Why do characters… #1: Why do characters do stupid things?

We’ve all read those books. The ones where everything is going swimmingly and then somebody you’re supposed to care about does something so eye-wateringly dumb that your eyes hurt from rolling, and that sound you hear is your molars grinding together.

To some extent, this is inevitable – a story is what happens when *things go wrong*, and what the characters inhabiting that story do to right those things. So there might be a defensible starting point where a character  has to do something stupid – or deal with something stupid – to get the story engines rolling properly. But here  are a couple of things to watch out for when you’re writing that story.

  1. People talk to each other. Sure, there are circumstances where that is impossible, or unlikely – however, if that’s your premise make sure your circumstances support it.But if you simply have a couple of characters who are talking at each other but Stupid Things Are About To Happen because they aren’t actually communicating – because (deliberately or not) one character is simply failing to give another character essential information – you are failing your readers. That may be acceptable in sit-coms, but nowhere else.
  1. There is a case to be made for the heat of the moment and potential stress of the context making important information vacate someone’s brain – and therefore they put into motion a flub of monumental proportions. But the danger here is that it is entirely possible for an ordinary person like thee or me to, for example, forget the password to a computer at a critical moment. But if your character is a trained spy or a secret agent or the Chosen One or a superhero, you’re going to have to work a LOT harder to make that character simply forget about important information your reader KNOWS that they know. At least not if you want that character believable or sympathetic. Don’t give them “duh!” moments at crucial times just because that happens to fit the plot which you need to have happen. It is VERY difficult to keep up reader sympathy for a character who does something arrantly stupid out of spite or malice – even if such an act works against their own interests, in the short- or long-term. Unless you build the groundwork for it, the person who causes a nuclear bomb to obliterate the place where that person happens to be at the time of the boom, that person isn’t a hero, he’s a twit. And sometimes (be very aware of this) the line between heroism and twithood can be fine indeed. Be very careful there.
  2. Doing something stupid just because you are told to do so is not calculated to build the warm fuzzies for a character. Don’t let your character become a pariah just because you have that character “following orders”.

Having said all that… there is a case to be made that people making mistakes is what causes problems to happen, and therefore forms an important part of the story engine. There is a way to make this work for you – if your character is given a modicum of self awareness and realizes that what they are doing may be stupid  but *you give them good reasons for doing so*. Having a character do a stupidly brave thing with only poor to middling chances of its success, but trying for it anyway, is a pretty decent way to write something poignant enough for your readers to shed tears over.  Having your character look back upon a series of choices and realizing where in that chain of events they did the stupid thing that led to the rest of the unfolding disaster is a pretty decent way of accomplishing character growth. Having a character have an affliction of, for instance, having to tell truth-to-power, no matter  the consequences, is a pretty good way of immediately ratcheting up  sympathy for her.

Why do characters do stupid things? Because they’re forced to. Because they’re in love. Because in their best judgment (without knowing all the facts, which you as the author are aware of) making a certain choice seems to be the right thing to do and they only find out otherwise much later in the adventure. Because, perhaps, their moral compass tells them to flout authority because they don’t agree with that authority, even though consequences might be dire for themselves. Because they care. Because they DON’T care anymore, because something has hurt them so badly that they’re beyond caring. Because they’re flawed.

It’s ok for a character to be flawed.

It’s even OK for them to do the stupid thing every now and then. Without doing something stupid and brilliantly out-of-the-box sometimes, all of us would lead dull and colorless lives and you cannot write a good and interesting story about a dull and colorless life – you have to create trouble for even your very favorite characters, perhaps especially them.

There’s only one real thing to remember. *It has to mean something*. If stupid is as stupid does for no particular reason, just blundering about, the reader will quickly lose patience and sympathy. But it is entirely possible for that one stupid mistake – if made for the right reasons – to be the basis for the reader to fall head over heels in love with the character, and thereafter forgive them almost anything. For that payoff, you might WANT your character to unbend enough to do something stupid. Plain dumb  may just knock the reader out of a story for a moment– but *meaningless* dumb is completely unforgivable. When your characters are faced with making the mistakes they will inevitably make in order for your story to move forward… make sure they’re driving the plot bus, not being thrown under the wheels of one for short term pointless comic relief or through pure inattention on the author’s part.

 

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3 Responses to Why do characters… #1: Why do characters do stupid things?

  1. PandaVitt says:

    I’m somewhat confused about where you are going here–this post seems to take a very long time to say a single thing–but I believe that conflict is where story happens. Conflict doesn’t have to be stupid. Nor do the characters have to be stupid, even to one another, to create conflict.

  2. Elaine T says:

    Rachel Neumeier has picked this up and there’s several comments over there.

    Have you read Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo? Halfway through an intelligent main character does something extremely stupid and hurtful. The divide among readers on how well the author handled it is .. a yawning chasm. That’s my extreme example of character stupid.