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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

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

  2. 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)

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. Oh dear.

    I’m writing a Dystopian future and after a war that devastated the Earth most of modern technologies still exist but a luxury.

    I only began the first part and the boss of the protagonist(both are mercenaries)said:”We’ll pop his brain like popcorn in a microwave” to which the protagonist said:”What’s a microwave?”

    That bad or its excusable?

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