Stupid Characters vs. Stupid Decisions: They're Not the Same

Photo credit: karly ilustraciones on Flickr
Throughout the course of a lifetime, we all make less than intelligent decisions from time to time—some of us more than others—so it should be no surprise that occasionally, our characters make choices that are many miles south of brilliant.

We see examples of these stupid (and often infuriating) decisions in even the most popular books and movies. For example:

  • The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling): Harry Potter makes more than a handful of astoundingly stupid decisions throughout the seven book series. Troll in the dungeon? Why yes, first years with little to no experience with magic are certainly capable of fighting off a raging troll. Mermaids make it clear that you may only save one student from underwater prison during the TriWizard Tournament? Harry the hero must save them all (because apparently he really thinks Dumbledore would let them die). 

  • Insurgent (Veronica Roth): Without spoiling anything, Tris makes plenty of decisions that fall short of the "intelligent" mark, many of which nearly get her killed. 

  • The Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien): And let's not forget to mention a certain overly curious hobbit (*cough* Pippin) who sneaks a peek at the shiny seeing stone that Gandalf made quite clear was off-limits. 

So what makes these regrettable decisions acceptable to readers? The answer is simple: there's a large difference between a stupid character and a stupid decision.

You see, when writing, unintelligent character decisions or mistakes can create great opportunities for character growth, plot progression and conflict. Whether it involves said character dealing with the consequences of his unfortunate decision, or other characters facing the repercussions of the act, stupid decisions can create great plot material (more on that in this post).

A stupid character, on the other hand, isn't nearly as useful.

Now you may be wondering what I mean by stupid character. To clarify, a stupid character...

  • Makes bad decisions just for the sake of making a bad decision (ergo: has no legitimate reason to make said bad decision). 

  • Ignores easy solutions to plot problems just because they didn't think of it. 

  • Blatantly misses fairly obvious clues/makes false deductions with little backing. 

  • And so on. 

The main difference between stupid characters and stupid decisions is the reasoning behind the poor choices: effective unfortunate decisions are made with a legitimate reason—the character has the proper motivation to make the decision and it makes sense for the character. More times than not, the character will be aware that the decision he/she is about to make isn't exactly the brightest decision, but their motivation behind the choice overpowers the part of them that knows it's a bad idea. Stupid characters, on the other hand, make unintelligent decisions just because. There's little rhyme or reason beside the writer needing to fill a plot hole, and using stupid characters is a high ineffective way to do it.

In short, stupid decisions can be useful, but stupid characters should be banished from your writing forever.

What examples of stupid characters or stupid decisions from books or movies can you think of?

8 comments:

Margaret Alexander said...

This is an awesome post, Ava :) I think a lot of critics tend to jump on wrong decisions that characters make as traits of "stupidity." Often, though, they have to make those mistakes in order to learn from them and grow. It's important to see the difference between those, as you said, because if you're afraid to let your characters make mistakes, that will likely make your story less interesting.

Lyn Midnight said...

I couldn't agree more! Making stupid mistakes is the sign of a hero. It's just like life: if you're doing it right, you look silly, crazy, and downright stupid sometimes. But not being stupid simply means not doing anything, especially if you're the hero of the story. Thanks, Ava. I needed some of that OCD spirit of yours. :D

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Margaret! I completely agree about having to let your characters make mistakes. We often want our protagonists and other well-liked characters to make all the right decisions because we love them so much, but if they never make mistakes, they'll not only seem unrealistic, but you'll miss out on huge opportunities for interesting plot and character growth. Even the stupid mistakes can make great learning lessons, or be necessary decisions to the character.

Ava Jae said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Lyn! Making mistakes (even stupid ones) is inevitable, and it should be no different for our characters. :)

Andi-Roo said...

You may have just changed the course of my WIP with this post! I have been going back-n-forth over a decision my protagonist must make, & which makes more sense. I was only considering, however, what makes most sense to me, in general --- not what makes most sense to HIM. And he is about to make a stupid decision now, thanks to you! To be fair to my guy, I should point out that in his POV, it's the lesser of two evils. But still. Point taken, Ava --- thanks!

Al Diaz said...

When I was young and I asked my mother was certain character in a movie or book had to do such an stupid thing she would answer me: "Because otherwise there wouldn't be a story".

Ava Jae said...

Glad to help, Andi! It can be easy to forget that the choices that we would make aren't necessarily equivalent with the choices that our character would make. Sometimes they do things we completely disagree with (or think are incredibly unintelligent), and that's certainly not a bad thing. :)

Ava Jae said...

It's true that stupid decisions often help to shape the story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Al!

Post a Comment

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...