Don’t make your characters idiots. They won’t like it.

I haven’t done a writing post in a while, so here you go.

If you’re related to me (hi, honey!), you can just stop reading right now. I mean, if the first sentence didn’t get you to click off the page and you’re already reading something…

Yeah, he’s gone.

You ever hear that phrase that I’ve seen tossed around the blogosphere, “Too Stupid To Live”? (Or, TSTL for short.)

It refers to characters who do things that are so dumb, they’d never survive in real life. A movie way to describe this is to refer to the cliche of the horror movie heroine who wanders into the dark house after hearing a scream, knowing there’s a murderer on the loose. No one would really do that.

Yeah, it’s cliche, you think. No writer would ever write something like that. Of course not.

We do. You know why? It’s easy.

But it’s cheating.

Motivation needs to be at the forefront of your mind when you’re writing a scene. If you find yourself excusing your character’s actions, you’re on the wrong track. This can sometimes work in a movie, when you have body language to help you along, but in a book, it’s tough to pull off.

This would probably work better with an example.

Jake rolled out of bed and rubbed his eyes. He’d been on the run from the Russian mafia for twenty-six hours now, and that hour of sleep felt like sixty seconds.

A knock rapped at the door, followed by a woman’s voice. “Housekeeping!” she called.

Her voice sounded oddly strangled. But it’s not like he was in the business of understanding housekeepers’ vocal tics. She probably just had a cold. Jake stood up and reached out to open the door.

I just made that up off-the-cuff. But you know the kind of scene I’m talking about.

You know what ruins it? Jake talking himself out of his suspicion. The reader already knows he’s on the run from the mafia. (I don’t even know if Russia has a mafia, but stick with me. I write YA, ‘kay?) If you, the writer, tell the reader that there’s something wrong with the maid’s voice, and then dismiss it, it’s like having that heroine go running into the dark house. It makes your character look like an idiot. He spent 26 hours running, and he’s going to be undone by a maid? Come on.

If you want to pull this off, you have to show Jake acknowledge his suspicion and then act on it. Have him tell the maid to leave the towels. Have him answer the door with a gun in his hand.

OR, don’t warn us about the strangled voice. But even having a maid knock on the door is going to be seen as suspicious if you’re writing a tense action novel. Our job, as writers, is to create a scene where we believe the hero’s motivation from the first minute.

If not, you’re screwed. You know why? No one wants to spend 400 pages with an idiot. There’s just no tension. No conflict. In my example, you know there’s something up with the maid from the instant she’s introduced. If the reader knows something, the protagonist must know it too.

So no cheating. 

A good thing to look out for is talking your character out of something. Any time you’re doing that, you’re making your character look silly. “Oh, I thought I saw a glow in the woods last night, but tee-hee, it must have been my imagination.”

Think back on the last really, really good book you read. You know what people love when they read? Being surprised. Not jack-in-the-box creepy surprise, not even flash-bang action surprised. People like being surprised by the unexpected.

I’m currently reading Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins. In the first few chapters, Sophie, the protagonist, is approached by a group of witches who ask her to join their coven. They trash Jenna, Sophie’s new friend, by saying she killed a fellow student.

When I read that scene, I kind of inwardly rolled my eyes and thought, “Here we go. The standard trope of the maligned best friend, and Sophie is going to believe them and turn on Jenna, when really, the bad guy will be…”

But then I didn’t get to finish that thought, because I turned the page, and badass Sophie didn’t believe them for an instant. And she and Jenna are still best friends.

I was surprised. I kept right on reading. (You should, too. It’s a pretty good book.)

Don’t cheat your characters. You love them, right? Don’t make them stupid.

They won’t like that one bit.


2 thoughts on “Don’t make your characters idiots. They won’t like it.

  1. This is exactly what ruined the last season of 24 for me. A character’s ex-boyfriend shows up at a bad time (there’s just this terrorist threat to the US) and demands to speak with her. Of course she goes and gets wrapped up in more trouble. Ugh, of course no one would do that. You’re working on a terrorist attack that’s happening that day.

    Later, after she’s killed her ex, his parole officer calls, demanding to talk to her about the ex’s whereabouts. Does she say something like, Hey Mr. Parole Officer, I work for the Counter Intelligence Unit and we’re in the middle of a terrorist attack. Can we do this tomorrow? No, of course she invites him to CTU and has to kill him, making things more complicated.

    Only it didn’t add excitement. It drove me crazy!

    Great post. And, um, sorry for the novel I left in your comments!

  2. I have been guilty of this, but it wasn’t so much as making the character an idiot as it was me being an inexperienced writer.

    I knew all the motivations and why the character would behave that way, I just didn’t know how to put them on the page and make them logical or convincing. Hopefully I know better now!

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