Dumb moves

A post by James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog, which ties in nicely with a recent post about how novels fail: How to Avoid Dumb Moves

We’ve talked before about the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) character. That happens because it violates a rule (yes, I said rule): Every character in every scene should make the best move possible in pursuit of their agenda. Violation of the rule results in the dumb move, and readers hate that.

Very true, very true. How does Bell suggest avoiding character stupidity?

Oh, there’s no suggestion in this post other than having all the characters always make the best move they reasonably can in pursuit of their specific goals. Bell refers to this as “acting at maximal capacity.”

Well, I don’t necessarily agree. It’s actually perfectly fine and reasonable and, come to think of it, essential for characters NOT to always make the best move they can. That’s because every time a character does something self-sacrificing, that act could very easily be defined as “not the best possible move.” It’s true that this depends on shifts in the character’s agenda, but still. I mean, what if it goes like this:

Character A — “I’m going to win! Watch me crush my rivals!”

Character B — struggling

Character A — “You know what, maybe I should step back and let Character B win.”

This looks to me like Character A choosing not to make the best possible move in pursuit of their agenda. Unless you track the agenda as it changes, and then maybe?

But to me, nothing about this seems all that helpful in avoiding character stupidity. The author isn’t (generally) setting out to write a stupid protagonist. Character stupidity generally happens because the writing process goes like this:

a) I need xxxx to happen, so the protagonist needs to do yyyy.

b) Protagonist does yyyy.

c) Hmm, does that seem okay? Maybe that’s a dumb thing to do?

d) I will add this justification to make it reasonable that the Protagonist does yyyy.

e) Did the above work? Oh, it’s good enough! I’m moving on!

And then what the author needs in the worst way is to have an early reader point to the story and say, “What the hell is this when the Protagonist does yyyy? That’s idiotic.”

To this feedback, the author’s reaction should be, “Damn, I guess the justification totally did not suffice. I’ll have to come up with a different justification for the protagonist to do yyyy, or else come up with something else for the protagonist to do.”

Which is practically always possible.

This is identical to feedback about problems with characterization, by the way. If an early reader says, “What the hell is this when the Protagonist does yyyy? He would never do that!” then that’s precisely the same. An act that is severely out of character is exactly as bad as an act that is severely idiotic. I don’t think there’s much an author can do to avoid either, except —

First, become aware of (e). When you notice yourself thinking that something is good enough (barely), that something is passable (if the reader isn’t too picky), then stop right there and fix that. That will give your early readers less to do and make the revision substantially less painful.

Second, when you fail to notice that your plot justifications haven’t quite done the job and an early reader points this out, take that seriously.

I think it’s probably relatively rare for the author to have a protagonist do something stupid and NOT try to justify it. I think it’s probably relatively common for the author to say, “Oh, good enough!” when it isn’t good enough.

Of course, that’s based on my experience. For all I know, lots of authors just don’t notice when they have a character do something blindingly stupid and therefore don’t try to justify it. I just find that harder to imagine.

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18 thoughts on “Dumb moves”

  1. As I read “ characters should make the best move possible” I thought, people aren’t like that. It’s making me think of economic theories that assume 100% rational actors. I think your point about acting in character is much more accurate. That leaves you room for characters who aren’t stupid but have emotional hot buttons or blind spots or, heck, the failings of their society and culture. It leaves you room for a classic tragedy (which is not my favorite form of reading but which can really illuminate the human condition) where we watch a mostly positive character make a wrong decision.

    Back to acting in character, I agree the character should not be making bad choices because the author’s plot constrains them.

