Don’t Let Your Characters Act Like Idiots

by James Scott Bell

The other day I watched a thriller, and was enjoying it. Until the last act.
You know what I’m talking about. You get wrapped up in a neat premise until, like a soap bubble, it pops at the end through a series of missteps. Like these:
The lead character—a smart, good-looking but otherwise normal young woman––suddenly becomes a NASCAR-skilled driver, and plows her car into a bad guy who is shooting at her. Then she slowly gets out of her car and walks over to the splayed body and . . .leaves him alone . . .does not pick up his gun . . .does not make sure he’s dead or completely incapacitated! I mean, wouldn’t you think that a smart, good-looking, normal young woman would have seen a hundred thrillers where the hitman who is supposed to be dead suddenly shows up alive?
But: by not picking up the hitman’s gun, the young woman is left completely vulnerable should the main bad guy suddenly appear. Which, wonder of wonders, he does (complete with suspense-movie bumper music). He has shocked and surprised our smart young woman, and can now kill her instantly. But because over the last fifteen minutes this deadly, perfect-moves-each-time bad guy has for some reason been transformed into a doofus, she gets away. He chases her. He corners her. But he does not finish the job because he spends valuable screen time talking to the young woman about how he is going to finish the job (“Overtalkative Bad Guy Syndrome,” or OBGS).
Allowing, of course, good-looking but otherwise normal young woman to triumph! 
There is, for thriller writers, no more important RULE (yes, I said it, it’s a RULE, and if you violate this rule you get taken to the craft woodshed and flogged with a wet copy of Plot & Structure) than this:
Never allow any of your main characters to act like idiots in order to move or wrap up your plot!
Yes, characters can make mistakes. Characters can make a wrong move. Just don’t let it be an idiot move.
Here’s a simple technique to avoid this issue:
Before you write any scene, pause for a couple of minutes and ask yourself these two questions:
1. What is the best possible move each character in the scene can make?
Every character in every scene must have an agenda. Even if it is only (as Vonnegut once said) to get a glass of water. That’s how you create conflict in a scene, after all. Then, after noting the agendas, determine the best move each character would make in order to get their way.
2. What is the best possible move being made by the characters “off screen”?
Remember, while you are writing a scene there are other characters who are alive and kicking somewhere else. What are they doing? How are they advancing their agendas? This question will provide you with some nice plot twists, turns and red herrings. 

But if you get backed into a corner at the end, and just don’t know what to do, you can always have the main character wake up and realize it was all a dream. Works every time!

Or perhaps that’s an idiotic suggestion. How do you keep your characters in the smart line? What bad moves drive you crazy when you see them? 

38 thoughts on “Don’t Let Your Characters Act Like Idiots

  1. Great post, Jim. You may remember your “OBGS” was totally deconstructed in the Sergio Leone film THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, when Eli Wallach shot a guy from his bathtub, saying, “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”

  2. But OBGS has been a staple of television for as long as I can remember. Surely it can’t be against the rules! 😎

  3. I’ve narrated more than a couple books, usually crime thrillers, that ended like that, with the bad guys telling everything including their escape plans for just long enough for the captive good guys to find the candlestick/loose board with nail/random sharp object and off said bad guy before his plan goes on…and then of course to wrap up all the accomplices the uber-bad-guy turned skewered rat blabbed about.

    Yeah, don’t do that. If you want your reader to know what the bad guy’s plan is, have the bad guy reveal it in dialogue and action with other bad guys, but don’t let the good guy know.

    Because while nachos are best when really cheesy, that rule does not apply to novels.

    • And this is why I had to rewrite my ending before I sent it to an interested party. My ending simply told it all. Explained instead of showed. Rex Stout used to get away with that so why not me? Nero Wolfe used to get everybody in the same room, go through the clues, and then point to the killer. I loved it.
      Readers have changed, I guess.

  4. I keep my idiots in order by using a content editor. Mary has caught Mabel, my MC, a number of times (in only one book)doing something totally idiotic.

    One time I had Mabel tracking down her prey in the dark (isn’t it always?) when she remembers there`s a motion detector light on the barn. She runs toward into, knowing once the light comes on she`ll see who the bad guy is! How smart! Brilliant, in fact!

