Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 11

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

1 of 11



Over 1,000 articles to

help you take your
writing to the next level!
Planning Your Novel
Ideas and Brainstorming
Story Development and
Character Development
Structure and Outlining
Goals, Conflict , Tension,
and Stakes
World Building
Word Count
Series and Trilogies
Writing Your Novel
Voice and Style
Dialog and
Point of View (POV)
Tone and Mood
Common Writing


Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
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.

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

2 of 11

Show vs. Tell

Lack of Conflict
Lack of Action
Lack of Goals
Lack of Tension
Lack of Motivation
Lack of Stakes
Stalled Stories
Editing Your Novel
First Drafts
Revision and Editing
Word Choice
Trimming Words
Critiques and Feedback
Selling Your Novel
Query Letters
The Synopsis
The Submission Process
Marketing and
Self Publishing
The Writing Life
Being a Writer
Motivation and
Regular Columns
How They Do It
Indie Author Series
Real Life Diagnostics

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?

Follow @Janice_Hardy

Do they ignore people who tell them not to trust them or who have
done bad things in the past?

Subscribe by Email

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.



10 Traits of a Great

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
Just take away the stupid.

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

3 of 11


Creating Promotional
Copy That Works: Tag
How to Plot With the
Three-Act Structure
10 Traits of a Strong
The Ebb and Flow of
Plotting a Novel


10 Traits of
a Strong
By Janice
@Janice_Hardy I love
villains. And anti-heroes.
I even love natural
disasters that don't care
one way or the other ...
10 Traits of
a Great
By Janice
@Janice_Hardy It's so
disappointing to read a
book or see movie and
find a great story idea
surrounding a
The First
250 Words
of Your
Grab their
right away By Janice
Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
The first page of your
manuscript is critical for
more than just grabb...
How to Plot With the
Three-Act Structure
By Janice Hardy,

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
(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?

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

4 of 11

Labels: characters, too stupid to live

@Janice_Hardy First up
from the mailbag:
"Maybe I'm a sucker for
plot, but I'd be interested
in big pict...
Expect the

Unexpected: Creating
Plot Twists
By Janice Hardy,
@Janice_Hardy Pulling a
favorite from the
archives today. Enjoy the
rerun! We're all looking
for a great plot t...
The Inner
Guides for
Using Inner
That Make

Heather Button Apr 9, 2014, 10:11:00 AM
I love this. I think with the "following the trail of blood" thing most writers rely on
natural human curiosity, which is true to an extent. And people who don't follow
through make boring stories in that case. But I love your tips about having a
reason to follow through, especially on telling the person who can hurt you that
you'll tell the press.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 11:59:00 AM

There's a fine line between curiosity and TSTL, and that'll certainly
depend on the character and the situation. Characters *can* be stupid
(and often are) when it fits the story.

By Janice Hardy,
@Janice_Hardy I sat in
on an amazing workshop
while I was at RWA that
made something typically
vague very clear and

Carradee Apr 9, 2014, 10:49:00 AM

Revise Your
Novel in 31
By Janice
Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Welcome to the home
page for the Month-Long
At-Home Revision
Workshop. If this is the
first you're he...

But YES, if someone's doing something stupid, make sure it's well built in the
character and situation, not just something needed for the sake of plot.

NaNoWriMo Prep:
Planning Your Novel
By Janice Hardy,
@Janice_Hardy It's that

Sometimes, if a character's built as rash (or subconsciously suicidal), I can buy

the TSTL, but they have to learn from it. (Case in point: October Daye. She's rash,
learns from it, later has something happen that turns her suicidal, and gets
smacked out of that. A certain character's reaction when she stopped fighting his
help is one of the re-read scenes in that series, for me.)

Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:00:00 PM

Absolutely, rashness or other traits can be perfectly acceptable. It's

when it tips over into TSTL it can become a problem.

