One of my biggest problems as a reader, explained

Here in this post at Book View Cafe, Alma Alexander takes a stab at explaining something that is a huge (huge) problem — often a dealbreaker — for me as a reader: Why characters do stupid things.

We’ve all read those books. The ones where everything is going swimmingly and then somebody you’re supposed to care about does something so eye-wateringly dumb that your eyes hurt from rolling, and that sound you hear is your molars grinding together.

To some extent, this is inevitable – a story is what happens when *things go wrong*, and what the characters inhabiting that story do to right those things. So there might be a defensible starting point where a character has to do something stupid – or deal with something stupid – to get the story engines rolling properly. But here are a couple of things to watch out for when you’re writing that story.

I disagree. There are always (ALWAYS) ways to make things go wrong without compelling your characters to do something mindbogglingly stupid.

However, this post is actually about ways to watch out for and avoid unnecessary stupidity. Alexander addresses the kind of plot where everything could be worked out if only the characters would TALK to each other (my least favorite ever), the kind of plot where important elements hinge on a character’s brain melting at a crucial moment (my least favorite ever), and the kind of plot where a character does something stupid just because they are told to by someone else (my least favorite ever).

I would add that the kind of plot where the protagonist hovers around the action making ineffectual gestures to deal with the situation as things go increasingly downhill . . . also my least favorite ever. Not because of active stupidity, but because of general passivity and a failure to be a smart, creative, and effective actor.

Yet another: false equivalence. When the protagonist refuses to do something because it “would make us just like the bad guy.” The author ought to be able to see how stupid this is, when the protagonist is defending herself or others and the bad guy is EVIL INCARNATE. The reader can sure tell the difference. Refusing to let the protagonist take action in order to keep the bad guy around for the second half of the book is, well, just find some other way to do that, all right? You can always prevent the protagonist’s reasonable attempt to defeat the bad guy from working somehow. Think about “Let’s take off and nuke them from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” That was a smart decision, derailed by circumstance. This is far, far better than stupid decisions.

And one more type of stupidity: a character who is so emotional and impulsive that she (always a she) just can’t control herself and so keeps doing obviously stupid things even though she knows they are stupid … absolutely my least favorite ever.

None of this is even faintly acceptable to me as a reader. I’m not sure anything besides weird word choices and actual typos turns me off more strongly. One of the main things I always want my brother to check for me as a beta reader — actually the single most important thing — is: did any characters do anything unbelievably stupid? Their clever plans were actually more or less clever, right?

Forthwith, some practical examples of each form:

Example the first: To Reign in Hell by Steven Brust. If only the characters had talked to each other! So much grief could have been avoided! I will add that I remember nothing else about this book besides that. I only read it once. This would be why.

Example the second: In the well-known YA alternate China duology Eon and Eona, right toward the beginning the politically astute elderly mentor accepts a glass of fruit juice offered by an unknown hand and drinks it even though it tastes bitter, and even though he had every reason to suspect someone will try to assassinate him. He dies, cause directly attributable to this moment of mind-boggling stupidity.

In fact, at roughly the same time, every important figure who should have expected assassination also gets murdered, with none of them taking any action to protect themselves or act against their common enemy.

None of this was even faintly believable. I did finish the duology, but barely, and only after throwing the first book across the room twice. Nothing else as awful happened in it (as far as I remember) and actually I really enjoyed, oh, say, the second half of the second book. But I gave the duology away after finishing it.

Example the third: Actually, I’m having trouble thinking of an example where an important protagonist did something stupid just because they were told to, and then everything went predictably to hell. Anybody got one of those?

Example the fourth: In one of Kelly Armstrong’s books, possibly Bitten but I wouldn’t swear to it, the boss werewolf has a plan that is so eye-wateringly stupid that I actually thought he had some other plan. Nope. Things worked out anyway, but only because of dumb luck. I will add that Armstrong’s portrayal of the wolf half of her werewolves is just delightful. As far as I know, these are the most wolf-like of any werewolves. I read several others in the series because of that. But she could have used a beta reader to say witheringly, “Seriously? This is the plan?” and make her come up with something better.