    My editor, Mary, very nicely pointed out that in doing so, Mabel would also be lit up like a beacon of stupidity, and that the bad guy had a gun.

    I can write, but I`d never make a good main character.

    • Or, you could have an owl fly by the motion detector just as the bad guy walks under it. When in doubt, use a complete coincidence to get your out of trouble….or not.

    • Or maybe the MC hurls something to triggerthesensor, while she remains in the shadows? Then she’s shown to be smart, using her understanding of her environment, without relying on coincidence.

  5. Great post, Jim! One of my main jobs as a freelance content editor is pointing out all the implausibilities and plot holes and places where the hero/heroine was making decisions that were so dumb readers would be throwing the book across the room in disgust. For example, a smart heroine leaving her sleeping husband, and, without leaving a note as to where she’d be, going to the nasty bad guy’s lair at 2 a.m. alone, unarmed (without at any point alerting the police about him) to look for something incriminating. What woman in her right mind would do that?

    Another excellent post! Thanks!

  6. I read a book once (can’t remember the name) where the intelligent female FBI agent went to a suspect’s house by herself (at night), without phoning for back-up or telling anyone where she was going. I should have dropped the book right then, but I kept at it. Sure enough, she’s caught, the bad guy waxes on about what a brilliant baddie he is, spews his plans, then the agent’s partner shows up to save the day. I won’t read any more books by that author. Wasted six hours reading that book, but I guess that lesson learned will keep me from doing the same in my books.

  7. Jim,

    Thanks for another great teaching moment.

    My question is: Where is the line for the antagonist between “acting like an idiot” and “making the wrong move,” letting down his guard? The stronger antagonist prevails until the climax where the weaker protagonist gains the upper hand. Something has to happen – a chance occurrence like an owl shielding the motion detector or a gun jams, or the antagonist leaves a chink in his armor or makes a mistake – to give the protagonist an opportunity to make his move. So how do we distinguish between stupid and making the wrong move?

    I know, this is a “stupid” question. Just a beginner trying to learn from the pro.


    • But it’s a good question, Steve. Rule of thumb: It’s always better for the Lead to grow stronger (and win) than for the bad guy to grow weaker (and lose). The weakening of the bad guy’s plans should come from the Lead character gaining capacity or strength.

      In Silence of the Lambs, for example, Buffalo Bill does not make life easier on Clarice. Rather, Clarice uses her noggin and the strength gained from dueling with Lecter to piece together the clues that lead her to the showdown.

  8. In your example, you have forgotten the prime directive of Hollywood. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you look good doing it. Example: The latest attempt at a Gatsby movie. Rap music – please! (Exclamation point required).

    As noted by Mr. Bell, we writers can’t afford this luxury. Note: The Buffalo Bill character was played by Ted Levine who dominated every scene he was in. Great movie making. He is now a supporting actor in the TV series The Bridge.

  9. I watched “The Closer” once. That’s the operative word, once. Because Kyra Sedgwick, wearing stilettos and no gun, goes into an abandoned house. No backup, of course. This is a variation on the Dumb Blonde Goes Down Into Dark Basement character. She is akin to Too Stupid To Live character.

    Also got angry at Linden when she got in the car with the creepo killer at end of The Killing without telling anyone she was going. Then, of course, we had to endure the long drive during which the creepo gives his OBGS soliloquy.

    Sorry…life is too short to suffer fools or bad writers.

  10. “Since you are the only person in the world capable of understanding my genius, I shall explain my entire plan to you in nauseating detail!”

    I think the Incredibles lampoons this, about getting the villain monologuing as a viable way of defeating him. Yet bad guys still do it! Or just bad writers.

    There’s this older thriller movie called Cellular where a woman being held hostage calls some teen on his cellphone and he can’t hang up or he won’t save her in time. The woman is STUPID. At one point she’s driving an SUV toward the bad guys who are ON FOOT, and she STOPS instead of running them down. Another time they have her cornered and there’s a pitchfork RIGHT BESIDE HER that she ignores. If they’d killed her, she’d have deserved it.

