Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years and Stupid Characters

First of all, Happy New Year!  I hope that this year is as great as last year-- except with more money and less problems.  And a cruise or two wouldn't hurt.  I'm now a team member of the ANWA Founders and Friends blog.  I'll be posting a little more about New Year's Resolutions on that blog in a couple weeks (I have every other Wednesday-- starting a week from this coming Wednesday).    Be sure to take a look.
Now for stupid characters.  One of my serious pet peeves in books is to have an otherwise intelligent and rational character miss a totally obvious-- and usually pivotal-- clue.  I just read two books that I really enjoyed except that in both books the POV character misses a blazingly obvious piece of information that was staring them in the face.  In one story, the girl doesn't realize that her new friend is actually a murderous villain even though everyone she complains to him about conveniently ends up dead.  In the other, the POV character calls for help from the doctor that he secretly suspects is poisoning his loved one, because "he has no reason to believe this doctor has any bad intentions."  Uh, what?
Sometimes an author is trying to leave hints for the reader without the POV character picking up on them-- which is extremely difficult to do since the very definition of Point of View character means that the story is told from their point of view.
Think of it this way-- if a fashion designer walks into a room, she is likely going to be able to tell you later what the other people in the room were wearing.  You would expect a person like her to notice things like that.  So wouldn't it shock you if someone in the room happened to be wearing a bright orange tutu and our fashion designer said she didn't notice it-- or if she did notice it, that she didn't have any reaction to it?  Of course it would, because missing that kind of detail is totally out of character for a fashion designer.
Yet authors do this kind of thing all the time.  In the author's attempt to heighten or prolong the conflict, the main character misses a totally obvious detail that they would never typically miss.  And missing that detail then seemingly justifies the character making ten more stupid, totally out-of-character, mistakes.
So how can the author leave clues for the reader without making their characters look stupid?  Since I have run into this problem in my own writing, I've brainstormed some ideas of how to get around it:
First, make the clue more subtle.  Let's take our fashion designer.  If someone in the room was wearing a bright orange belt as opposed to a tutu, we'd still expect our designer to notice it, but there is at least some possibility that she may have missed it.  And if the belt wasn't bright orange but more of a subdued color, then we'd have even more reason to believe the designer might not notice it.
Second, give the character extenuating circumstances that justify them missing such an obvious fact.  For example, the fashion designer just found out she lost her job and her mind was totally preoccupied, or she walked into the room and found her boyfriend with another woman (not the one wearing the orange tutu), or the lights were out in the room and the designer didn't see anything at all.  It doesn't matter-- there just has to be a reasonable excuse why the character would miss an obvious detail.
Third, have the character misinterpret the detail.  For example, the fashion designer is totally distraught over the lost job, but notices her boyfriend staring at the woman in the orange tutu.  The woman with the tutu also happens to be a famous model, and the designer automatically assumes that her boyfriend is ogling over the model's body.  She believes the model is wearing the tutu to draw attention to her slender waist, not because the she happens to have terrible fashion sense.
Finally, the author can have someone else notice the detail.  The boyfriend keeps looking across the room at someone, but before the designer can see who the boyfriend is looking at, the girl in the tutu leaves.    The designer knows there was something that drew her boyfriend's attention, but she missed it herself.
I'm sure there's plenty of other techniques that more seasoned authors use, but those were some ideas.  Bottom line:  don't make your characters look stupid unless you're doing it on purpose.

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