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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?