  2. This made me laugh this morning. I loved Rihasi, I gave it 5 stars, I reread it right away, but when I tried to write a review I kept getting stuck (unfairly) on the one thing that really, really, really bugged me about it, which is that she’s built this incredibly complicated plan that relies on perfect timing — AND on her hiring some random mercenary off the street? Like that just seems like an enormous fundamental error in her plan, a piece of dazzling stupidity from an otherwise smart character, and it would have been so easy to fix. All you need is for something to go terribly wrong in the initial scene where she’s pouring the wine, ie she discovers that X has died and her plan for her actual journey across the country is now broken. An immediate disaster that is a piece of incredibly bad luck instead of a completely mystifying (to me, anyway) choice to run away with no idea how she is actually going to safely get to where she wants to go. A decade of working on her plan, an extensive knowledge of every aspect of her society and how to manipulate people, perfect timing on letters sent across the country… and nothing set up for how she will safely travel? Ha, and now this is what happens every time I’ve tried to write a review — but I loved the story, I just get stuck on that super dumb move of hers at the beginning, and on wondering why none of your beta readers got stuck on the same thing. It would have been such an easy fix. And I hope this doesn’t come across as terribly rude of me to be telling you this directly, but the connection really did make me laugh. Yes, it can be hard to avoid having our characters do stupid things sometimes!

  3. Well, Sarah, don’t be surprised if you get a request to read the next book early!

    I should possibly add: please don’t email an author, including me, and explain that you loathed their last book. Just go write a scathing review, okay?

    BUT, my ego is in pretty decent shape, and a specific comment like this is in fact pretty likely to lead to a future invitation to read a draft of a book.

  4. Sometimes the problem comes because the author recognizes they need the character to do something stupid and handwaves the justification, but I suspect more often the problem is that the author has no idea what ‘intelligent’ looks like.

    To pick an example that especially bugged me: Our heroine is supposed to be a competent adult woman in her twenties, who is *an experienced diplomat*. (The worldbuilding has a mage aristocracy which makes it plausible that someone that young from the right family would be involved in high-level diplomacy.) Said competent diplomat almost immediately makes a decision that’s practically guaranteed to cause an international incident, without asking anyone else, and without taking any steps to mitigate the damage. All because the decision offers an immediate solution to something that causes her emotional hangups.

    This would have been an easy fix: the author could have made the character younger, and stated this was the first time she had any serious responsibility, without changing anything else about the plot, but she obviously didn’t recognize that her character was incompetent. And no, I didn’t finish the book (The Obsidian Tower by Melissa Caruso), because I was too annoyed about that.

  5. For what it’s worth, I figured Rihasi had never had a chance to get much information about how to go about hiring a reliable mercenary. It does say she’d cautiously asked a few questions about mercenaries in previous months, but.. this woman has apparently never been out of her house, walking the streets instead of looking over a map of them was new, different and somewhat disorienting. So, what I got was she’d done what she could for prep, but that was one she couldn’t handle and the Dark Moon Chain woman had some advice, but there’s only so much one can do in a hurry.

    And may I say I greatly appreciated the nuanced portrayal of mercenaries in the book?

  6. Kim Aippersbach

    The best refutation of “characters should always make the best move possible” is Miles Vorkosigan. In particular, A Civil Campaign, in which he persists in making all the worst moves possible in pursuit of his agenda, not because he’s stupid, but because he’s Miles. (Characters acting in character: check!) (Aside to note that there’s a great podcast doing a series of deep dives into each Vorkosigan book that many folk here would probably enjoy: https://plottrysts.wordpress.com/meg-alex-read-the-vorkosigan-saga-by-lois-mcmaster-bujold/ (July’s was A Civil Campaign, so it’s top of mind!))

    @Sarah, I had to stop and think about why I didn’t trip over that big hole in Rihasi’s meticulous planning. The way I read Rihasi, her brilliant mind and unusual circumstances have led to some strange blind spots when it comes to moving through the world. She’s never been at street level, as it were. In her abstract, high-level planning, “travel in disguise” was enough of a plan. I also think she can manipulate people at a distance, but she doesn’t have much experience interacting with them. And she probably doesn’t have many data points about mercenaries to allow her to evaluate the situation, so she relies too heavily on the advice of the one woman she trusts. (I suspect she falls somewhere on the autism spectrum (or would, in our world).) So, yes, *a* meticulous planner wouldn’t have forgotten this necessary piece, but I guess I found it believable that this particular one did.

