When Characters Do Stupid Things

I’m reading Nightmares! by Jason Segel and Kristen Miller. It’s a fun MG romp about the world of nightmares intruding on our world and one 12-year-old boy caught in the middle. Spooky. Funny. Has my sensibilities. Good world building and a lot of fun to read, so I’m going to finish it.

But I have a beef.

In order to keep the plot moving, the main character–otherwise a smart kid–has to be clueless regarding an important element of the story. He must ignore the obvious that is right in front of him. We all know the truth, and the fact that he doesn’t is frustrating. I don’t want to give anything away (in case either one of you two who are bothering to follow my blog want to read it at some point), but it is almost ruining the book for me.

I’ve read many books and seen many movies where this occurs (The Screaming Staircase I just finished does something similar). Character A knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that X. Character A goes through the book being led by his belief. Yet the even-slightly-astute reader can easily see that it is Y. Time and again, we see that if Character A would only open his or her eyes and see Y, the book could end 200 pages early and we could all go home. But Character A has blinders on, so we have adventure and danger and exciting scenes and it all is pretty pointless because when we get to the end and Character A suddenly realizes it has been Y all along we just want to smack her.

Here’s a tip to any writers out there. If you need your otherwise intelligent character to miss something obvious in order to keep the plot moving, stop writing. Take a step back. Find another way to advance the story. The only time that sort of thing can be excused is when the ignorance is itself central to the character.

“John hated all orangutans ever since they killed his mother. He needs someone to climb into the tree and get him a banana. If only he didn’t hate orangutans, he could ask one of the very nice orangutans standing around to go up there and get one for him. Alas.”

That sort of works. We see that John is fatally flawed and we are invested in finding out if he will ever get over his loathing of orangutans in time to get a banana. If you’re writing that story, then you should be OK, although you will need to come up with some good reason why John needs to eat a banana.

Unfortunately, many writers are more prone to crafting something like this:

“Barbie’s house is on fire. She asks Randy, who works at a fire extinguisher store, if he has a spare bucket of water she can use to put out the fire. He says no, and is about to say something else but before he has a chance she rushes out to find somebody who can give her a bucket of water to put out the fire.”

That’s lazy. That’s obnoxious. Everyone reading the book is screaming at Barbie. “Randy was going to give you a freakin’ fire extinguisher, you idiot! Gaarrrgg!”

It is a bad sign when the reader knows the answer when the character still needs 50 pages to see what’s in front of his or her face.

As I’m writing Book 3 (and I’m on a sweet tear after plotting it all out on my living room floor), I am well aware of this issue. There are a couple of spots where it would be easy to fall into this trap. I have forced my main character, a girl named Lillian (who is 12 because all MG books star children who are 12), to be smart. This has caused a few inconveniences, because I’ll come up with a cool idea but then think ‘Why wouldn’t she just X and be done with it?’ and go back to the drawing board. There should never be an easy out that is overlooked.

“You mean I could have pulled the drain at the start and then the room wouldn’t have flooded and all the weasels wouldn’t have died? Boy, do I have egg on my face or what?”

I view it as a challenge. Let’s put Lillian in a horrible situation–she’s in a sewer being eaten by a zombie crocodile. OK, now how can she get out of it? She could shoot it with the massive ray gun she had in the last scene. OK, she needs to lose the massive ray gun. Now how could she get out of it? She could light it on fire with one of her flares. OK, we need the flares to get wet in the sewer so they won’t work. Now what can she do?

And so on and so on until Lillian is forced to come up with a clever way to avoid being eaten by the zombie crocodile. Or she doesn’t come up with a way and she gets eaten. It’s up to her.

Author: neilsendavid

Author of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom and Beyond the Doors.

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