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

5 of 11

time of
year again!
Writers all
over the
world are
gearing up
for NaNoWriMo (National
Paths: Do
You Know
Your Goals?
By Jami
Gold, @JamiGold Part of
the Indie Authors Series
One great thing about
the indie author
community is the
willingness to help ...
Are You
Looking for
a Critique
Group or
By Janice
Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
It's Crit Time Again! A
few years ago, I started
a Yahoo Group called
"Janice Hardy's Cr...

pat Apr 9, 2014, 1:15:00 PM
Wow, is this ever a familiar problem! I've done it over and over but there comes
a point where the character will just balk, refusing to do anything I want done.
Then I realize I've written someone who is too stupid to do what I want
accomplished, and I have to go back and put some brains in.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:00:00 PM

LOL, love that.


Maria D'Marco Apr 9, 2014, 3:06:00 PM

Love this! And cracked up over Pat's comment of going back and putting brains in!
I like to make readers wonder if this character is really that stupid, then have
them show some backbone, then get forced into a situation where they know what
they have to do would be considered stupid - but they have no 'out'. I can then
set up all kinds of unforeseen (by the character and the reader) ways to squeak
past or through danger that reveal the character's unrealized capabilities.
Never works that way in real life - I do something stupid, it usually hurts... :D
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:01:00 PM

That sounds like a fun way to handle it.


Chicory Apr 9, 2014, 4:20:00 PM

Great list of fixes. I'm glad you mentioned the difference between naive and
stupid. I just finally saw `Frozen' and the main character has a habit of not
looking before she leaps, but it's believable and doesn't make you hate her at all
(especially since she doesn't remember the time it had very serious
consequences.) And she does learn from her later experiences.

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

6 of 11

Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:03:00 PM

That's a great example of someone who isn't TSTL, just foolish in some
ways due to their circumstance. If you never learned that impulsive
behavior can cause problems, then it makes sense to dive in.

Carol Baldwin Apr 9, 2014, 4:30:00 PM

Janice, I don't know how you keep coming up with such excellent posts with
things I would never have thought of, but you do. ANother one for my writing
students--and for me too! Thanks for all the fixes. Your blog rocks!
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:05:00 PM

Aw, thanks! This one was all my friend Alex. I had dinner with her the
other night and we were talking about TV and tropes and this one came
up. I thought it would make a good addition to the site :)
But usually topic ideas come from things I notice when I'm writing,
questions people ask me, things I see in the RLDs, or random things
that inspire me.

tracikrites Apr 9, 2014, 5:18:00 PM

This bugs me about some characters too.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:05:00 PM

Sometimes it can ruin an otherwise good story.


Angela Brown Apr 9, 2014, 7:12:00 PM

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

7 of 11

I've seen a few shows, very popular ones, where I've glared at the TV and
thought, "Really. Really? Did you seriously just do that when you could have done
10 other things" about some character actions/reactions. I've had the same
reactions to some things I've read in books. I will have to review my works in
progress to make sure I don't have any characters doing really dumb things
unless it's like that last example, as in a last resort.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:06:00 PM

It does happen fairly often, especially in TV (I think the shorter format

makes it harder to work around it sometimes). I think one reason is that
authors know how they want a scene to turn out and write it that way,
even if it doesn't quite work from a logic standpoint.

Taurean Watkins Apr 10, 2014, 8:18:00 AM

This is something I had to handle with care regarding my debut novel, GABRIEL,
regarding my antagonist and his gang. I wanted them to be seen as three
dimensional and not just hapless comic relief.
I wanted to invert male stereotypes and didn't want my antagonist especially to
be seen as a idiot thug, that's not who he is, anymore than my protagonist is a
snobby "Genius."
I know in children's books especially, it's common to play characters against type,
the whole "Opposites Attract" or react thing but I didn't want it to be cartoonish to
a fault, that wouldn't serve them of the story as a whole. As much as we
emphasize the need to humor and levity (and truth be told, folks doing dumb
things do bring levity, however illogical) we still need characters that are multifaceted and real, even though they're talking rats...
Unless it's a story that HINGES on absurdity, that depth needs to be there.
I had the plot work in a way that required the protagonist and antagonist to learn
from each other.
My protagonist is shy but isn't the classic anti-social outcast, when he trusts
someone he'll be open and sociable, in that sense similar to myself.
My antagonist is extroverted, and isn't afraid to do quirky (not necessarily
"Stupid") things, but has a harder time talking about or acting on his deep inner
feelings, even with those he trusts most.
My protagonist is smart but doesn't use it as a weapon or to make others feel

