Key points: Don't just make character do dumb things because the plot requires it, because then readers disengage from the character. Let the audience have information that the character doesn't, but don't let the reader get it too far ahead of the character! Dumb choices should make sense as far as the character knows -- even if the reader wants to let them know that there is something else they need to know. Dumb choices may be personality based, a character flaw, or driven by emotion. Pay attention to the consequences -- really dumb choices should have strong consequences. Avoid plotting that requires a character be stupid. Dumb choices often are dumb because you didn't lay the groundwork. Give your characters good reasons for their choices.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season 6, Episode 25, When Characters Do Dumb Things.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm about to do a dumb thing.
[Brandon] Well, that's nothing new.
[Brandon] I'm sorry. Hey, I'm back!
[Dan] Hey, welcome back, Brandon.
[Brandon] Actually, you're back. I was always here. But... Why characters do dumb things. This is an interesting cast. I want to do this one, because characters often do dumb things. There are good reasons for characters to do dumb things and bad reasons for characters to do dumb things.
[Brandon] Let's talk about the bad reasons first.
[Dan] Okay. Slasher movies.
[Howard] The plot requires it.
[Dan] Yeah. The plot requires that you run upstairs instead of outside. The plot requires you to not talk to the girl you're in love with because this misunderstanding has to drive you apart in Act 3. These kinds of dumb things.
[Brandon] Okay. You just pointed out how pervasive it is. If it's this pervasive, is it really a bad thing?
[Dan, Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Okay. Why? Mary. Why is this a bad thing?
[Mary] Well, most of the time because it leaves the audience screaming at the screen or the book, "No! How can you be so stupid?" That causes them to disengage with the character.
[Brandon] Yeah. That's a really good reason to not do it.
[Dan] You want your audience to be screaming at the characters, "Don't open that door! Don't do this!" But you want them to be doing it for a good reason.
[Mary] Yeah. The difference is that the audience has information that the character doesn't. That is a good reason for the audience to be screaming.
[Brandon] That's one of the very good reasons for characters to do quote unquote dumb things. You've been seeing a viewpoint that gives you extera information or whatnot. The thing that I want to emphasize here though is, it shouldn't be because you are so much smarter than the characters that you've figured it out. If the writer has telegraphed it that well to the readers, that most of the readers are saying, "No, don't open that door because I've figured out that the slasher is hiding behind there, and the characters don't..." What you're going to end up with is this disengagement. It's good for the reader... I always say it's good for the reader to figure out what's going on maybe two paragraphs before some of the characters.
[Mary] It depends on what genre you're writing, though.
[Brandon] Yeah, that's an important consideration. And what type of character you're writing. But even still... If the reader figures it out way ahead, number one, it's going to be boring, because they're figuring too much out. But number two, it's going to... they're going to see the hand of the author...The almiight author coming in and saying, "Well, I'm just going to make 'em do it anyway." You lose credibility. These sorts of plots... they... it's part of the sort of cheap tricks that sometimes keeps a quote unquote page turner going for a little while in the way that runs out of steam really quickly. That's why I've found that often I've put a book down halfway through, is that first half can be kind of compelling because the author is pushing you along with these cheap tricks. That you know what's coming as a reader, you're anticipating it, and you're waiting to see the blood spatter. But then you just get tired of that.
[Howard] The difference for me as a reader is that if the character is doing a dumb thing and I can tell it's plot driven, I've disengaged with the character and I want them to suffer for being this stupid.
[Howard] But if the character is doing something that I myself would do, given the information that they've got, and if I feel like it's the cleverest thing that they could possibly come up with... This is... This really is the best next step. And yet my authorial brain is following along with the author and I know this is going to end horribly, I am stuck to the page and I'm terrified. Because I'm now completely engaged with that character, and you as an author have won me over. Especially if that character... Something horrible does happen. It's like, "Oh, no, I would have died in tthis book." That's...
[Brandon] That is a great feeling to give a reader. In the right book.
[Mary] The other thing that you can do is you can play with the... You can play with having the reader know that it is a dumb thing. And feel like, "If I could just speak to them and explain! They're making a choice that makes sense to them. If I could just talkl to them!" That actually makes them feel more engaged. We use this trick in theater a lot. Where you trigger a choice for the audience.
[Brandon] Yeah. I would say that... I see two exceptions to our sort of "you wouldn't do it, but the character would" sort of things. One is if you've really, firmly established this character's personality, and you can relate them doing the dumb thing to some sort of character flaw. For instance, in Pat Rothfuss's books, Kvothe has a temper. He has a really nasty temper. Every time I'm screaming at Kvothe "don't do that," I'm saying, "Yes, but Kvothe will, because Kvothe is like this." He has cemented that character in my mind. We all do dumb things that we know we shouldn't because of character flaws, or because of the second exception I would say, which is overwhelmed by emotion. Which is kind of related to character flaw, but it's not always a flaw. You're deeply in love with someone, you will often do something stupid even though part of your mind is saying, "No, don't."
