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Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

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WEDNESDAY, APRIL 9

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.

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Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

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http://blog.janicehardy.com/2014/04/are-your-characters-too-stupid-to-live.html
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?

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Do they frequently act in ways contrary to their own best interests?


Do they often attack (or confront) in no-win situations?

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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.

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MONTH

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
against.
Just take away the stupid.

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http://blog.janicehardy.com/2014/04/are-your-characters-too-stupid-to-live.html

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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
re-plotting.
(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?

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Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

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Labels: characters, too stupid to live

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30 comments:
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.
Reply
Replies
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.
Reply

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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.

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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.)

Reply
Replies
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.
Reply

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Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

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http://blog.janicehardy.com/2014/04/are-your-characters-too-stupid-to-live.html
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.
Reply
Replies
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:00:00 PM

LOL, love that.


Reply

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
Reply
Replies
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:01:00 PM

That sounds like a fun way to handle it.


Reply

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.
Reply

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Replies
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.
Reply

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!
Reply
Replies
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.
Reply

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


This bugs me about some characters too.
Reply
Replies
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:05:00 PM

Sometimes it can ruin an otherwise good story.


Reply

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

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Fiction University: Are Your Characters Too Stupid To Live?

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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.
Reply
Replies
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.
Reply

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

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http://blog.janicehardy.com/2014/04/are-your-characters-too-stupid-to-live.html
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.
Reply
Replies
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

Yeppers.
Reply

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.
Reply
Replies
Janice Hardy

Apr 10, 2014, 12:10:00 PM

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

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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.
Reply

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
situtations?
That gives me a lot to think about, I will never say thank you enough for all your
good ideas and advice!
Reply
Replies
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. :)
Reply

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
Reply

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Replies
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.
Reply

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.
Reply
Replies
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.
Reply

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
self-interest.
Reply
Replies
Janice Hardy

May 22, 2014, 10:51:00 AM

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


Reply

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