  7. I had a similar sense of Rihasi’s starting mistake as Kim.
    She’s pretty obviously somewhere on the autistic spectrum and can’t read people very well in person.
    This is exacerbated by being sequestered inside with minimal outside (or even inside) contacts from a young age, and she had no options to acquire more information about mercenaries beforehand without risking tipping off someone in the mafia machinery – she relied almost completely on the one woman she trusts, who was part of her underground railroad, to get her going safely on the next step of the journey.
    She appears to have based that part of her travel plan on what she knows of how the underground railroad worked, smuggling the victims out in disguise: I’d bet those victims were never sent off with a bodyguard they had to hire themselves, so she didn’t incorporate that, or decided she had to rely on her more worldly experienced contact even if she realised it was necessary as she couldn’t hire anyone beforehand, or even ask questions of anyone, nor learn through observation.
    She was also very careful not to let *anyone* know about her plans, both to protect others from pressure and herself from betrayal, after her early experience taught her what happens if you trust or even connect with anyone. This also limited her information gathering about such ordinary-world problems she’d never been exposed to.

    She didn’t know when she’d get the chance she needed, breakfasting with only her father and brother, so there was no way to make plans to meet up with anyone, and no way to know if anyone she might hire beforehand might betray her to her very powerful family.
    Then the experienced contact may have misjudged her ability to judge people’s characters and intentions, since she is so very experienced with deep, convoluted and all-pervasive plotting, but judging a single man’s trustworthyness in a personal meeting falls outside her skills and experience, and even below the general public’s, making that step more risky for her than either of them may have realised. She did gather information on the best place to find a reliable one from the one person she trusted, as soon as she really needed that information.

    I did realise it was the most unpredictably risky step in her whole escape plan, but for me it did fit with her autistic personality blind spot on judging people’s characters, and similarly autistic style of meticulous planning for all the ‘mechanical’, plotting-type details of all her detailed plans – but having to accept that not everything can be planned for, because the attempt to gain some kinds of information, voicing part of her plans before the moment arrives, risks betrayal.

  8. I’m with Kim & Elaine – I thought it was a hole in Rihasi’s plan, but exactly the sort of mistake that she would make. Rihasi reminds me of myself in several ways, and I thought, “Ah yes, what a relatable mistake! She’s planned the parts where she has knowledge and control down to the last inch, but has completely forgotten to prepare for the part which relies on quickly evaluating skills she knows very little about via an in-person conversation with a random stranger. Of course she hasn’t really gotten any farther with her backstory and prepared lies than ‘pretend to be a young man’. Of course she thinks just having enough money will solve this problem. This is an excellent illustration of how you can be brilliant in some areas but completely naive and foolish in others.”

    Like Otterb said, people aren’t 100% rational actors, so characters can make plenty of stupid decisions as long as there’s a believable reason for them to be stupid in that context.

  9. Well, I’m glad so many of you feel that way and I hereby did that on purpose for those reasons.

    You are, of course, totally correct when you think she’s on the spectrum. I definitely wrote her that way and I’d be pretty disappointed if that hadn’t come through.

  10. I can’t even bring myself to write a five star review with one — ONE! — criticism, so I’m not going to be writing any scathing letters to authors anytime soon. But I’d be delighted to beta read, and I am a… critical’s not the right word, because I’m actually a super tolerant reader, I read anything. But I invest in the stories I read enough to question them and get puzzled about details. I’m an observant reader. Not really critical, because I’m mostly willing to go along for the ride, but I’m going to notice if the ride has bumps.

    Pursuant to the topic of the blog post, though, and other comments — blind spots, autistic spectrum, lack of experience — those are all justifications for a really dumb move. And sure, you can accept those justifications. But wouldn’t it be more satisfying if she hadn’t made a really dumb move instead? In an ideal world for me, her perfect plan would have derailed in a way that had the Sun involved, so that she raged against the Sun’s failing her, because that sets up the serendipity of her running into the world’s best mercenary as not just a plot device/implausible luck, but an actual miracle from a god who hadn’t really abandoned her as much as she’d felt. I bet Rachel could have made that happen in an afternoon. Gotta say again, though, I loved Rihasi. Five stars, absolutely. I think my favorite book out of the series, which is saying a lot nine books in.

