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This week at Write On!, Sensible Shoes talked about stupid characters. It made me think about both characters and writers and the times when I have closed a book and asked, “What Were They Thinking?”.
If your protagonist absolutely has to do something stupid in order for the plot to work, then you need your reader to be completely convinced that, in the circumstances, a smart person would do such a stupid thing.It is true that sometimes the reader can be prepared for something stupid and I agree that would be fair, but too often it is just glaringly wrong and only done for the sake of plot manipulation or emotional winding up that is not needed. I believe that some writers just take the easy way out and that is disappointing.
Some things I have observed and shaken my head about:
1. The heroine believes the gossip about a beloved person and spurns them without asking the person what really happened and getting their side of the story.
2. The hero believes the beautiful woman just because she is so beautiful and despite some knowledge that she isn’t to be trusted.
3. The heroine runs away from a safe place because…you know…there would be no plot if she didn’t and yet, is that too easy, too trite?
4. The handsome man is a bad man, but the heroine believes she can save him with her love and she forgives him for everything. Every single thing? Give me a break. Go find the good man, I say. (But the book would never sell, I am told…sigh).
5. The ghost can only be seen and heard by one character and the others think she is crazy and treat her badly. I liked it that in Tamsin by Beagle the young girl was believed by a friend. In Beagle’s story there is much more nuance than in most ghost stories.
6. The police act like they are stupid and grab the first person they see and have to be persuaded to listen to the PI’s evidence in the person’s favor. Sometimes this gets old. It can be done well and often is, but when it isn’t... (Apparently this happens in real life, too).
7. The character who disappeared is not really dead and comes back to wreak havoc. He hides out in plain sight and no one ever tumbles to it, even those who know him well. Really?
8. The untrained student believes he can raise and control a demon. See the ugly blot that results…sigh.
I get really excited when some trite plot is made new and interesting. Maybe that is why I have been enjoying Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie mysteries narrated by Chet, the dog. They are fun and funny and just plain different. Bernie does lots of stupid things after which Chet says, “Oh, Bernie.” Bernie admits to doing some dumb things and endears himself to me for that. Sometimes Chet just doesn’t understand and Bernie is right. Very clever stories, really.
Sometimes being “stupid” is part of the job. It can still get the hero into a lot of trouble. Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming, in the C. J. Box mysteries, has to cover a lot of rough terrain where cell phones do not work and he is usually alone except for his dog which is not his fault. It is his job when he sees something bad happening to go charging in to help. Still, he often pushes the limits of this by not telling people where he is going. He often says that he knows he is stupid not to tell anyone where he is going, but he does it over and over anyway. As Chet would say, “Oh, Joe!”
I am sorry because as much as I love the mysteries by Julia Spencer-Fleming, I still found it stupid through the early books that Clare would not listen about a tiny car being dangerous to drive in several feet of snow on tiny curving mountain roads. If she has the sense to be a good helicopter pilot, it does not make sense to be stupid about snow even if she grew up in the South. To not listen when people explain this, to buy a second tiny car after the first winter’s bad experiences, is just plain idiocy. It did not endear me to her and really was a downer when so much else about her was wonderful.
On the other hand, I give ten stars to Jack Schaefer for convincing me that Shane was not an idiot. I feel compassion for him when Shane gives up his own hard won peace of mind and takes out his gun, again, to protect the family he has grown to love. The author also makes us understand that Joe is not stupid for trying to live his dream of having his own small farm after having run cattle for a big rancher in the past. I loved it that Shane first tried to teach Chris, the ranch hand who was told to crowd him, by using a non-violent approach, and when Chris would not learn the easy way, taught him again, the hard way, and then picked him up and tried to fix his arm. Chris learned, finally, which was a shining moment in the book.
I cheered when Chris got smart and took Shane's place on the farm at the end of the story.
In The Guns of Navarone, Alistair MacLean did what Sensible Shoes said to do. He made a young man’s mistake seem completely understandable. He showed us the background of being mocked as a child by his father and brothers, he showed the pain of his injuries as he climbed, and he showed the misunderstanding about what was happening at the top of the cliff so that his letting go was completely explained, tragic as it was.
The touch of a master writer.
If characters are really stupid over and over in a story, does it turn you off enough to stop reading the book and even to vow not to read any other books by that author? How much stupidity are you willing to put up with?
Do you like it if the characters are not too smart because we learn from their problems?
I think it is boring if the characters never make mistakes. I forgive Bertie Wooster completely because Wodehouse shows that despite his bumblings, he has a good heart. And because the situations are so funny and we all can identify with Bertie as he tries to fix things and gets into deeper and deeper water.
Diaries of the Week:
Write On! Stupid characters.
Contemporary Fiction Views: When life on the lane was good
Robert Fuller says:
Chapter 12 of "The Rowan Tree" is now up:NOTE: plf515 has book talk on Wednesday mornings early
Also, there are still free paperback copies available via the Goodreads Giveaway:
The audiobook is almost done!