How Dumb is too Dumb? Making Characters Realistic.

The lone person who, instead of calling the police, checks out the strange noise in the basement or follows the obvious trail of blood. 

The group that, instead of digging in and shoring up their defenses, splits up to search for the missing member of their party. 

The person that doesn’t use what’s lying around them, instead running off without their cellphone or the gun the temporarily incapacitated killer dropped.

We’ve all seen this movie or read this scene before, haven’t we?

Confession time. I’m judgmental. But so are readers. It would take the eponymous smoking gun for me to believe that anyone scanning this article hasn’t followed the progression of a character’s bad decision and said to themselves ‘I would never do that.’ or ‘How could they be so stupid?’ 

The dumb-girl-in-the-horror-flick trope is one that readers—even me—spit out like decade-old grandma candy and editors swarm like mosquitos during a Georgia summer. It’s a blunder. An embarrassing gaffe. A faux pas. And to the more the elitist readers and editors, an unforgivable transgression for an author. But is that really fair? Let’s take a look at some decisions made that don’t have the excuse of being fictional.

In Orange County, California a bank robber was arrested after sticking up the bank he’d just robbed the day before. In Ohio, a burglar was arrested after the owner of the home he invaded found him asleep in her guest room and a British fugitive of justice was caught after coming out of hiding to buy the newest release of a popular video game.

And it’s not only criminals who are stupid either. It is claimed that in the 1500s, Hans Staininger supposedly died when he tripped on his own beard and broke his neck. Like, get a trim, dude. And in the 1800s a man named, John Cummings, allegedly died after purposefully swallowing knives after seeing a circus performer do a similar trick.

Now I wish I could say that all this stupidity, like putting vegetables and fish in Jell-O, was a thing of the past, but in 2009 a man died when his gum exploded after he dipped it into an explosive before chewing it. 

Okay, another confession. These examples, while factual, are meant to be a bit of point-proving hyperbole. Obviously, not everyone makes mistakes that are this level of colossally stupid, but they do serve to remind us how much harder we are on characters than on real people and even ourselves. Let’s not forget to put a dose of reality into our fiction. 

No one knows with complete certainty how they are going to react in any given situation. Maybe, I would go down alone into the basement and investigate the scary noise because: 

A. the water heater has a history of making noises and it’s probably just that again, or 

B. I know that if I call the cops and it turns out to be nothing, I’ll get the—unfair but sadly common—hysterical woman treatment. 

Bottom line, I can’t predict my reaction. It could be fight, flight, freeze, or just freak the eff out. 

However, even though we can’t predict our own behavior, we have to predict our characters. And we have to do it without suddenly turning them into MacGyvers. For example, in my book Sprinkled with Sabotage, the bad guy kidnaps the heroine, puts her into the trunk of his car, and drives away. 

To keep his prey locked up the bad guy would have to have known that as of 2002 all cars sold in the US have to have a glow-in-the-dark release lever inside the trunk in case of emergencies. So, did he tie her up, or make sure he was driving an older car that didn’t have one? Or, did he not tie her up but made sure to disable the emergency release? Or does he even know about the release at all? Did you?

And on the part of the heroine, if she was tied up, did she make sure to feel around the trunk for any sharp-pointed object or surface on which to cut her bonds? If she does get free, does she know about the trunk release or how to fix it if it’s disabled? Did she remember to hide her phone in her jeans before he tied her up or dial 911 before she had to drop it? Did she also make sure that her phone was on so that the police could track her location? And if both the bad guy and the heroine make the smartest possible decision at every single turn on every single page, how will a victor ever emerge, and will any of it be believable?

Pause to take a breath…

You’re the writer. You decide what happens. But a little piece of advice: Let your characters be dumb sometimes. Because, after all, people are dumb sometimes. Characters are not omniscient. No matter what tense your novel is written in, your characters are living in the moment. They won’t know everything you know or even everything the reader knows. They’re going to make mistakes. Let them. The key is to make sure you explain why. There has to be a logical procession of reasonings for the reader to follow up to the moment of decision.

But whatever you do, don’t confuse logical with smart. There’s a proverb in the bible that says Every man’s way is right in his own eyes. I’ve made a lot of dumb decisions in my life. And I could give you a reason for every single one of them. Were my reasons smart? Probably not. Were they right? Nope. But were they logical to me while in whatever physical, emotional, or psychological state I was in at that moment? Yes.  

Does that make me stupid? At times, sure. Does that make me human? Absolutely. 

And characters are humans too. 

What about you? Are you harder on the characters you read than on the ones you know in real life? Do you have a hard time reading a story when the characters make choices that you wouldn’t?

Comment below to join the discussion. And while you’re here, be sure to stop on my CONTACT page and sign up to receive March’s newsletter. In it, I’ll talk my TBR pile and give you a chance to win an Easter-tastic Mug and Notebook!

One thought on “How Dumb is too Dumb? Making Characters Realistic.

  1. sharlashares

    Loved this Joanna!
    You certainly have a gifting for writing—capturing peoples’ attention out of the gate, holding them in awe and suspense; then releasing them to take a breath —(stunning!)
    Glory resides in you and is coming out!
    Thanks for sharing with us!!!!
    Blessings be yours! And financial gain!

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