  11. This is a major reason I rarely read “ordinary man or woman in jeopardy” thrillers anymore. I’ve stopped reading more than one writer because their stories placed ordinary people in difficult situations (which is fine), and then ratcheted up the tension by having these otherwise intelligent people make exactly the wrong decision every time they had to make one. Once, sure; no one’s perfect. After that, they need to have some level of intelligence, even if they’re only learning as they go. Some of these people do so much truly stupid stuff, I end up rooting for the bad guys.

  12. How about No Country for Old Men, where you have the main protagonist get killed by drive by gang bangers? I through my TV remote at the TV that day. Stupid writing and yet the movie did well.

    They call that “art”.

    I’d add a F to that. Pun intended.

  13. Romance readers call characters like this “too stupid to live.” It’s a good term for any genre with the same problem.

    I read a NYT bestseller where a professional hitman was lauded as a brilliant killing machine who never failed, yet the only time he succeeded at killing anyone was when that person was a total idiot even when he knew the killer was after him.

    Note to authors: Never describe someone as good at something when all they do is fail.

  14. Isn’t the original of this phenomena the teenage girl who goes into the basement of the spooky castle (or summer camp in the woods) when she knows there is a blood thirsty killer on the loose. Of course her flashlight goes dead halfway down the stairs.

  15. I’m too much of a gamer for any of this. Years of crouching over a table with a bunch of other clever, insightful, tactical people has taught me a few very important lessons. If your character does something blatantly stupid, s/he will be mocked.

    If a character does something stupid, it’s because of a lack of information. It’s the intelligence, stupid.

  16. I call it “Predator Syndrome.” Moral of the story: When you have Arnold Schwarzenegger pinned to a tree by his throat with your utterly cool razor-sharp cyber-claws, you kill him. End of story.

    As to horror, the classic plotline is called “spam in a cabin.”

    One critic/writing guide blog summed it up: “Your plot cannot depend on your characters making a cascading series of incrementally stupid decisions.”


  17. My wife and I just finished watching a sequel to what was a pretty good one-man-on-the-hunt-to-save-the-girl film. The sequel had lots of explosive situations, so I’m sure people loved it. However, they compounded the fact that the whole plot was set up by coincidence (whole family happens, last minute, to wind up together so bad guys can go after all of them) with so many ridiculous scenarios it was embarrassing. To wit – young girl can’t parallel park, but if Dad’s yelling/encouraging her, she can execute a J-turn and avoid an entire police force to help them escape the baddies. Hollywood kills me, man.

  18. I’ll go another step and say, “Don’t let your characters think stupidly.”

    I picked up a book in the Navy Exchange this weekend. I forget the author, but I read the first page, which was written in 3rd person POV, close.

    It starts with a little telling about how this character had never experienced fear, no need for it due to his impeccable muscular form and his height at 6 foot 4 inches. He didn’t over eat and his diet was pretty regular with proteins, etc. etc. WTF? MORON, *put book down*

    Really? Do I want to spend the entire week sneaking in a few hours here and there to read this book about the Adonis of the Universe?. This is stupid thinking, where your character tries to get the reader to believe them a particular way without having shown them any action whatsoever to justify this self-reflective personification.

    • Yeah, when a 3d person POV starts thinking like it’s exposition from the author, you lose me.

      E.g., a character thinking about “his auburn hair and azure eyes.” Like he really would be thinking such thoughts. If he is, the title should be THE NARCISSUS IDENTITY.

  19. I would like to see a story about this issue. The good guy realizes that the reason he’s still listening to the bad guy is because he–the good guy–has been conditioned by such moments in countless movies–and promptly shoots the bad guy. But the bad guy can’t have this revelation: he’d shoot the hero and, uh oh, too soon end of story.
    What I think is at issue is not succumbing to clichés. If I find myself embarrassed by a plot solution, almost certainly it’s because I’ve taken the easy way out = cliché.

  20. I’m thinking that in my latest draft of my 2nd historical suspense novel…that I deserve to be taken to the craft woodshed;( No need to flog me with Plot and Structure though, James…I have a copy and am diving in the reread it as we speak! Thanks for the great reminder to look at EACH character’s agenda…I think I forget about some of the other minor characters. Doing a ‘rethink’ on the project today:-) Awesome post James!

  21. I haven’t read the other comments, but there’s always that moment in a scary movie where the supposedly intelligent hero or heroine walks into a dark alley/basement/building all alone. Like, most normal people would run the other way.

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