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 sometimes, I get it.
If this ever happens to you, I beg you to reconsider.
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?
- 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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 need to 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?