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

8 of 11

dumb. He's not ashamed of his intelligence. He just doesn't use it as a means to
feed his ego, but has a tendency to lack healthy confidence in his abilities.
My antagonist is a rough and tumble type, not afraid to be aggressive or bust
chops, but is capable of warmth and emotional nuance, their rocky relationship
works because they're different enough to be their own character, but similar
enough to be open to learning from each other, both directly and indirectly.
I certainly hope that's what some readers will take away when GABRIEL comes
out. I know you helped me get the first chapter to the level that my editor is
helping further streamline and flesh out. Thanks again, Janice.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:09:00 PM

Characters can be stupid from time to time, and do absurd things when
the story calls for it. It's just helpful to be aware of that line that keeps
them from being believable vs TSTL.
Glad your revisions are going well with your editor!

Taurean Watkins Apr 10, 2014, 2:55:00 PM

I know what you're saying, I'm just making the point that for this story,
too much "screwball" would be wrong for the characters and story
involved involved, that's all. That's a fair point, you know?

Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 4:28:00 PM


knittinjen Apr 10, 2014, 11:18:00 AM

The Winchester brothers on Supernatural are often TSTL. It always works out for
them, but they do the dumbest things. Following the blood trail alone kind of
things. I do occasionally wish to throttle them.
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:10:00 PM

Some days so do I. I can forgive them the blood trail thing though in

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

9 of 11

most cases, since that's kinda their job (grin). But yeah, after
everything they've seen and know, you'd think they'd be a little smarter
about certain situations and trusting certain demons.

Blondie B. Good Apr 11, 2014, 4:33:00 AM

Once again your article strikes so well where it wasn't expected!
This makes me wonder...my main character IS too stupid to live, this is how I
write her. She is eager for some action and she acts before she thinks, that's
partly how the story moves forward.
So maybe I should shift the POV and make her the funky unpredictable sidekick
that puts the hero (with a deeper arc, now that I think about it) in awkward
That gives me a lot to think about, I will never say thank you enough for all your
good ideas and advice!
Janice Hardy

Apr 17, 2014, 1:44:00 PM

You'd have to consider what you want from the story. If part of her arc
is to learn to think before she acts, then showing her being TSTL at first
might work well. But if you have another character that might make a
better hero, you could think about giving her a secondary role.
Think about what you want from the story and the character as a whole.
Yes, it's a trope, but that doesn't mean you can't make it work if that's
what you want to do. :)

Rachel6 Apr 11, 2014, 11:42:00 AM

Ahahaha, TSTL! This trope simultaneously frustrates and amuses me. I think my
favorite moments are the ones that start out as straightforward TSTL, and just
when I'm ready to kill the character...oh hey, cops are right outside!
I have a TSTL moment plotted. I'm trying to tell myself the MC will be established
as arrogant enough to make it work, but maybe I should go back with your
checklist instead :P

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

10 of 11

Janice Hardy

Apr 17, 2014, 1:45:00 PM

Never hurts to take a second look :) Characters CAN have reasons to act
like idiots, so if it works for your story, go with it.

Julie Musil Apr 21, 2014, 10:40:00 AM

Too stupid to live...that's so funny! I have definitely had to re-write scenes and
sections because of this. When my critique partners question something like this,
it's time to get to work.
Janice Hardy

Apr 21, 2014, 2:20:00 PM

I have a crit partner who's very good at spotting these, so I'm pretty
lucky. But yep, I'm with you, whenever someone mentions a credibility
issue, I fix it.

Michael Mankus May 22, 2014, 9:39:00 AM

Any chance the show you refer to in the article is The Following? During the
second season I found myself screaming at the TV because there were plenty of
times when the characters acted in the complete opposite way of their own
Janice Hardy

May 22, 2014, 10:51:00 AM

Nope :) But it sounds like it has the same issues.


Add comment

4/7/2016 12:59 PM

Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

11 of 11


Newer Post


Older Post

Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)

Copyright 2014 by Janice Hardy, All Rights Reserved.. Powered by Blogger.

Stock photos 2013 PhotoSpin, Inc. All rights reserved.

Hide Box
Dismiss after 15 seconds
Display in Bottom Right
Google Adsense
Google+ Platform

4/7/2016 12:59 PM