Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, August 01, 2011

Too Stupid To Live Characters

Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) or Just Normal?

I’ve been thinking a lot about characters in books and movies who are labeled, “Too Stupid To Live” or TSTL. I rarely think a character is TSTL, although sometimes I wish she really would pick up that gun that the bad guy dropped before he gets it back. (I’m going to talk about killing and the ability to kill in a later blog, so I won’t address that aspect at this point.)

Is it because I’m more forgiving of differences in human beings?

I don’t think so. In fact, most people think I’m cruel because I'm impatient and expect people to live up to a higher standard. I expect them to do things like “make sense” and “act reasonably.” But I do recognize that not everyone—in fact almost no one—thinks clearly in an emergency situation without a lot of practice and training. In fact most self-defense classes are about repetition so that your body knows what to do when attacked and you don’t have to think about it. Because as soon as you start thinking about it, you’re bound to mess up. He who hesitates is lost.

Anyway, let’s take a classic TSTL moment in fiction. In chapter 1, a bad guy escapes from prison. Let’s call him John. It’s on the news. Alice watches the news and thinks, wow, that’s not good. In chapter 2, the heroine (let’s call her Alice) hears a noise in the basement. Alice goes down to investigate.

I find this perfectly acceptable. A lot of readers, however, throw the book at the wall at this point because they know it’s John in the basement. After all the book is suspense and we (the reader) know this. The author has warned us. The author set up the scenario.

But if this were real life, why would Alice think it’s John in her basement? In real life, it’s probably a raccoon. Or a rat. Or a rattle in the pipes that just knocked over a clay pot that had been teetering on the edge of a loose shelf for the last decade.

If we called the cops every time we heard a noise in the basement, the cops would soon stop responding to us. And although I’ve got my concealed carry permit, I don’t run around the house with my gun, even if there is an escapee loose from the local jail. Why would he come to my house as opposed to all the other, closer ones?

We all play the odds. We don’t expect bad things to happen to us. Mostly if I hear a weird noise, it’s one of the dogs, one of the cats, or another snake has gotten into the house from the swamp.

Back to the book, what would you really want to happen?

• Alice locks the basement door. John piddles around in the basement and eventually gets bored and leaves. End of book.

• Alice locks the basement door and calls the cops. John hears the cops pull up. He leaves. The cop write up Alice for a nuisance call. End of book.

• Alice arms herself with a .357, goes into the basement, sees John and shoots him. She goes to jail for manslaughter. End of book.

• Or…Alice acts like a normal human being, goes into the basement, John grabs her and…stuff happens. About 350 pages worth of stuff.

What’s wrong with that last thing? Well, the real problem isn’t that Alice is TSTL. The problem is really that people are tired of the old, dark basement thing and they want a new way for John to break into the house and terrorize Alice.

In addition, we don’t want our characters to act like us. We don’t want them to be afraid to pick up the gun that the bad guy accidentally dropped. We want the characters to be better than us. Stronger. Quicker. More intelligent. Maybe not Superman, but…better. Because if the characters are better than us, it makes a more compelling story, and secretly, we’d all like to be just a little bit better in one or more ways. As humans, we have a need to vicariously feel what it’s like to be a bit stronger and more intelligent. We want to feel the rush of overcoming great odds and winning in the end. That’s why movies such as “The Karate Kid” and “Rocky”, even “Harry Potter” are so compelling. They’re about characters who rise above the ordinary. They are larger than life.

So is there really a problem with TSTL characters? Or is it just the hackneyed plot device that makes them see that way?

In the end, it really depends upon the reader.

What are your thoughts?


Carol A. Strickland said...

The scenario you mention usually has the caveat that our heroine KNOWS that the prison escape has happened, knows that that prison is right across the street and thus the chances of doom are great, but goes anyway. Big difference.

There's also a difference between rational actions, panicked actions, and TSTL actions. Quite often a TSTL character will repeat their TSTL mentality throughout the book (or as far as it takes the reader before they throw it across the room in rage).

Also, TSTL actions are usually big ones, large decisions on which the rest of the book is hung. Imho it all comes down to giving the plot precedence over characterization. The writer must bend what might be a perfectly acceptable character into utter stupidity in order that the preordained plot can happen (usually with extra added shock value), instead of having the character lead the plot.

Amy said...

Right--That's why I said Alice had seen it on the news.

But the thing is, Alice still behaved in an ordinary, rational manner. None of us believe terrible things will befall us. None of us runs around with hatchets, thinking we are about to be attacked if we hear a noise in the basement.

And that's the problem. Or rather, the crux of the two-co-joined issues: we want our characters to be smarter than us, not the same as us; and we want the author to use plot devices that we haven't seen before. Or at least that aren't so hackneyed. :)

I really believe there are very few characters who are TSTL--they mostly behave within the human norm. If this wasn't true, no one on earth would ever make a bad decision. It is human to make bad decisions.

But as readers, we don't want them to behave normally. We want them to behave better.