Example the fifth: I have loved several of Juliet Marillier’s books. Her writing is beautiful. But in Wildwood Dancing, everything slowly and comprehensively goes to hell while the main character wrings her hands and takes absolutely no effective action. This was so painful to read that I gave the book away.

Example the sixth: The protagonist in Kim Harrison’s Dead Witch Walking is so ridiculously impulsive, she is constantly throwing herself into the most asinine situations. I couldn’t stand it and never touched another book in the series. It didn’t help that the author used the word “mink” to refer to an animal that was obviously an ermine, something I wish Harrison’s copy editor had caught. But the stupidity of the protagonist was the main issue for me.

Example the seventh: I regret to say that Sharon Shinn, generally one of my favorite authors, did the false equivalence thing in her Twelve Houses series. First book, I think. The one where Senneth refuses to kill the main bad guy, thus allowing the kingdom to be engulfed in war. How many people died because of that moment of irresolution? Also, the king was super-slow to take effective action, so he was also to blame for putting his kingdom through some completely unnecessary years of hardship and violence. I like the series anyway, but this may be one reason the final book, set after the main conflict is over, is by far my favorite and the one I go back to and re-read.

Things that work much better than any of the above:

1. A character can make a mistake without being stupid. That is what the character’s ignorance of the real situation is for. Look at the Nazi duology by Barbara Hambly. It’s not stupid for the protagonists to not realize how evil the Nazis are. How are they supposed to be able to tell? Still not at all my favorite books by Hambly, but protagonist stupidity is not the issue. Or remember when some of the main characters break into the bad guy’s stronghold in Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts trilogy? Pity they didn’t know they should find the captive Roc and set it free, but how were they to know that?

2. The character, especially a young character, can be somewhat impulsive without being totally idiotic. Many, many YA novels pull this off perfectly well.

3. The character can take a risk. Alexander refers to this: Having a character do a stupidly brave thing with only poor to middling chances of its success, but trying for it anyway, is a pretty decent way to write something poignant … Yes, that would work. Most books where someone takes a chance like this have that risk pay off. Having the character take a chance and get tails instead of heads should produce real sympathy rather than an impulse toward book-flinging.

4. The character may not choose to obey a superior in a stupid way, but be compelled to. This is rather common. Of course one then expects a plot and character arc that leads to the protagonist defying his or her superior, regardless of the personal cost. That’s a very compelling arc for me.

Alexander sums this all up thus:

Why do characters do stupid things? Because they’re forced to. Because they’re in love. Because in their best judgment (without knowing all the facts, which you as the author are aware of) making a certain choice seems to be the right thing to do and they only find out otherwise much later in the adventure. Because, perhaps, their moral compass tells them to flout authority because they don’t agree with that authority, even though consequences might be dire for themselves. Because they care. Because they DON’T care anymore, because something has hurt them so badly that they’re beyond caring. Because they’re flawed. … When your characters are faced with making the mistakes they will inevitably make in order for your story to move forward… make sure they’re driving the plot bus, not being thrown under the wheels of one for short term pointless comic relief or through pure inattention on the author’s part.

But I would add that it’s definitely not okay to drive the plot with character stupidity. Flaws, yes, but not stupidity. Mistakes ought to be not just understandable, but practically inevitable given the protagonist’s current knowledge of the situation. That’s the key to making the plot work for a reader who, like me, is violently allergic to character stupidity.

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12 thoughts on “One of my biggest problems as a reader, explained”

  1. For that example the third:

    The Teen has been looking at Valdemar lately and I’ve reskimmed a couple of them myself. The first trilogy – last book – knowing they’re going into a disaster (if not what kind) but saying we’ll go and get good info, then get back out and bring the intelligence back… when they are also saying we can’t turn back now, we’ll never make it back across the border, they’ll stop us. Reader: And they wouldn’t after you’ve gotten to the capital, when you’ll have to get out of a city instead of all this nice countryside with running room? And you with magic horses? I picked up some CJC to wipe the stupid out.

    Seems like Potter ought to have some, but mostly it’s Harry over his head and then luck breaks his way.