  11. *laughs*

    Well, *I’m* on the spectrum, and I didn’t notice Rihasi lifting the idiot ball at a key point of her brilliant plan. At all. I thought it was the best Rihasi could do with what she had – brilliant planner, knows her weakness at judging who’s trustworthy and who’s not, and does what she can to mitigate it. Incompetently. (And I will say it again: thank heavens for Kior!)

    The fact that I, of all people, didn’t notice the great gaping weakness in Rihasi’s brilliant plan is probably a point in its favour for her *characterisation*! (When Sarah mentioned it, I thought “…. Oh. Yes, that is a major weakness in her brilliant plan. Why didn’t I spot that?” And then I came back later to see whether anyone else’s comments helped, because I *still* couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t noticed Rihasi lifting the idiot ball. Turns out I didn’t notice it because it’s the sort of lifting of the idiot ball that I would probably do myself. Except far less skilfully.)

  12. Sarah, I’ll keep that in mind.

    And, I assure you, though it’s rare, the occasional reader does not share your reticence. I will just comment that if an author has already had a tough day for any reason, that kind of email constitutes a strain on authorial courtesy that is perhaps not wholly necessary.

  13. I’m familiar with the experience. Also with the way that — well, my first book has 8000 ratings or so on Amazon now, and had over 1000 reviews back when people couldn’t leave ratings and you could easily see the number of reviews, and the one that still sticks in my brain is the one that said the vocabulary was juvenile. Hmph. I mean I don’t really care about that person’s opinion, but hmph nonetheless.

    Momentarily back to Rihasi (and in response to other commenters), her mercenary hiring didn’t faze me at all when she first did it, because we didn’t know the character then. Sure, she might have known nothing about the world, and had people-related blind spots, that’s plausible. It was when Aras asked her if it took her 18 years to get up her nerve and she responded with all the things she had to do first, including learn enough about her family, that my suspension of disbelief cracked. And again, loved the book, loved the character, excellent story, loved the stab-stab-stab scene, awed by how fast you write, completely enjoyed the ride. Would never have mentioned my cracked disbelief at all, except for the really amusing (to me, anyway) blog post topic coming just when I’d entirely given up on writing that review. I just found it an entertaining coincidence.

  14. I didn’t pick up that Rihasi was on the spectrum. I just thought she was socially isolated, both deliberately by her father and on her own part to protect anyone from being used as more leverage against her.

    I didn’t have a problem with her not having perfect knowledge of mercenaries. She brilliant but, as Aras said, neither omniscient nor omnipotent. She hoped the disguise and the money would be enough. And if she’d approached an ordinary mercenary, she might even have gotten part of the way to her goal. But she had the luck (or rather the Sun’s grace), to choose the worst possible mercenary which brought her to the attention of the best one.

  15. Interesting, Robert! It’s true that a really weird background could have made her look a lot the same. The circling thoughts were one thing I added to nudge readers toward a perception of maybe on the spectrum — and not trusting her ability to understand people.

  16. I’m with Robert, I thought Rihasi was suffering from social isolation and also the ‘doesn’t people well’ of mathematics specialists and physicists. Who don’t otherwise come off as on a spectrum, they’re just not focused on people. Speaking as one who has interacted with them, and not heard of any of my acquaintance being officially diagnosed as anything. (which doesn’t mean they weren’t it may just have not come up in any context where I’d’ve heard about it.) And the spiraling thinking didn’t seem outrageously out of line for someone who likes control and couldn’t control everything.

    Somewhere in the middle I figured out that Kior was most likely part of that family – the assassin’s is how I thought of it, as I couldn’t recall the family name – from the previous book. There wasn’t any particular clue, just the accumulation of small things.

  17. I’m kind of pleased that I added enough suggestions about Kior that you got that impression, Elaine.

    One early reader thought Rihasi was decidedly autistic. I prefer to have readers think she might be just a bit over in that direction, so actually, I’m also kind of pleased that this aspect of Rihasi’s personality isn’t being perceived as a heavy-handed, obvious, or definite. One thing that might pull readers one way or the other is a perception of her memory as something like a Lau memory-keeper vs something like an extreme autist savant.

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