Thursday, March 10, 2016

Guest Post: Romantic Suspense Author Kris Bock In Defense of “Too Stupid to Live”

What is a pet peeve to some readers regarding characters that do really stupid things can be seen from another perspective as Kris Bock points out today. Make sure you check out her earlier guest posts here on the blog after you read her thoughts below….

Romantic Suspense Author Kris Bock In Defense of “Too Stupid to Live”

Readers complain about characters – almost always female – who are TSTL: “too stupid to live.” Writers dread the accusation but also want to tell an exciting story, and excitement doesn’t come from a character who stays inside with the doors locked and calls the police at the slightest hint of danger. But how do you define stupidity in character behavior? When is a bit of carelessness, inattention, or reckless courage all right, and when is it going to cause people to roll their eyes or throw the book across the room?

I think this is actually a much more complex question than many people realize. A lot depends on personal history, personality, and even region. In my small New Mexico town, I don’t hesitate to go walking or jogging alone after dark. I have never once been harassed in this community. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’d worry more about drunk drivers and aggressive dogs on the loose than muggers or rapists. Yet I have lived in other communities where it would be considered “stupid” for a woman to go out alone after dark. (I’m not claiming I’ve never done it though.)

The issue has real-life relevance as well, in victim blaming – the tendency to assume that a crime victim has some responsibility for being foolish enough to get into a situation that led to the crime. That is usually untrue and always unfair, but it can make others feel safer because they wouldn’t be that foolish.

Heroic Stupidity

I also think it’s unfair that behavior standards are so different for men and women. A man who hears a noise outside his house and goes out alone to investigate would often be called brave for protecting his family. A woman who does the same thing is called stupid.

Granted a man might be stronger or a better fighter than a woman, but it’s not a given. For either one, the behavior could be rational or stupid depending on whether they have a legitimate reason to suppose that the noise is coming from a stray cat or from a killer. In real life, many of us would assume the former, and we’d be embarrassed to call the cops to chase away a stray cat. But in books readers know to suspect the worst, which means characters look stupider when they don’t expect horrible things. (Personally, I’m more likely to roll my eyes at a CIA agent who misses an obvious plot twist than an average person who doesn’t expect danger.)

In my romantic suspense Whispers in the Dark, my heroine recently suffered from an attack. She is not by nature fearful, but this has left her struggling to recognize when panic is legitimate and when it’s something to control. A couple of readers accused her of the dreaded TSTL behavior, though I’m not sure if they’re referring to the times when she controls her panic and keeps going, or when it overcomes her and she flees. In some cases, running away is more dangerous, if you’re in a blind panic.

Ironically, other readers have said that character rings true, because, in essence “she thinks just like I do.” She’s not a kick-ass action heroine. She’s an ordinary woman who finds herself in an unexpected adventure. She has a hard time believing she’s really in danger, or figuring out which direction it’s coming from.

How People Really Behave

In my romantic mystery What We Found, the heroine is walking in the woods with a man – someone she knew slightly in high school but doesn’t know well now – when they stumble upon a dead body. She assumes they’ll call the police, but he insists they don’t. He takes her phone away and threatens to get her boss (his father) to fire her if she reports this. His behavior throws her so much after the shock of finding a body that she doesn’t know what to do. She delays doing anything, and then a few hours later fakes finding the body for the first time on her own.

Many readers sympathized and even identified with this character. But one reader (a man, perhaps not coincidentally) left a review railing against her choices, because in his mind, if something like this happened, you call the police. You just do, no question. (Curiously, he blamed her, not the man who insisted she didn’t call.)

However, this book was actually inspired by a real experience where friends and I found the body of a murder victim. Of course we reported it, but someone high up in law enforcement mentioned that often people do not report crimes like this. That got me wondering why … all the reasons people might think it’s safer to ignore a crime than report it … and What We Found came out of that. So whether the character’s behavior was “stupid,” it was not unrealistic – it was more real than that one reader wanted to believe.

In real life, are we always smart? How many times have you regretted a choice? How many times do you see your friends making the same stupid choices over and over, even though you, as an outsider, are convinced they should do something different? Is it fair to have higher standards for fictional characters? Perhaps it is, if we expect books to be better than real life. Besides, experienced readers can see things coming in books in a way they can’t in real life, so authors have to work harder to surprise readers. But it seems that not everyone agrees on what behavior is TSTL.

Chances are most of us do “stupid” things frequently and get away with it. Fortunately, we don’t always get what we deserve!

Kris Bock ©2016

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.


BPL Ref said...

Hi, Kris,
Great post!
I do understand your points and have thought about them. For me, it's more a matter of "selling" the action. We as readers sometimes deal in what I think of as "hyper reality," less forgiving of coincidences for example when coincidences are a staple of real life. Sure, we've all done stupid, dangerous things in our lives, not understanding the danger, but in a book I'm far more critical because I know I'm watching a disaster waiting to happen. On the other hand, I have also read books where the heroine does something impulsive or foolish and the author has managed to convince me that she could do nothing less and I'm fine with it. For me, it's all in the execution... no pun intended. A good writer can convince me of a lot of things, including the necessity to go alone into a house in the middle of nowhere.

