Sunday, November 6, 2011

Ulysses Plot Peeves: Pass the Idiot Ball!

Current Reading: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain

Inspirational Quote: "Genius may have its limitations, but stupidity is not thus handicapped." -- Elbert Hubbard

I've mentioned this before. I'll mention it again. And probably again. And again. Because if repetition causes just one writer to avoid this pitfall, my time on this Earth will have been justified.

Plot-Induced Stupidity occurs when the characters in a story do something that no thinking being in their right mind would ever do simply because the author has decided that the needs of the plot outweigh the needs of common sense. Characters will forget what resources are available to them and ignore previous experiences, all so that the author can move from point A to point B on the plot diagram.

Here's a perfect example: The Fellowship of the Ring. Earlier in the story, Gandalf summons Gwahir to save him from his imprisonment atop Orthanc. But then the wise wizard drops a bucket of I.Q. points and decides that a perilous walk into the enemy's stronghold is the best way to bring an end to the peril facing Middle Earth.

Idiot. That flash of brainlessness got hundreds killed, including himself (even though he got better).

I'd love to present an example from Massive Zombie Death Parade, but really I think I'd have to work way too hard to improve on Tolkien's fine example. And it just ain't worth the effort.

So, if you're a writer, please do your readers (and me) a favor. Remember the Principle of Maximum Character Effort: Every character wants something, and if it's important enough to be in the story, it's important enough for them to hold nothing back in their efforts to achieve it.

If you've got a situation where your plot says a character must act in a certain way, but that character's intelligence and resources make it more likely they'll act in some other way, then you've got a problem.

The problem is either you've got the wrong character for your plot, or you've got the wrong plot for your character. Say Redd Meat used to be a special forces weapons expert, but your story requires him to be unable to shoot an approaching zombie because he's not sure how to fire a pistol.

Yeah. I'm done reading now. You've pretty much trashed my suspension of disbelief, and honestly, I'm a little insulted.

This isn't to say you can't handicap your characters in order to make their stupidity believable. Robert Ludlum elevates this to an art when he gives super assassin Jason Bourne amnesia on the very first page of Bourne's very first book.

I'll let you get away with it if you're as good as Ludlum. Otherwise, I'm closing the covers and we're done.

Maybe Redd's been partly blinded by some chemical the Military dropped on the city in hopes of dissolving the undead. In that case, a weapons expert with a bogus aim makes perfect sense.

There is always room for extenuating circumstances.

Sometimes, when you're writing, you've got to trust your instincts about the character. If they wouldn't take action A, which is called for by your sense of plot direction, what would they do? The answer to that kind of question can often lead to some very interesting places, sometimes more interesting places than action A was going to take you.

On the other hand, if action A is really cool, maybe there's a better character you could use to run your plot. Instead of a weapons specialist, make Redd a cross-eyed hairdresser, or an Imperial Stormtrooper, neither of which are known for their facility with weapons.

This doesn't take into account stories where the character is actually meant to be an idiot. Maximum Character Effort means maximum for that character. If Redd's color blind, he's going to have some trouble jump-starting a car with red and green wires. If Redd's a moron, he's as likely to shoot himself as the approaching zombie, which makes me wonder how he got this far, so you've got to be careful.

So, summing up: Dumb character acting dumb for plot's sake, okay. Smart character acting dumb for plot's sake, not okay.

Next up: who knows? I'll go read some more. I'm sure something will occur to me.
Or not.
Life's a crap-shoot.


maine character said...

Here's one I didn't catch as a kid: In "Star Wars," they escape from the Death Star, and Leia wisely points out how "They let us go." 'Cause they're tracking their ship so they'll be led to the Rebel Base.

And so what does she do? Has Han fly her straight to the Rebel Base. *headsmack*

(And then, of course, they all stay right there and wait for the Empire to show up.)

Ulysses said...

Yes! Princess Leia wants the rebellion destroyed as much as the Empire, obviously.

I like to pick on the Stormtroopers. Earlier in the film, at the ruined Jawa sandcrawler, Ben Kenobi tells Luke "Look at these blast points. Only Imperial Troops are so precise."

...and for the rest of the movie, we see these precise troops miss everything they aim at, while the untrained farmboy racks up the body count.

There are those who say it was all part of Tarkin's plan: while the tracking beacon is installed in their ship, the troops had orders to keep Luke and Company busy and alive, even at the cost of their own lives.

That theory has even MORE holes in it... an essay's worth at least.