    The Teen offers Hodgell’s GODSTALK wherein our protagnist steals a scroll from the priest who then calls power down, and if protag hadn’t been that one in a million who could deflect that power everything would indeed have gone to hell for her and that city.
    I might be able to go with protaganist brain melt under certain circumstances, but they have to be properly set up and I can’t think of examples off hand.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, especially with the false equivalence example. I can’t keep my eyes from rolling when TV shows inevitably get around to a bad guy telling the good guy, “We’re not so different, you and I!” And they ALL do that.

    But nothing’s worse than a group of heroes off to fight evil and banish a dark power from their land…only to be stopped by petty infighting and annoying romantic entanglements.

    I think stories should usually be about characters solving problems, so I don’t care for watching the cast demonstrate that the writer never read a philosophy book.

  3. I worry about characters who keep telling everyone who will listen that they are very intelligent. If you have to /tell/ people, then you’re probably not as intelligent as you think.

    But stupidity in characters apparently does not always turn off readers. Christine Feehan wrote a highly successful series (over 20 books) of paranormal romance novels. I never made it past the first one. The heroine a) kept telling everyone how intelligent she was
    b) kept doing really TSTL actions.
    For example, the hero tells her “whatever you do, don’t do X because it will ruin everything.” Two more characters throughout the book tell her the same thing. I imagine Feehan called this foreshadowing. I called it painful. Because of course the heroine, in the moment of crisis, just after the hero repeated his warning not to do it, went and did X. Various other characters got killed as a result. Sadly, the heroine survived.

    It’s a bad sign when a reader is sad that the heroine survived. And yet, this was the first of 20 books.

  4. Evelyn, ugh. Triple ugh. Yes, the first book would be it for me. Yet I know that you’re right and that this kind of thing is not a dealbreaker for lots of readers.

    Also, I dislike the sort of book where everyone *around* the heroine keeps thinking how smart she is … and there is NO evidence for this at ALL. I’m like: kinda obvious with your authorial voice there, aren’t you? Maybe you wouldn’t have to protest so much if you were *actually writing* a smart character?

  5. I figure you can usually only write a character as smart as you are. CJC pulls off geniuses, and I can’t say if she’s one personally, but in general that’s the way to bet.

    I once made the mistake of picking up a book and still giving it a try even after noticing a dedication to: so-and-so who helped make Character smart. Should have taken warning.
    Didn’t work for me overall or in the character’s specialty. The writer just couldn’t make any particular intelligence convincing.

    So how does one make smarts convincing? Look at how Bujold, Cherryh, Dunnett and others who do have intelligent characters handle it, I guess, and learn.

  6. Seanan mcGuire’s Toby Daye is the character I most dislike for the “constantly making stupid decisions” trope – in fact I was so resolute in my disgust after I think the third book when she was tired, injured, hungry and KEPT MAKING DUMB DECISIONS which ended up with either her or other people getting hurt.

    It was such an obvious ploy and a poorly executed one due to the obviousness, I was really disappointed.

    Others encouraged me to read on with the series and I am pleased to say that the author did redeem herself, and in later books Toby is pointedly commented at by other characters about her failings in these areas, and tempers her behaviour as a result

  7. For the third category, I DNF’d Magonia, which had a bunch of positive reviews, because the main character gets kidnapped by her birth mother’s pirate crew and has every reason to think that they’re not being totally honest and up front with her, but takes them at their word and trusts their version of events instead of seeking other answers. She’s tricked into doing something bad as a result.

  8. I don’t mind the occasional dumb mistake by a character–people do make them after all. (And where would horror movies be without them?) But the ‘not talking about it’ trope is indeed pathetic.

  9. I only read two of the Toby Daye books even though people kept saying they improve. I fear the improvement did not come quickly enough for me, considering there are so many other books sitting right there to read instead.

    Sarah, yes, that sounds like it would be pretty frustrating.

    Pete, I agree, an occasional dumb thing is tolerable from a generally smart character. It’s the characters who are supposed to be smart but *constantly* disprove that theory that get up my nose.

  10. Interesting and fun topic! I remember when I first realized as a reader the difference between an author writing a smart character vs an author asserting without evidence that a character is smart. It’s been something I pay attention to ever since.

    I feel a little odd when I mention bad examples . . . but I did genuinely like some of these books despite the stupid protagonists, and of course some are best-sellers even if they didn’t work for me personally.

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