Thursday, June 16, 2011

Too Stupid to Live

I finished a round of revisions yesterday, hampered somewhat by the fact that I came up with an idea for a sequel and started mentally writing it while I was still trying to edit/proofread this book, which was rather distracting. I think today will be housework/errand/catch-up day. Tomorrow I may do some reading for the project I want to get back to next month, along with working on some music. I'm singing a duet in church on Sunday, so I need to keep the voice in shape and run through the music a few more times. Then next week I'll do another pass on the previous project, after which I'll do the final read on the one I just finished. When both of these are done and off to my agent, I can get back to the book I backburnered last summer.

As I've mentioned, I seem to be having the Summer of Extreme Immaturity, as I find myself mostly reading children's and young adult books. One hazard of being an adult reading books about teens is that I have a tendency to judge the actions of the characters by the standard of what I would do, and there's a big difference between what a (supposedly) mature adult would do and what a teenager would do, so what would be perfectly in character for a teen may sometimes strike me as a bad case of Too Stupid to Live. It's very frustrating to read about a character making what seems to me to be a big mistake because what's happening is very obvious to me. With teen characters, especially, there's the issue of peer pressure, where on one level I can totally understand the characters making the choices they do because they want to fit in or keep their friends, but as an adult I can see what a bad idea that is.

Of course, Too Stupid to Live behavior isn't limited to young adult. It may just be more obvious there because in those cases, the Too Stupid to Live is in character and reasonable for people that age, while adults who did the same things would be incredibly dumb. And yet, if you eliminate all bad decisions, the story isn't very interesting. Perfect people who never make mistakes are boring. Meanwhile, dropping hints that readers pick up on that the characters don't is a good way to build suspense because we know the trouble the characters are getting into. I think the trick is to go with that "reasonable person" standard they talk about on jury duty, where if the author can convince the reader that a reasonable person would make that choice in that situation, given the knowledge available to that person. To some extent, it may work if you can convince readers that the character would make that decision, but truly stupid characters are difficult to care about, so even if doing something phenomenally dumb is in character, readers may not accept it.

This is all coming to mind because it relates to something I've been wrestling with in the backburnered book I'm about to get back to. I'm using a lot of fairy tale and folklore elements in it. One very common trope in fairy tales and folklore is the prohibition -- the hero is told that there's one thing he absolutely must not do. And almost invariably, either the hero disregards the warning or something comes up that forces him to do the one thing he's been told not to do -- like the "you have to leave by midnight" in Cinderella or the "you can't look at me" in the Psyche and Eros myth. I had one of these in my story, and I thought I was being really clever in having the character not go against the warning -- it avoids Too Stupid to Live syndrome, it breaks the pattern and it may be unexpected. But after a presentation on this fairy tale/folklore trope at Mythcon last year, I found myself rethinking that. The story isn't that interesting if a character is told not to do something and then never does it. I think what needs to happen is for there to be some reason the character is forced to do the thing she's been told not to do. It's not so much that she disregards warnings or does something stupid, but she faces a choice where she has to go against the prohibition in order to accomplish something greater. Breaking the ban may doom her, but it could save the day for others. Or something like that.

I guess there's no easy answer for finding that fine line between Too Stupid to Live and Boring Perfect People who never make mistakes.

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