[Mary] Yeah. I think that that internal monologue that happens, the "No, don't" is an important part of selling the decision to do the dumb thing. That they look at it, they think "This is probably not a good choice, but I'm going to go ahead and do it because of these things." That... I think when you fail to do that, that that's when the character becomes flattened. That's where the audience does unengage. But it is about having it internally motivated.
[Brandon] Now, Dan. I would say that your books, a big cornerstone of them is the "No, don't."
[Brandon] You establish character. You established the character saying, "I can't do this. I know it's bad." Then sometimes they do it anyway. How do you maintain that contrast of them doing something stupid?
[Dan] Well, the... Some of it is what you've already mentioned. John Cleaver has a very strong personality. He also is very self-delusional. That comes across most strongly in the third book, where he is constantly convinced that it has to be this way because that's the way he sees the world. The reader is always able to see through that. So it's kind of an unreliable narrator kind of thing, where you're saying, "No, I can understand you thinking that, but obviously, that's not the way the world works, that's not the way other people think, you're thinking like a sociopath. Which is why you're misinterpreting all of this and making very poor decisions."
[Brandon] Right. And why it works so well there is because... And it's really tricky to pull off an untrustworthy narrator this way. But what you do is you establish for us in the books what a socio... how a sociopath thinks. John even points it out to us. Then he doesn't notice it in himself because... sometimes because of the way that a sociopath thinks. So we are able to connect the dots and say, "Oh, wow. This is what's happening to John right here. Oh, no, don't do this, John." Because you've established rules, you've established an untrustworthy narrator, and then you ram these two things together to create tension with the character potentially doing something horrible.
[Dan] Yeah. In the case of John Cleaver, a character doing dumb decisions is probably going to result in somebody getting really, really hurt.
[Dan] Which is what amps up that tension. And just really quickly, whatever genre you're in. We've talked a lot about horror with this, but any genre... If you're writing romance, then a character doing a dumb thing still has incredibly powerful consequences. Whatever genre you're in, you can still have the same kind of tension, and the same kind of consequences to stupidity.
[Brandon] All right. Let's do our book of the week. Our book of the week is going to be given to us by Dan.
[Brandon] A book that is very close to his heart.
[Dan] Okay. We're talking about people doing stupid things. My brother wrote a book.
[Howard] Oh, this.
[Dan] No, my brother wrote an excellent book. It's called Variant.
[Dan] It is young adult, kinda sorta kinda science fiction kinda sorta? But it's mostly just a paranoia kind of mystery thriller thing about a kid in a boarding school. When he gets there, he realized there are no parents. The children are all locked inside.
[Howard] There are no teachers.
[Dan] Yeah, there's no teachers.
[Howard] No grownups.
[Dan] There's no grownups of any kind. The kids... They're all these kind of 15, 16 year old kids. They're all locked in here. They don't know what's going on. They can't figure out why they're here in the first place. And the... Even bigger mysteries come up that I can't even mention for fear of spoilers.It is a fantastic book. It involves some, at times, some characters doing very stupid things for incredibly believable reasons."
[Brandon] I've read it. I really enjoyed it. Howard, how can they get this book?
[Howard] Ah! Head on out to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can kick off a 14 day free trial membership and you can get Variant by Robison Wells for free, or any other of the awesome titles they have out there at audible, and support the podcast.
[Brandon] All right. We've talked a lot about good reasons that characters make bad choices. Let's focus a little bit more on the problems new writers have with having characters make bad decisions. One thing that I'll mention here since it's a major part of a book on writing I've read called Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith. He was the mentor of my agent. A very big agent for genre fiction back in the day and he wrote a book. He talks... His entire... He has several chapters about what he calls idiot plotting. Idiot plotting is where... Not just the character doing somethign because of the plot requires it, but actually a twist on that. The idea where a plot depends on a character being stupid.
[Mary, Dan] Yes.
[Howard] Yeah. The... I've seen that a lot. There's... It's a trope, I guess, in romance all the time. Where, if these two people would just talk. You just need to share five words with this person and the whole plot goes away. If your plot hinges on these two people just sharing five words, and not even necessarily in a quiet moment, then it's a dumb plot. What you're going to end up doing is buiding into the plot a communications breakdown which may itself... For us the reader, we may look at it and say, "Oh, that's kind of dumb. Why... So all this happened because he didn't have his cell phone?"
