Characters are important, if not the most important aspect of a good story; great characters have to be fully developed with appealing qualities, true to life flaws, and a host of inner desires, conflicts, motivations and goals. Just like all real-life folk. Recently though, a statement from another writer brought up the question of judgement of character. Stupid characters in particular.
So. Many. Stupid Characters.
He claims that ‘so many books are filled with stupid characters making stupid choices’, and I can see the point of his statement. On some level, I’m inclined to almost agree—almost. What stops me agreeing is this:
What exactly, in the eyes of the reader, makes for a good character?
Is it strength, and integrity, and intelligence? Quick wit, feistiness, charm? Does physical appearance play a part, if at all? And to what extent? Does the rise-of-the-underdog score more points with you, or do you prefer to witness the shallow-but-popular ass evolving into a relatable 3D hero? Does a heroine have to be the typical Mary Jane with an unknown destiny awaiting her, and lots of obstacles to rise above?
These are all common themes/tropes within stories (if a little limited).
Whether the book focuses on the main characters themselves, or whether it is driven by plot, every story will have a protagonist with at least one goal, and, as far as the author is concerned, a vast number of motivations and means by which to meet this goal. Authors are human too though, and they write the story they want to write, and read, (which is exactly as it should be.)
In doing this, they can often, unfortunately, piss off the reader. Getting from point A to point B can be done in so many ways that it is impossible to please every single reader; a character choice may seem poor or even dumb to one reader, yet may appear perfectly reasonable to another.
Let me give you a (ridiculously basic) example:
The princess has fled for her life knowing someone wants her dead. She then sets up home with seven little men, and when a scary old lady offers her an apple, she accepts it and immediately takes a bite, no questions asked despite the fact that she is on the lam, and the woman is not only hideous beyond belief but a complete stranger.
Some would call her stupid, and naive; a little clueless. On the other hand, Snow is an innocent fourteen-year-old girl, with (apparently) a heart as pure as her namesake, thus she trusts easily, and wants to see the good in everyone. She doesn’t for a second believe that this little old lady would want to harm her.
A more recent example is…
Bella is an (apparently) average teenager whose love for Edward is all-consuming, and upon his leaving in New Moon, she all but gives up on normal life for several months at a time.
Some would call this stupid, and weak; a little melodramatic. On the other hand, Bella is a teenager, and we all know that fully grown adults are capable of drama, much less a seventeen-year-old. A breakup is tough on any of us, and Bella is no exception. Her love for Edward was written to be of such an epic scale that losing it would be like losing a part of herself; anything less than that would make the reader doubt the scale of their love in the first place.
If you’re thinking: ‘What a lame bunch of lame examples!’, first: get yourself a thesaurus; and second: let me offer up a third and final example—one who is not a teenage girl, nor a central character of a fairy tale / young adult romance saga:
Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
Doctor Faustus is smart; he is highly accomplished in the arts and sciences to the point of feeling dissatisfied with the mediocrity of what little there is left to learn. He is a fully-grown man, a well-established social figure in his time—yet what does he do? He makes a deal with the devil!
Pretty stupid, yes? Or no?
It could easily be assumed that voluntarily signing a blood-contract with a messenger from the depths of hell pretty much ‘puts the stu in stupid’ (technical term). Yet, whilst there is no question that his choices leading up to—and during—his deal did indeed lack judgment, Faustus was, on the whole, not stupid; self-centred, frivolous, arrogant to the point of self-destruction, and clearly prone to ‘silly’ decisions—but not stupid. His discontentment with life, his initial search for greater meaning—even power—are all too common in the real world, in some form or another; it may not justify his decisions but it does shed light on the reasoning behind it.
Snow White, Bella, and Faustus (jeez, weirdest dinner party ever!) demonstrate that regardless of character traits, flaws, and intentions, every reader is likely to interpret a character in a different way. What is dumb and weak to one person is to another, completely understandable, even to an extent, realistic. We all appreciate and admire smart people and smart choices, fictional or otherwise, but how drab would it be to always be faced with these know-it-all smart-asses, with their excellent lives, rubbing our Average-Joe noses in their success?
Certainly, despite good decisions, a smart character can have things in life go wrong for them as a result of an external source, but can you honestly say you’d enjoy reading the riveting account of how easy it was for them to overcome the obstacle thanks to yet another predictably smart choice? Shortest book ever—and not particularly entertaining; entertainment being the whole point of writing and reading in the first place.
My point is this: despite what appeals to us on a personal level when it comes to our preferences in the characters we write or read about, one thing we all are likely to have in common is that we want our characters to be as real and relatable as possible.
AND HERE’S THE THING…
Real people, smart or otherwise, sometimes make stupid choices.
Despite judgement—whether from other writers, readers, or haters—books with outwardly stupid characters making stupid choices will continue to sell because if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a reason for a character’s moment of idiocy; and more notably, this moment of idiocy amidst the chaos of life is real and relatable.