Writing Excuses 6.25: When Characters do Dumb Things

Let’s face it. The characters in your book will do some dumb things. We’re here to help you make sure they do those dumb things for the right reasons.

Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of dumb, and how you as an author can write dumb smart. Or smartly write dumb. Something like that.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Variant, by Robison Wells, narrated by Michael Goldstrom.

Writing Prompt: Create a solid romance in which the characters cannot be together because of good, intelligent, character-driven reasons.

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18 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.25: When Characters do Dumb Things”

  1. This podcast really helped me put a finger on why I strongly disliked a book I read recently called an Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. The main character was so dumb that I just got completely disconnected and didn’t care if he suffered.

  2. @Tony: The sequence starts here, where Murtaugh has everything well in hand.

    This is the moment I was referring to, where she makes the wrong decision. We know it’s wrong because we’ve got lots of information she doesn’t have.

  3. I think this is really about writing character-driven stories instead of plot-driven stories. Character should drive plot. I think most authors agree on that.

    But there are times when you really need something to happen in your plot. And that’s when it’s tempting to let plot drive character, or in other words to make your character do something against his or her established personality, preferences, etc. That’s what we as readers perceive as dumb behavior.

    I love the solution that Howard proposes, which is to change the information available to the character. Brilliant!

  4. This doesn’t quite qualify as a dumb character doing dumb things for the sake of the plot as much as a couple of dumb characters period, but Nature (the prestigious science journal) recently published a short story called Womanspace. I bring this up because given the poor quality of the writing and the rather distasteful plot, I’m guessing Nature isn’t getting much in the way of submissions. So, if any of you writers out there have a science fiction short story gathering dust, may I suggest submitting it to nature. Those of us scientists who enjoy fiction and don’t want to be subjected to more of this kind of sexist twaddle will thank you.

  5. Howard, question: what decision could the Murtaugh character have made at that point, that she could have won? I view her situation then as unwinnable. (The principles she could have used to avoid that unwinnable situation will be available in due course)

  6. Unfortunately, I can’t think of a specific example, but I know this was something that became very annoying to me and my friends in later seasons of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can only use “awkward interpersonal relationships cause our characters not to talk to each other leads to major calamity” so many times before the audience stops suspending disbelief when the same characters don’t talk to each other.

    “So many times” is three … I think.

  7. Good pod cast as always. I just wanted to take a moment to say think you to take time out of your busy lives to do this pod cast. My writing has improved greatly since I started listening. Hopefully one day I will write something that you guys will find enjoyable. Thanks again for all the help and inspiration.

  8. Aw… Thanks, Jim. I learn so much doing the casts. It is fantastic to hear that it is helpful. I think it is safe to say that you have just written something that I found enjoyable!

    (But I know what really you meant and look forward to the day)

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  10. Great Topic!

    Your discussions reminded me of a “dumb’ thing a character did in a book/movie – but it is one of the essential scenes. It’s the ending scene in No Country For Old Men where the Sheriff decided to go back to the hotel to try catch Chigurh and the audience is mind-screaming “No! What the heck are you doing! Get outta there! He’s behind the door!” as we see Chigurh laying in wait.

    I remember it being a great point of discussion of what really happened. Alternate universe of coin flip? Schroedinger’s Chigurh? The mind’s eye of the Sheriff? Different rooms?

    Definitely one of the ways a dumb move makes the story.

  11. Whenever I think of Prometheus and their ‘scientists’, I keep thinking of this episodes.

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