Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pet Peeves: Too Stupid To Live

I'm still sick, and so the crankiness continues.

I could've sworn I'd already done a post on this. I must've included it in enough book reviews that I felt like I'd blogged about it already. This phenomenon is why the last book I threw against a wall got that particular treatment.

Too stupid to live is so prevalent it actually has its own acronym, at least in writing circles. I've seen TSTL tossed out as blithely as tl;dr, and accepted just as readily. If one of my friends tags a book as TSTL-containing, I'll steer far clear of it.

There is a difference between a character who's too stupid to live, or one with a legitimate mental illness or disability. The TSTL has no reason to be stupid, except that it drives the plot. It's an insult to people with disabilities to associate them with such willful stupidity. The TSTL will need constant rescue, because he or she doesn't have the sense God gave a squirrel. I've yelled at TSTLs as they've gone to mysterious, violent strangers somewhere they'll be alone, blundered into traffic, gone back into the haunted house for no discernible reason (or ignored the blood dripping from walls as the voice intones, "GET OUT"), failed to convey a key piece of information given plenty of opportunity to do so, drank copiously before getting behind the wheel with a sober passenger, and tagged along on an investigation for the fun of it. (As you can imagine, reading is an expressive activity for me.)

What defines the TSTL is that the plot wouldn't work without this character's total lack of common sense. If she (and let's be honest, most TSTLs are female) thought for two seconds about how reckless an action she was making, she'd do something with a higher survival rate, and there would be no conflict.

That's not to say I expect all characters inhabiting a novel to be intelligent and observant and able to kick your butt at chess. I like reading flawed characters. It's just that the TSTL stretches my disbelief too far. If I can't imagine the character surviving to adulthood outside a padded, reinforced bubble, I'm not apt to believe their existence, even with whatever world you've set up around them.

You can certainly have characters with blind spots, and whose weaknesses are exploited within the narrative. That's how stories are supposed to work. But, if the character flaw can be boiled down to, "This character would be dead several times over if not saved from the character's own bad choices," please, rethink your characterization.

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