As some of you already know, I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on literature and theory and basically all the college-level English stuff I didn’t take in college. One of the recent lectures examined two books that, in the words of the lecturer, each began with “an example of monumentally bad judgment.” It intersected interestingly with a manuscript I was also reading in which the characters made one bad decision after another until I wanted to scream at their stupidity. So I thought I’d talk a bit about why this worked in one case and not in the other.
I’ll start with what didn’t work and why, and the first thing I want to say is that I’m not talking here about the standard idiot plot.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an idiot plot is one that cannot work unless all the main characters are idiots – if they acted or reacted like a normal sensible five-year-old, they’d solve the story problem on page two.
What I’m talking about is a bit more subtle than that, though it’s closely enough related that it could perhaps be considered a subcategory. In the case of the manuscript I mentioned, nearly every plot point and twist in the manuscript was the result of some character’s monumental bad judgment, either in the “now” of the story or years earlier. At least half of the bad decisions were due to impulsive stupidity on the part of the characters: “I think I’ll dump this bucket of fish slime over that assassin guy’s head and see what happens.” It’s obvious that the character is being stupid, but it’s not obvious why.
I can buy arrant stupidity on the part of one character, provided he’s been established as being, well, the kind of guy that would dump a bucket over an assassin’s head just for the heck of it. When every character in the story, including the putatively-wise old scholar, the supposedly-clever spy, and the kid who’s seen all the horror movies and who knows and says that it’s stupid to split up and explore, all make one thoughtless, impulsive mistake after another, I get cross.
I get even more cross when each and every mistake leads to another tense showdown and/or plot twist. I mean, if the author wanted a big fight with the assassin at that particular point in the story, couldn’t he have come up with a way of starting it that didn’t require one of the characters to do something perfectly idiotic? Or couldn’t he at least have shown some sort of chain of events that made his readers believe that the character really would make this particular mistake under these circumstances? Even a half-paragraph about how drunk he was, or how he never could resist a bet, would have done the job. The character would still be doing something insanely stupid, but I’d have at least understood, and maybe accepted, why he did it.
What really got to me in this particular case, however, was that in nearly every instance, the Giant Mistake scene looked initially like a mildly dumb but not unreasonable choice to make. That is, the mistakes didn’t appear to be on the order of deliberately annoying an assassin, but more on the order of pulling a stupid joke on someone’s obnoxious older brother. The trouble was that every time this happened, the author showed the incident, then showed the horrific and sometimes fatal consequences…and then, three or four chapters later, finally revealed to the reader not only that the obnoxious older brother was a highly trained assassin, but that the guy dumping the bucket of slime had known this all along.
In short, the author was trying to hide his characters’ stupidity from the reader by holding back information that the characters knew. In one instance, a character does the equivalent of deciding to explore the basement alone, when she and all four of the other characters present know perfectly well that the escaped serial killer is hiding somewhere on this block (but the reader hasn’t been clued in that there’s a killer on the loose). The closest any of the characters get to objecting is one of them saying, “OK, if you’re not back in an hour, I’ll call 911.”
There are several possible excuses the author might have made for withholding this kind of information from the reader, but that’s just what they are – excuses. If the viewpoint character and/or narrator has reason to think that the serial killer might be hiding in the basement, the reader ought to know. If all the characters have this knowledge, then one of them ought to bring it up. Hiding the information from the reader until the action is all over does not make the decision to go down into the basement less stupid, and it does not make the reader less likely to notice that it was stupid.
The one place where this kind of thing is sometimes (not always, but sometimes) justified is when a character has made a ginormous, plot-affecting mistake at some point in the distant past. In this case, the mistake is part of the character’s backstory (and the character is frequently ashamed of it and trying to keep the information from affecting his/her present-day life), so it’s frequently reasonable for the readers and other characters not to know about it until the mistake comes back to bite them all. Even so, it’s almost always most effective if the author at least hints at the fact that there is some mystery about the character’s past before it starts strongly affecting the current story. Once the critical incident happens – the plot twist or event that wouldn’t have happened if not for the character’s long-hidden mistake – the reader and the other characters usually need to get the explanation/justification as soon as possible.
That’s a good bit of what doesn’t work. But characters need to make the occasional mistake, even the occasional huge one, so next, I’m going to talk about how to make that work in a story without having all the characters look stupid.