Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"D'oh!" Character stupidity as a plot device

I wanted to explore further some of the musings I wrote about yesterday.

I see so many books and films or television shows in which the stupidity or carelessness of a main character (usually one who has been sensible up until this point) serves as a major plot device. Sometimes this is forgivable, but most of the time it's not. What are authors thinking?

Or are they not thinking?

Do readers/viewers even care?

I think they do.

I'm not talking (mostly) about a momentary lapse. The smartest, most on-the-ball character (or human being) can accidentally shred the wrong document or mention something that is supposed to be kept under wraps a while longer. I'm talking about the big-time mistake made by a character who hasn't been set up to be the "cute ditz" or "clueless moron" of the piece, a mistake that leads directly to the next plot development or (worse) to the happenstance solution of the crime.

I hope that readers can see when an author is setting up a plausible lapse. For example, in my Jacquidon series, Our Heroine has just developed diabetes. She inadvertently drinks a little alcohol and eats the wrong snack foods, causing her blood sugar to swing. This in turn leads to poor judgment (just as it does in real life). This explains why she leaves a couple of phone messages one evening for someone she should probably be steering clear of. I need her to make this mistake in order to have something the cops can seize upon as "evidence" pointing to a thread of actions they claim she took (which she didn't take). I am hoping that readers pick up on WHY I had her get into the reduced-mental-processing condition so she could make this minor mistake. It's not a MAJOR plot point, but it is yet another brick on the yellow brick road the police are trying to build to railroad her.

One of the actions questioned in a recent review was that Jacquidon backed down rather than prolonging a bad scene in which she was being challenged/attacked. I had her get out of the situation (which had been engineered by another suspect in order to throw suspicion away from herself and onto Jacquidon, by the way) instead of fighting back and making a bigger scene because she ISN'T TSTL. In my experience, any time you "fight back," onlookers will jump to the conclusion that YOU are the irrational and crazy one because they only got their attention attracted when YOU started yelling back. It's never a good thing to be identified as someone who goes crazy in public (no one ever remembers the provocation, trust me!), especially when you're already under investigation as a murder suspect. Keep your cool and analyze WHY things happen and WHO it could benefit to start such a scene, and you will be ahead of the game. (In real life as well as in fiction.)

You never want your characters to be Too Stupid to Live. Now, I realize that some of the characters whom I see as TSTL seem perfectly normal and reasonable to their authors and fans. Still, we can all agree that a character should not, upon hearing a noise outside at 3 AM, fling open the front door wearing only a filmy nightgown to shout, "Who is it?"

TSTL actions are usually big boo-boos, linchpin decisions on which the rest of the plot turns. It comes down to authors giving the plot precedence over characterization. "Why did you do that?" "Because the script said so." The writer forces what was a perfectly intelligent character into an act of utter stupidity so the preordained plot point can happen (usually with extra added shock value), instead of having the character drive the plot.

Here are some rules of thumb:

* PICK UP that gun that the bad guy dropped before he gets it back

* YELL when someone approaches you and seems threatening; run in a broken-field pattern and be noisy so as to attract the most attention possible. It's better to be embarrassed than to be overcome and hurt by a perp.

* DO NOT get into the car of a person who is holding a gun on you. You're better off if you stay in that WalMart parking lot and he shoots you, because you could get help and the shooting will attract attention. If you go with him, you are dead--and will probably suffer greatly on the way out.

* If you are going somewhere to meet a stranger in a dark alley, SET UP A RESCUE; at least call one of those police friends you have and ask them to be waiting in the background should the meeting go south. Better yet, don't meet the person. Make them come to YOU in a diner that is full of people and in public.

What are the things like this that would make you throw a book against the wall and stop reading it?

No comments:

Post a Comment