stupid-characters-make-for-stupid-stories

Why Stupid Characters Make for Stupid Stories

This week’s video discusses the problem of making a character react without logic.

Video Transcript:

A few weeks ago, I talked about how readers will put up with just about any flaw in a character except cowardice. But that wasn’t quite true. There’s another flaw that irritates the heck out of readers—and that is stupidity. Now it’s true we will forgive this flaw up to a point. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody has to learn and grow, and not everyone is going to be Will Hunting. That’s okay. An average IQ makes a character relatable.

But there’s a difference between making the occasional stupid mistake and being downright stupid. You know the kind of character I’m talking about. These are the guys that know the powerful villain is stalking them through the house. But do they run, do they call 911, do they pick up that Glock and use it? No. And so when the bad guy actually catches up with them,
readers just groan and mutter that they got what they deserved.

Usually, this kind of stupidity results from the needs of the plot. It’s not that the author wants the character to be stupid. It’s more that he needs the character to remain in the house, he needs to prevent anyone from showing up on the scene to help, and he needs to keep the bad guy alive—all in order to pull off the climactic battle just as he has imagined it.

This is all fine and good. We all have to jimmy our story events to get them to fit our vision of the plot. But we have to be wary of sacrificing logic even to the needs of an exciting climax. If readers are too busy headbanging your book and howling about how dumb your hero is, they’re probably not going to care—much less be impressed—by the time that climactic scene rolls around. We like to read about smart people who get the job done, not nincompoops who would be lucky to survive Black Friday in a rural Walmart. So keep it in mind as you’re plotting your way along.

Tell me your opinion: Have you ever been frustrated by some elses character who behaved in an illogical manner?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Hi! I agree sometimes we need to nudge characters to do something for the sake of the plot. However, that shouldn’t go against the character’s judgement or intelligence.

    A character who really made me cringe was the MC of Nancy Kress’ science fiction novel Beggars in Spain (Hugo award winner…). It wasn’t really a matter of being stupid… it was the MC’s passiveness. She did nothing. Nothing at all. She spent most of the novel living in seclusion and complaining about the adversities her people faced, yet she never raised a finger to help change the world. It was frustrating and it felt like a waste of my time. Her decision at the end of the book felt like she was betraying all the morals she had been whining about during the entire novel.

  2. Sadly, too many times. It’s sort of like when a simple conversation could’ve sorted everything out.

  3. I am just going to get the annoying thing out of the way: the most frustrating character for me in all my life of reading was Bella Swan from Twilight. I know that series had a lot of other problems, but I feel quite strongly that I could have actually enjoyed it if Bella hadn’t been so dull and dim. I mean, did she really have to use a Google search to figure out he was a vampire? Come ON. How did she live to be seventeen years old and never be exposed to ANY kind of vampire lore? It just made her seem stupid to me. And then there is the whole thing where she is like the worst version of a heroine in a Taylor Swift song. You can tell that Stephanie Meyer tried to make her adorably geeky and different from other girls, but it didn’t work. She just seemed boring and kind of snobby. Like a hipster with no hobbies or interests. She is rude to everyone she meets except for Edward and I’m sorry, but after a certain point the extreme clumsiness just isn’t cute anymore. I wanted to jump in the book and give her walking lessons. And the fact that she never stands up for herself, and is never even the slightest bit creeped out by Edward’s domineering personality, or the fact that he sneaks into her room to watch her sleep, or, you know, that he’s undead. I get it. Vampires are sexy. But the fact that you are dating one of the damned should give you occasional pause, in my opinion.

    Long story short, I spent the entire series wanting to just slap her in the face and tell her to grow up and get hold of herself. In fact, I am frustrated all over again, just writing about it.

  4. I get frustrated sometimes with Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s books. She’s been a bounty hunter for a while now, she should get some smarts and some know-how in the gun department, but still sometimes, she seems more inept than she should be. Occasionally, she surprises you, but, and I realize it’s supposed to be played for comedic purposes, more often than not the guy she just took into custody to get her bounty escapes for the stupidest of reasons. I frequently yell at the books–and, being a writer, I realize what Evanovich is doing, but really, just once, I’d like to see the character actually do things well without assistance from hunky Ranger. ;)

  5. Stupid is so annoying that there’s an acronym for it: TSTL (or TS2L).

    Too Stupid to Live.

  6. Great tip. This reminds me of the proverbial teen horror story where everyone but the victim knows they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time but they step right into the trap.

  7. @Nadine: Passive characters can be an interesting challenge, because, just occasionally, stories *do* call for them. But they’re tough to pull off, both because their lack of action can be boring and because it can frustrate readers with its sheer ineffectiveness.

    @mshatch: Argh, yes! That one seems to be a staple of the rom-com genre. One simple little misunderstanding and everybody’s mad at everybody.

    @Kathleen: Bella’s an interesting case study, since she either drives people crazy or makes them love her. Personally, I totally get what you’re saying.

    @Liberty: That’s one of the things that often frustrates me about series. The character, and sometimes even the plot, is at the mercy of the sheer longevity of the whole thing.

    @Iola: Love it!

    @Rich: Exactly! I had that in mind when I recorded this.

  8. After reading this post and the comments, I too couldn’t help but think of the typical horror story. When the girl goes out to investigate the random noise in just her underwear, I think, “Really? Wouldn’t you put some clothes on?” And reading about Bella was one of the more frustrating experiences of my life.

    Everyone knows there are idiots in this world, but there’s definitely a difference between having a character be an idiot sometimes (or make stupid choices) and writing a stupid character. Good post, ma’am.

  9. I’m not a horror genre aficionado, but it could be that stupid characters have more of a place there, since readers *want* to see characters put into situations where they’ll be captured and killed.

