TSTL: Stupid Is Not Character Development

Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) is that moment when the heroine decides to go down that darkened alley, even knowing the bad guys might be there. It’s when the heroine is home all alone on the phone with a confessed killer and she goes to answer the doorbell. You get the idea. It’s when normal logic is thrown out the window and a character does something utterly stupid. This often results in a book being chucked at a wall.

I’ve been trying to think of examples of heroes having TSTL moments, and I’m having a hard time coming up with any. TSTL doesn’t seem to be as rampant among male characters as it is among female. I think this is because there is something going on with these moments that’s just not being wholly conveyed by the author.

Why TSTL Happens

One reason I think TSTL moments happen is a little something that’s hard to define: intuition. Culturally, I think we’ve come to accept that men are more logical and women are more intuitive. So we tend to see male characters thinking through their options before choosing a course of action, whereas in female characters women’s intuition might be happening but it is not being explained. Perhaps because it involves a discussion of feelings (something writers are told to show not tell), perhaps because intuition is difficult to define when it’s different for everyone, or perhaps it’s because it seems intuition has no logic, no explanation at all. It seems like it just is what it is.

Another reason I think TSTL moments happen is the author wants the character to go through a particular experience to push the plot forward, but s/he has forgotten to set it up. Much like not explaining intuition as the reason for a character’s choices, the author has forgotten to lead the story through all the steps leading up to a particular decision, leaving other avenues of choice obvious to the reader because they’ve not been eliminated by the author.

I also think sometimes an author wants to show a character who is inexperienced, growing up, and learning to navigate life. I think perhaps the author sees these TSTL moments as learning experiences, but the result is just trial-and-error experiments gone wrong. You want your characters to learn from their mistakes, but not by making them stupid.

What To Do About TSTL

Authors, you can still have your heroine go down that alley or open that door, or even have your professional assassin leave a body lying out in the open for the detective to find. Characters can act out of character, and it can still work. Here are a few suggestions:

1) Distractions – Show us your character planning to act logically, but then gets distracted. You just have to make the distraction bigger and more important than the dumb moment about to happen. That girl on the phone can go out the front door, if she’s distracted by a screaming baby.

2) Interruptions – Show us your character planning to act logically, but then gets interrupted. Again, the interruption has to be life or death– the utmost of importance, or it’s not going to be believable. (Two TSTL moments don’t make it smart!) Your assassin can leave that body in the open if she’s interrupted by someone shooting at her.

3) A Really Bad Day – Show us how it should go, then put the character through a bad day and show us the stupid moment. Use the stupid moment to show the character’s stress level. Maybe your assassin leaves the body in the open because she was robbed earlier and no longer has her shovel and can’t find a substitute.

4) Women’s Intuition – You can use women’s intuition effectively without getting too “woo-woo”. Just describe the intuition as a feeling. “Despite what my friend said about his reputation, I still felt Jake was a nice guy.” You don’t have to get all Star Wars about it (“I have a bad feeling about this.”) but something along those lines doesn’t hurt, either. In this instance, it’s okay to “tell”. If you try to “show” a character navigating through her life on intuition you will lose the reader.

I’m thinking sometimes “feelings” are eliminated because of bad writing advice. I’ve seen some writing groups absolutely adamant that you can’t have the word “feel” in your manuscript. They say the writing “lazy” whenever the word “feel” or its variations are used. I disagree. I think there are times when we the readers need to know what a character is feeling or sensing. Especially in urban fantasy and other speculative fiction, where characters can have psychic powers or use magic. Clear and concise writing can go a long way, even when it seems to go against “the rules”.

5) Roadblocks – This is when a character considers all the options, and tries the smart options only to be roadblocked, thus coming around to having no choice but to do that thing we all know is not going to go well. This has the added advantage of building tension. The girl on the phone runs to the back door, but sees a shadow there, so she has no choice but to open the front door. And of course let the killer inside.

Finally, I think you can have a character who is inexperienced and learning to make choices. She’s going to make mistakes, of course. But the thing about young people who make obviously wrong choices is that they are adamant they’re making the right choice. Anyone who’s ever parented a stubborn child knows this. Sometimes lessons have to be learned the hard way. But remember to show a character who is absolutely convinced they’ve made the right decision. It’s unwise to go for a run down dark streets at 9:30pm, and we would counsel our teenagers to never do such a thing. But a teen might still insist on that run– why? Maybe to help a friend? Maybe to prevent a situation from happening? She has to have a really good reason to be out alone at night. She can’t just run for her health or because she’s on the soccer team and missed practice or because the parents aren’t home so there’s no one to stop her. There’s inexperienced and then there’s stupid.

How do you feel about TSTL moments?