Lala Land said...

Love this post! Dead on!
Except I have the husband that sleeps through the burglar alarm, and then, after nudging him, gets out of bed to go find the source of the trouble, stark naked, and with his Rolex on. If I were to write about him no one would believe it!

Chris Eboch said...

Thanks, you two! Love the imagery, Lala. That could work in a comic novel. My husband has been known to get dressed and retrieve a gun from the gun safe before investigating a noise outside, even though in our neighborhood it's most likely to be a cat, fox, or skunk. On the other hand, if we hear rustling in our bedroom, we simply know one of the ferrets didn't get put back in its cage before bedtime.

Execution definitely counts, Jeanne, but the reaction still seems to depend on the reader. Another sign that not every book is for everyone, I suppose. And that the world is full of wonderful variety, with all our different experiences, instincts, and opinions.

– Chris a.k.a. Kris Bock

Karen Packard Rhodes said...

I agree with the foregoing comments, in that it basically comes down to how well the writer has set the situation up. If the writer can convince me that a seemingly "stupid" action is actually in character for that particular character, then I can buy it. It is the writer who fails to attend to the details of providing enough background on the character to be convincing that grinds my gears.

However, I have read stories where the protagonist does something totally stupid, which comes back to bite him or her, and yet it is totally understandable owing to the set up provided ahead of time.

And, yes, once in our younger days, when our two daughters were wee ones, husband and I had turned in for the night. I heard what sounded like someone attempting to get into our house from the back, and my husband arose, completely unclothed, grabbed a baseball bat, and headed off to investigate. Fortunately, it was apparently an animal. Either that, or the sight of my then-skinny husband in the altogether with a bat in his hand was just too much for any miscreant to bear!

Good post, good points. It probably does come down to the fact that not every book is for every reader.

Shalanna said...

Ach! Ye dare to contradict moi?! (LOLOL) I know that some plots simply would not work without the detective being careless, inattentive, or uninformed at some point. I'm just sayin' that I think we as authors could often set this up better, as you've said.

One time I believe TSTL characters DO work? The Chrissy Snow ("Three's Company) character, who is a classic airhead and does boneheaded things, but always has a convoluted thread of logic to justify why she was right, and thinks she's smart. You have to set this one up to be lovable for it to work--she can never, ever be nasty or make caustic remarks or try to get someone else in trouble just for fun. The Gracie Allen ("Burns and Allen") character who is ALWAYS getting it backwards, but it usually works out palindromically because that turns out to be just the thing to do. This character is a lot tougher for me to like; I can only take just so much of Gracie herself on the old re-runs of their show. But when it works, it works. The secret is to have foils like Bea Benaderet and George Burns who can spin the situation and make it hit "jackpot" anyway. Gracie never knows she was ever mistaken, confused, or wrong.

There are other sidekicks who are like this. Aha, sidekicks! That's the detail I left out. A sidekick character can often be TSTL (Deputy Barney Fife, as played by Don Knotts, comes to mind), but there MUST be a main character with wisdom who can rescue him and save the day. That's another time TSTL can work for me.

In my novel NICE WORK by Denise Weeks (winner of the 2011 Oak Tree Press publication contest and out on Amazon and for the Kindle and Nook, pluggity plug), I needed my sleuth Jacquidon to do something kind of dumb and call her former boss to leave a message on his machine. I got her drunk. Without her realizing it, too: she was exhausted and her blood sugar was down from the trying events of the day (she's a new diabetic and isn't used to recognizing the signs), and she reaches into her fridge for what she thinks is a SmartWater or Snapple or what-have-you. It turns out to be a bottled wine cooler her sister had left in there the last time they had a little dinner get-together. Combine this with the low blood sugar tendency already, and the diabetic's judgment goes out the window. Trust Me On This (as Donald E, Westlake's title begs us--great book, BTW, get it). My normally rational mother once drank wine and had a sugar crash, and she started being a unicorn in the middle of one of my dinner parties. The person who slipped her the wine was subsequently subdued. . . .

So you CAN take a normally rational character and catch him or her off guard. The love interest has just broken up by email; the power goes off in the building while they're snooping; they're unavoidably distracted. It's really tough to do, though, and if the author does it more than once in the same book, I will shout, "Too Stoopid To Live!" and the book might hit the wall. I have such low tolerance for actual dum-dum things like sorority/frat hazing (who would want "friends" who'd do this sort of thing to make you earn your place in their silly club?!) and certain political figures with their rallies that I'm really mean about this.

If you're Too Stupid to Live and you go out with a flashlight to search for a known killer in the bushes at 3 AM . . . well, it was natural selection at work! (LOL)