Characters and Unwise Choices

While reading reviews for Robin Hobb’s Liveship series (you can click here for that series if you like), one review caught my attention. I don’t know the reviewer, so I don’t have permission to cite the review. However, if you click on the link, you’ll see it for yourself. Anyway, the reviewer was appalled by the stupid decisions (that reviewer’s description) the characters made, which led me to write this post.

After having read some books or watched movies or TV shows, I have bemoaned the choices of characters some would describe as too stupid to live. But I have to wonder whether the plots of those books or shows would have suffered had those characters made logical choices.

As you know many conflicts are based on the choices characters make—wise or unwise, leaving the author at the mercy of readers who disagree with said choices. For example, some readers complained about the choice of hobbits to take the ring to be destroyed in Mount Doom (Lord of the Rings). If you’re ready to take umbrage with me, thinking I just gave a spoiler (though the books have been around since 1955 and Oscar-winning movies have been adapted from them), please see the Complaints Department. You’ll have to fill out a form to make a complaint though. Anyway, I have heard a number of critics say. “The eagles could easily have taken the ring.” But the ease of this, in my opinion, would not have made a compelling journey story.

Some people complained about Bella in the Twilight series and how stupid she was (in their opinion). Yet that series sold out the wazoo. Apparently, many people weren’t bothered by her choices. While I didn’t agree with every decision the character made, I found the series enjoyable to read. If that bothers you, again, please see the Complaints Department.

Striking a balance between a realistic decision someone might make versus one made purely to fulfill a plot point is a tough call for an author. It’s easy for an audience to scream, “Don’t go in the basement,” while watching a heroine in a horror movie. But would we still watch the film if said heroine decided, “Nope. Ain’t happening! Zombies and vampires are probably down there” and avoided the basement like the plague?

Do you have any advice on how to strike a balance or any examples of compelling decisions made that cost a character something? While you’re thinking, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens comes to mind. A number of characters make very costly decisions. Yet I loved the book because of their choices.

What was the last book, show, or movie you engaged in that enraged you in regard to the character(s)? Had you written that piece, what, if anything, would you have done differently?

Book covers either from Goodreads or my library.

33 thoughts on “Characters and Unwise Choices

  1. Yes haven’t we all said ‘Don’t do it!’ But in real life people make ridiculous choices despite their friends and family advising against. If all characters were sensible there would be very dull stories.

  2. I think a reader or viewer can tell the difference between a decision made by the character and a decision made by the writer. That is, the difference between a decision that any of us would make if we were that character with that characters aspects and experiences in that moment, and a decision made by a writer saying, “Something bad has to happen to advance the plot.”

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that all the time either. The horror movie basement choice is made by the writer, and I still want to watch.

    • Excellent point, Arlene, about a decision made by the character and one made by the author. One feels inevitable, based on the hard work of the author to foreshadow and to create vivid characters. The other is based on convenience.

  3. Trying to remember if I broached this subject on my blog or in my fantasy tip book. Might revisit it for a September post now because I see this reaction all the time. Some people seem to think characters know everything they know. That’s not true because the heroes and villains don’t have the luxury of hearing a narrator explain situations. They also have the tension and stress one would have in those situations. Not everyone keeps their cool or thinks everything through in the heat of the moment. When I have a hero make a bad decision, it’s because they either don’t have all the info or are too panicked. Just like real people.

    As far as the reviewer goes, I’m sure they’d also complain about characters never failing or screwing up.

    • I hope you will revisit the subject, Charles! I look forward to reading that post. Excellent point about the character not knowing what the author knows. The tension and stress aspect is so true. I have made some decisions under stress that I regret. I shudder to think what a reader would say had the story of that part of my life been written and published.

  4. The best characters are those most like us real humans in all of our glorious diversity. So that said, we all make stupid decisions and then continue to live our lives.
    The thing about shouting out, “Don’t go down to the basement” and then the character choosing to not go down the basement could work as a tension element to a story don’t you think? The very human draw of curiosity and the inability to ignore whatever is causing the desire to ‘go down to the basement’ so finally it wins out and the ‘bad’ (but is it really bad?) decision to go there is made and consequences unfold. Truly, consequences unfold whatever choices are made!
    And as for rewriting Tolkien’s trilogy – for that’s truly what is implied when ‘complaints’ are made – gimme a break!