[Howard] "Or because his battery ran out? Or... Wait, why don't these people have texting?"
[Mary] I will say that when... As we are talking about any of these, that most of them, you can solve by building it up sufficiently before you get to the point where they make the dumb decision. That a lot of this is about groundwork.
[Dan] Yes. If you have a romantic comedy in which one of the characters is well established as leaping to ridiculous conclusions with very little information...
[Mary] You're fine.
[Dan] Then that kind of classic third act thing can happen.
[Mary] But what Howard is talking about is where you have two people who have a really good relationship, and then they fail to talk about a problem.
[Brandon] Yes. I mean, there are good ways to do this same sort of plot that... It's harder to do. What you want to do to have this same sort of plot is have two characters have a very big difference that is almost irreconcilable. I mean, if you look at the whole concept of... The King of Siam... Whatever that story is, Anna and the King... I mean, the idea of here is the polygamous king who's used to having his way and here's the kind of liberated Western woman who actually have legitimate gripes about each other's culture and yet are attracted. This is a good way to have two people not get along in a romance plot and be driven apart. A bad reason is to just have them not talk about each other, and have one or the other misunderstand some big thing that the other one did, and keeping them apart for that reason. If you kind of think about those two different plots, you will see why one is a really engaging romantic plot, and why the other is really kind of lazy plotting. This is what we're talking about in this.
[Dan] Now, laziness, I think, is a good point to bring up, because I would say most of the time, especially with new writers, that's why this happens is because you've seen this so many times and you just kind of fall into the same ruts that other writers have done. If you take the time to just look at it from a new perspective and you go, "Oh, okay. Well, I can see why this doesn't work. This is an idiot plot."
[Howard] When I got to the very end... Very end? Last act of the most recent Schlock Mercenary book, Force Multiplication, I needed an exceedingly competent military commander to make absolutely the wrong snap judgment. I needed the audience to recognize that it was wrong. But this... It had to happen this way, because there were some key things in the plot that weren't going to be fulfilled if Major Murtaugh did the right thing. So I looked at that. I looked at the wrong decision. I thought, "Okay. What does it take for Murtaugh to make the worng decision?" What does she need to see happen?" I queued up those things in the previous three or four strips so that when she reaches the conclusion, the audience looks at that and says, "Yup, that's exactly what she would have done. If she had been looking the other way, if she hadn't been being shot at, if somebody had seen this and been able to call her, maybe she would have made the right decision. But in the position she's in right now, this is exactly the right thing for her to do."
[Brandon] I thought you pulled that off really well.
[Howard] I loved it and the fans loved it and it let me do lots and lots of fun things at the end of the book because the good guys were exactly where they shouldn't have been.
[Brandon] Now let me point out something in that story for all of our listeners. We do, as professional writers, sometimes decide this is what needs to happen in the plot. Let's figure out a way to make it work. We do that. So when you listened to us earlier saying, "Oh, because the plot requires it, they do something stupid." It's not the "because the plot requires it" part that's always the problem. In fact, we... Sometimes it is, but not always. Usually the problem is "therefore they do something stupid." There's a disconnect there between the new writer and the pro. The pro looks at it and says, "Okay, this needs to happen in the plot. Let me have it happen for a good reason."
[Howard] I had to lay groundwork.... I knew full well... Yeah, Murtaugh is making a decision that given all of the right information would be very out of character and very stupid. Given the wrong information, makes perfect sense. So I have to make sure that in the natural course of events unfolding, she gets the wrong information. That there aren't plot-forced bits of wrong information being handed to her, that it all makes perfect sense. It unfolds very organically and results in something going horribly wrong.
[Dan] In some ways, you can think of this as writing a mystery plot, where you almost construct it backwards and throw in red herrings specifically intended...
[Brandon] Yeah, we should definitely do a podcast on mystery plots.
[Dan] Can of worms.
[Brandon] Let's can of worms that. We'll do one of those in the next... Coming weeks.
[Howard] That's like foreshadowing, almost.
[Brandon] Yeah, it's...
[Howard] Almost like laying the groundwork, isn't it?
[Brandon] Eeww, we're fore...
[Brandon] I'm going to go ahead and do our writing prompt because I've been gone for so long from the podcast. I'm going to suggest that you actually create a really solid romance where the characters can't be together for good, character-driven reasons. Not because of a misunderstanding. Not because they have an argument in act one and then hold a grudge. But because of legitimate, either cultural biases or character biases. Write a story about that romance where in the end they don't get together.
[Howard] And not because one of them is dead?
[Brandon] And not because one of them is dead, and not because either ot them are stupid. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.