  10. These characters tend to reveal themselves from the first pages, or during opening credits of very bad thriller/horror movies.

  11. Yes, very often. And then there are always those characters who are *great* right up until that moment when the author forces them to act in a uncharacteristically stupid way. Never know when it’s gonna hit!

  12. Yes! I agree! Stupid characters annoy the daylights out of me. I just want to step into the pages of the book and slap them. So, I’ve tried to make my characters smart.

    “…not nincompoops who would be lucky to survive Black Friday in a rural Walmart.” Made me laugh. :D

  13. Well, there’s down right stupid, and then there’s mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Some people don’t make good decisions under pressure. So unless this character is habitually really stupid, mistakes can and should be worked in once in a while.

  14. Stupid characters, or characters who seem to completely lose their senses just to shoe-horn them into a position the plot demands, do grind my gears, but I think it’s telling that so many of us know exactly what this feels like and see it everywhere. Soap operas are notorious for it, but nobody ever said soap operas were meant to be high quality writing. Still, I’ve come across it enough in published works and seen it in big budget movies to know that it appears this sort of mistake glides right on by the people who hold the keys to getting your work out there. And, presumably, millions of readers. That’s endlessly frustrating, but those of us building our platform just have to keep walking that wire, balancing all the boxes of writing tools and rules that will stop our fledgling fanbase from shaking their heads and abandoning us. Trying to appeal to other writers can be trying at times, because they know when you take short cuts.

  15. Excellent post! I don’t know how many times I’ve wanted to shake authors or film makers because they make the characters do something stupid so that they get captured. My first thought is, They wouldn’t have done that! you should have spent a little more time and come up with a better scenario.
    In one movie the two characters know they are getting hunted and yet they stop in the middle of the road, shake hands, and talk until the bad guy comes up and gets them.
    The Princess Bride is another one that irritates me, especially in the scene where Buttercup and her lover are exiting the forest, they don’t even look around before they step out!

  16. While stupid characters are frustrating, I think we sometimes need to acknowledge that characters aren’t us, and they have their own motivations. For example, I’m critiquing a novel right now about an abused wife. Several other people keep asking, “Why doesn’t she just leave her husband? That’s what I’d do.” Yes, maybe that’s what you’d do, but a woman in an abusive relationship has a lot of reasons to stay that make sense to her. I think a great author can take a stupid character and make the readers understand their actions, and make them sympathize if not empathize with their decisions.

  17. @Lorna: Of course, I do have to admit, living in a rural town, that Black Friday can get brutal even here. :p

    @Anna: Absolutely. Mistakes make characters human. The key is to make certain they learn from their mistakes.

    @Mike: It’s also a little reassuring, if you think about it, since it means that our inevitable mistakes (even ones we *should* know better than to make, such as this one) may not sink us with our readers.

    @Gretchen: Or the inevitable kiss in the middle of a battle? I always roll my eyes at that one.

    @ED: It all comes down to motivation. If there’s a recognizable psychological or emotional reason for the perceived stupidity (as there often is with a victim who won’t leave her abuser), readers will understand – so long as the author recognizes that “stupidity” and allows the character to grow develop because of it.

  18. I know exactly what you mean. It bugs the heck out of me when a character acts like a complete idiot. One of the most frustrating books I have ever read was the first book of the Thomas Covenant series where the main character refused to believe he was in a real place and kept insisting it was a hallucination and therefore his actions had no consequences.

  19. It’s all about making it realistic. It’s plausible for people to act in practically any manner. The stupid issue only becomes a problem when it a) wrecks suspension of disbelief or b) causes the reader to dislike the character.

  20. My personal pet peeve is the romantic heroine who takes an instant and intense dislike for the hero for no rational reason, except that without that dislike, there would be no conflict. I can’t think of a specific example right now, mainly because when I come across it I usually stop reading the book!

  21. That’s one of mine too. It’s seems to be staple in bad rom-coms. But no less irritating for that. In fact, more irritating!

  22. Oh my! I loved this post and I SO hope I´m not doing that to the teenage character in my book :O

    But you are right, it´s like when you have the well-known haunted house but the family won´t run away!

    Thanks for another great post, I´ll be watching my characters to be brave and smart enough ^^

    xoxo

    M.

  23. You’re probably *not* doing it unless you find yourself having to manipulate the character to get him to do what you want.

  24. A good exercise for any writer is to take the villain/antagonist and write that person as an intelligent, creative person who comes up with brilliant ways to get what he/she wants. Then go back and figure out ways for the hero to get the better of him/her, and then ways for the villain to come up with something even smarter or worse. I can’t stand dumb protagonists, but I also can’t stand dumb villains! :)

  25. What? No stormtroopers who can’t hit the broadside of a barn?

  26. I can breathe then! lol I think I´m not doing that ^^ But to some point the events DO manipulate your character. (like the first majorplot point, deciding the plot)

  27. Ultimately, it’s all author manipulation to some extent or another. But there’s a difference between forcing characters to fit plot points and just allowing them to flow *with* the story events.

  28. For the most part, the stupid characters I write about have very small parts in the cast. And they always side with the villain, not with the heroes. The only exception so far: James McNobb in The Wild Green Yonder. He cusses frequently (though I use words that sound like cussing without using actual vulgarities). He smokes cigars. He is violent and disrespectful of everyone. Most of all, he abuses his henchmen, including slapping one and slugging another.

    This, I feel, is far different from the occasional lapses of logic the heroes often suffer with. If a detective is smart, it always shows, aside from the aforementioned lapses. But to me, stupidity is the exclusive trait of antagonists.

    ~ VT

  29. Hey, haven’t seen you around in a while! Readers are going to be more likely to forgive stupid antagonists than they will stupid protagonists. But we have to be careful here as well, since we don’t want to lessen the threat the bad guy poses to the hero.

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