    • Love this, Laura! Yes, it could work as a tension element for a while. And you’re right about consequences. But many authors would not be able to rest until he or she got that character into the basement at some point, because that is the field of battle. It can’t be ignored. It’s like an old Star Trek: Next Generation series of episodes on the Borg. Since they were powerful creatures who forcibly take over others, the writers didn’t want to avoid having them assimilate one of the main characters and working through the trauma of that. Doing so made for great conflict.

  5. I recently read Survive the Night where many of the characters make incredibly stupid decisions, lol!

    Having said that, I think for us to assume every fictional character will make the most logical choice in all situations is like assuming every human being will make the most logical choice in all situations which will never happen.

  6. If all fictional characters made logical choices, then we’d not learn how to deal with mistakes. And much of real life is dealing with mistakes, ours or the ones other people make. Therefore I like to see characters who screw up.

    • Excellent, Ally! Great point about us learning how to deal with mistakes. Though this is teaching me to put more effort into the decision making of characters, rather than choices purely based on a plot that should not have been set in stone.

  7. I think your question boils down to this: Does the author seem to impose his/her own decisions about plot development upon the character, or do these decision seem to come from the nature of the character and the predictions a reader can reasonably make about his/her behavior?

    The examples in your post all come from fiction, and I agree with Ally that without conflict, you don’t have an engaging story. However, once I read a memoir (nonfiction) written by a highly educated woman. She made such stupid choices that I felt like slamming down the book and refusing to pick it up again. However, the author was a friend, and I promised to write her a review, which I did, so I persevered. Ha! 😀

    • Marian, I have slammed down books many times. I can tolerate some decisons people make. But when they ruin their lives and attempt to tell me all about it in a book, I can choose to turn away, as I have many times! 😊

  8. Jesus’ disciples in the New Testament come to mind. They just consistently fail to ‘get it’.
    But now I’m thinking of the Doctor’s companions, who are there just to allow the Doctor to explain the baffling stuff to us through them.

  9. The last one that I read was a vintage crime novel called The Chink in the Armour, where the heroine kept swanning around a dodgy area wearing her expensive pearls despite everyone warning her she was asking for trouble – I actually said in my review that it wouldn’t have been much of a book if she’d paid attention to them and put the pearls in the bank! I think it works if the character is shown as naive or thoughtless, or is driven to do something apparently foolish by circumstances beyond her control – it’s when a normally sensible “strong” character does something silly for no good reason that it seems out of character and as if the author has taken a lazy way out, and that’s when I get enraged.

    • I know what you mean! I don’t like when an author dumbs down a character for the sake of the plot. We need at least a somewhat plausible reason why the heroine chose to wear those pearls and ignore the warnings. If the author does the work at showing us that the decisions are believable for that character (as you said the character is naive or thoughtless), then I can suspend disbelief.

    • Very true, Lyn! And good point about kids. I remember some decisions I made that I thought were good back when I was a teen. But I didn’t have a frontal lobe, so that should tell you something about those decisions.

  10. I’m pretty careful about the books I choose to read, so I can’t think of any character who annoyed me because he made stupid decisions. That doesn’t mean I haven’t read about such characters. But if the writer prepares us by helping us understand the characters and how they became who they are, then, when they make a stupid decision, I understand. I may even be sympathetic. If all the characters make stupid decisions, I doubt that I would continue reading. We usually enjoy books in which the protagonist is less likely to make stupid decisions and when he does, we understand where he’s coming from.

    • Great point, Nicki, about the need to prepare readers. I love foreshadowing. When someone out of the blue makes a decision that seems really plot driven (especially if for shock value), I will bail on a book.

  11. Your point here is excellent: “Striking a balance between a realistic decision someone might make versus one made purely to fulfill a plot point is a tough call for an author.” It is a difficult balance, but, as you note, people make stupid decisions in real life. Sometimes it’s only one bad decision that sends a character on a trajectory that they can’t control. I think most of us have “been there, done that” and it’s one reason why we read fiction, to sympathize, empathize, imagine our superiority (I NEVER would have opened that basement door!!), or realize that we’re no smarter than the characters in the book we’re reading or the movie we’re watching.

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