the first chapter to the level that my editor is helping further streamline and flesh out. Thanks again, Janice.

    1. Characters can be stupid from time to time, and do absurd things when the story calls for it. It's just helpful to be aware of that line that keeps them from being believable vs TSTL.

      Glad your revisions are going well with your editor!

    2. I know what you're saying, I'm just making the point that for this story, too much "screwball" would be wrong for the characters and story involved involved, that's all. That's a fair point, you know?

  10. The Winchester brothers on Supernatural are often TSTL. It always works out for them, but they do the dumbest things. Following the blood trail alone kind of things. I do occasionally wish to throttle them.

    1. Some days so do I. I can forgive them the blood trail thing though in most cases, since that's kinda their job (grin). But yeah, after everything they've seen and know, you'd think they'd be a little smarter about certain situations and trusting certain demons.

  11. Once again your article strikes so well where it wasn't expected!

    This makes me main character IS too stupid to live, this is how I write her. She is eager for some action and she acts before she thinks, that's partly how the story moves forward.
    So maybe I should shift the POV and make her the funky unpredictable sidekick that puts the hero (with a deeper arc, now that I think about it) in awkward situtations?

    That gives me a lot to think about, I will never say thank you enough for all your good ideas and advice!

    1. You'd have to consider what you want from the story. If part of her arc is to learn to think before she acts, then showing her being TSTL at first might work well. But if you have another character that might make a better hero, you could think about giving her a secondary role.

      Think about what you want from the story and the character as a whole. Yes, it's a trope, but that doesn't mean you can't make it work if that's what you want to do. :)

  12. Ahahaha, TSTL! This trope simultaneously frustrates and amuses me. I think my favorite moments are the ones that start out as straightforward TSTL, and just when I'm ready to kill the character...oh hey, cops are right outside!

    I have a TSTL moment plotted. I'm trying to tell myself the MC will be established as arrogant enough to make it work, but maybe I should go back with your checklist instead :P

    1. Never hurts to take a second look :) Characters CAN have reasons to act like idiots, so if it works for your story, go with it.

  13. Too stupid to live...that's so funny! I have definitely had to re-write scenes and sections because of this. When my critique partners question something like this, it's time to get to work.

    1. I have a crit partner who's very good at spotting these, so I'm pretty lucky. But yep, I'm with you, whenever someone mentions a credibility issue, I fix it.

  14. Any chance the show you refer to in the article is The Following? During the second season I found myself screaming at the TV because there were plenty of times when the characters acted in the complete opposite way of their own self-interest.

    1. Nope :) But it sounds like it has the same issues.

  15. To me, Two Broke Girls and Teachers act in ways that make them TSTL.

    1. That's why I stopped watching that show.

  16. Replies
    1. I only know him from the show, but he was a bit too trusting, eh?

  17. My characters (save 2) were all from history, but my main character came out sounding too smart to fall victim to the fate he actually met. I gave him flaws consistent with his actual history: he was a politician, ergo too eager to please everybody, or willing to overlook danger signs. That was his downfall.

    1. Sounds like a good flaw to work with to allow him to make mistakes, but not appear TSTL.