Why Characters in Books are Idiots

Have you ever read a book in which, if the characters had not all been incredibly stupid, the situation would have been resolved in five pages instead of 300?

That's the result of overdoing a legitimate literary technique, dating back at least to Greek tragedy, in which the plot arises out of the characters' flaws.

It's commonly used in sitcoms, too. Consider Seinfeld, Friends or Frasier, three popular and long-running sitcoms which I happen to have watched a lot. In the typical episode, if the characters had acted like adults, told the truth, kept their promises, made sensible choices and communicated clearly, there would have been no story.

Why do we watch these things? Is it because we see our own flaws exaggerated and learn better from the antics of the idiots? Is it so we can feel superior, because at least we're smarter than that?

Maybe both, maybe something else. In any event, it's not the only way to tell a story. It's a popular way, but it's not the only way.

At least, I hope it's not. I'm telling a story now about a group of elite Gryphon Clerks, trained to communicate well and to respond to unexpected situations creatively, chosen because they have been through experiences where they've demonstrated strength of character. A lot of the time, they're simply not going to make the stupid choice.

But that, in turn, makes it hard to generate interesting plot. Plot arises when characters make choices under conditions of challenge. And some of the time, they need to lose.

It's the Superman dilemma. How do you make Superman interesting? Any interesting Superman story has to be about how he uses his strength of character and his intelligence to overcome a situation that tests him at his points of vulnerability. Kryptonite, obviously (which was invented as a plot device exactly because it's hard to write an interesting story about a hero who can easily beat all comers), but also Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and the rest of them.

In other words, one answer to "How do you write an interesting story about someone with godlike powers?" is "take away the powers and see what's left". Another is "locate his vulnerability outside himself, in his relationships".

And then there's "fit opposition". If your hero is ridiculously awesome, put up a ridiculously awesome villain, like Doomsday, against him. Now you have two guys fighting, but they're fighting with ridiculous awesomeness. Plus, once again, defeat is on the table, so the conflict means something.

And then there's the technique, used more often in writing Batman than Superman, of exposing the flaw that is at the extreme end of his strengths (obsessiveness being dedication taken to its ultimate).

Or you can take the "with great power comes great angst" approach, the Spider-Man solution.

So, applying that to my problem (and it is a problem), how do I write an interesting story about mature, sensible people who make good decisions?

Firstly, I could look for the flaws or vulnerabilities they have, and hit those vulnerable spots as hard as I can, so they get an opportunity to show their strength of character in overcoming challenges.

It's easy to come up with key flaws for each one, too. Patience, the aristocrat, hero-worships Victory and automatically trusts people in her own class. Berry wants to belong. Rain is afraid that she really is the violent sociopath she once pretended to be.

That's the basis for my "things that can go wrong" list. What if Patience discovers that her friend, the charming aristocrat Confident, is using her charity to launder criminal funds? What if another shaman challenges Berry and implies that she's not a real shaman? What if Rain has to defend herself in a desperate situation and kills someone?

Problem is, I ran that middle scenario and Berry acted like an adult and basically won a shaman-off hands down, making the other shaman look foolish. And it doesn't work any other way in my head. That's who she is, that's what she'd do.

So maybe I need to work the "vulnerability through relationships" angle. Berry's vulnerability is Rain, and when Rain is attacked, Berry stops being quite so adult.

Then there's the "fit opposition". I'm bringing in a kind of Nazi party, the political face of the Human Purity bigots, and for them to be any kind of decent opposition at all, they have to have been severely underestimated. Even by Victory, who has the best strategic intelligence (in both senses) of anyone.

I'm thinking the dwarves caved way too easily on the emancipation of the gnomes, too. They're big industrialists. They're bankers. They're used to having power, and they're not going to give it up easily.

I need more villains onstage. And they need to be smart villains, whose villainy consists in the fact that they are out to enhance their own interests at the expense of others (whereas the Gryphon Clerks are out to enhance others' interests at, if necessary, their own expense). But they need to be otherwise equally matched.

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Mike Reeves-McMillan lives in Auckland, New Zealand, the setting of his Auckland Allies contemporary urban fantasy series; and also in his head, where the weather is more reliable, and there are a lot more wizards. He also writes the Gryphon Clerks series (steampunk/magepunk), the Hand of the Trickster series (sword-and-sorcery heist capers), and short stories which have appeared in venues such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores.

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