Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dumb Characters

Hello everyone and welcome to my first post. I’ll be here on the 19th of every month talking about some aspect of writing or romance.

My name is Josh, and I’m a fantasy romance writer. The world is gigantic and I want to understand all of it. For me, that’s why I read, watch TV, and write. Every story is a chance to learn something new. My first novel, Dream Runner, is scheduled for early release in March. Now that you know a bit about me, onto some thoughts about writing…

Let me start by noting how there’s nothing I hate more than a stupid character. I bring this up since I recently saw the movie Skyline. If you haven’t seen it, and without giving too much away, it was supposed to be a happy little romp where aliens invade and humans fight back with jets and predator drones. While the special effects were pretty fantastic, this movie had some profoundly stupid characters.

First, aliens have invaded. They start sucking people up into the sky. When the characters want to flee to the nearby marina, how do they travel? Do they sneak in through the subway or maybe grab one of the nice and heavy SUVs they have access to? No. They take a convertible. Seriously, they try to escape in a car with no roof. Their enemies can literally vacuum them out. At first, this pissed me off because I want to like the characters I watch. Then it just made me laugh because stupidity can get funny—but I doubt that was the point of this multimillion dollar sci-fi movie.

Second, they want to take the convertible to a marina. You know, where they keep all of the boats. These characters think they might be safe if they can get out onto a yacht and sail away. This wouldn’t be a bad idea if they wanted to flee giant ants or zombies. But aliens. In space ships? It’s like they’ve forgotten that space ships can fly over the water.

Those characters seemed to reach for new levels of idiotic, but we see examples of other stories with dumb characters. Lately, I’ve been watching The Walking Dead. These characters aren’t too bad, but a couple episodes revolve around the pursuit of one bag of guns. The show takes place in Atlanta. It doesn’t seem like it would be hard to find guns in a southern city. Why not hit a gun store? A police station? In a world where everyone has turned to zombies, it shouldn’t be hard to find guns.

The Walking Dead does pretty badly with vehicles too. The main characters complain about how hard it is to find gas, but then I think of all the abandoned vehicles on the side of the road. Sure, it would be hard to find the keys, but it seems like one of these characters would be able to hotwire a car. Or why not go after a dealership where the keys will probably be in one central location? There are solutions. They might require some finesse, but they should work. If the writer explains why they wouldn’t work, then there’s no problem. But if my solutions sound better than the characters’, it gets really hard to care about who lives or dies.

Old school werewolves bring up a similar issue. As a kid, I remember the movies where a guy turned into a wolf whenever he was exposed to moonlight. Then he would revert back to his human form when something as simple as cloud cover obscured the moon. This always made me wonder, why didn’t the werewolf just stay underground? Or put on a hat? It seems like there should be lots of solutions. Readers get frustrated when they can outsmart the characters on the page or screen.

Vampires used to raise similar problems. Once upon a time, all vampires were horrible murderers who killed people left and right. But then writers started to make them a little more cunning. Their vampires didn’t drink until the victim died. Or better yet, the vampires discovered the joy of blood banks. Seriously, there are lots of solutions for problems like these.

More than anything, Skyline reminds me of what happens when a movie (or book) shows characters who don’t know what they’re doing. Any story should be compelling in the sense that we can sympathize with the characters. We might not like them. We might recognize their flaws, but we don’t sit around wishing they would stop being idiotic. Having characters be unpredictable through sheer stupidity pulls the viewer or reader away from the story. It makes us think about how much better we’d do in this situation.

Sure, this can be fun if you want to mock a story, but I doubt that’s what most writers hope for.


Brenda said...

OMG!!! I'm a big fan of the show Walking Dead, but oh maaaan, you are so right!!! LOL, I always wondered why the hell they didn't syphon the gas out of the abandoned vehicles, and yeah, go to a gun store, cop station, anything!! Unless maybe these places have been raided already, but I can't remember that ever being mentioned.
I haven't watched Skyline yet and maybe I won't lol.
Nice post.

Tabitha Blake said...

You are so right. I don't know how many times I think really? I mean if a character does something totally stupid when there was an easy answer in my opinion you lost me. I stop and get pulled from the story. Like you said if it is a spoof then it is great but most writers aren't going for that type of story. Great post.

Kristine Cayne said...

Great first post Josh! You're absolutely right. Once the reader (or viewer) starts wondering - why didn't they do xyz? You've lost your audience. This seems to happen when the plot is driving the characters instead of the other way around. The character's motivation becomes unbelievable.

Again, great thought-provoking post.

Brenda said...

I'm a huge fan of LOTR's and I never questioned a thing in the books or the movie until one night while watching Family Guy. Someone wondered why the eagles just didn't carry Frodo over Mordor and drop the ring into Mount Doom. Shit, after I heard that I can't stop thinking about it, lol.

Sheri Fredricks said...

Leave it to Brendan to watch Family Guy and have it trigger an LOTR's thought! LOL!!

Enjoyed your post, Josh. You bring up some very valid points.

Brenda said...

Hehehehe, Mike. Once I heard that I was like, yeah, why didn't the eagles just fly Frodo over Mount Doom and drop the ring into it. Would have saved a ton of grief!

J.Rose Allister said...

Great first post, Josh! I'll have to say my first experience with a dumb character had to be Snow White. As a little girl, I LOVED this Disney flick, listened to the "record album" (yes, I'm that old), etc. Fast forward to much later and the era of VHS releases, and I was looking forward to seeing this childhood favorite again. I sat through the tape with my jaw in my lap. That squeaky-voiced, ineffectual "oh, save me my prince" chick set women back 500 years. sigh.