Friday, August 14, 2015

Stupid with an Excuse

The other day I heard some people talking about the stupid things characters in fiction do. We've all had this conversation. It's even played for laughs in a commercial for a well-known insurance company. You know, those kids who run into a barn rather than toward the car with the engine running. From horror novels to crime fiction, romance to "mainstream" – hapless characters run, walk, or meander into situations that any sensible person would avoid. They put themselves in danger and often – well, yes, always – it's the writer's fault. Character in dangerous situation gets to be brave or saved (if the character is female). Character in dangerous situation has an opportunity to discover the crucial secret/clue that leads to the resolution after a climatic confrontation. But modern readers are often annoyed by characters who should have known better, who should have been smart, who did not behave like sensible people.

I've been thinking about this because I was listening to a CD from a recent writers conference. The speaker was talking about why writing oneself into a corner can be a good thing because it forces the writer to find a solution. That solution – in a thriller – means finding a way to get a character (or characters) out of an impossible situation. I've been thinking about this because I'm a hybrid writer. Although I don't plot out every scene in the book I'm writing, I do like to have some sense of what is ahead. I've learned to allow for a change of direction, to let my characters take the lead (my own intuition at work). But this idea of being more of a pantser and writing in a way that allows my characters to get into impossible situations – that they (I) must get out of – is new to me. 

My series protagonist are both rational, sensible women. Hannah McCabe, my police detective, walks into dangerous situation with backup there or on the way. She has her gun in her hand. Lizzie Stuart, my crime historian, may be curious and determined, but she is also cautious. She may end up in danger, but it's not because she did something "too stupid to live".  If I allow the protagonists in my historical thriller to rush forward and get themselves into an impossible situation, do I also have to worry that the reader will wonder how they could have been so stupid?

But, there is a different standard for protagonists in thrillers, isn't there? They are allowed to go boldly forward, to be impetuous and even reckless. If the stakes are high enough, they can take chances -- try to break into impenetrable fortresses, rush into a basement with a bomb ticking, walk into a room full of enemy agents wearing a thin disguise. They get to be stupid with an excuse. The excuse is someone must try to do this. And the person who tries is a hero not an idiot. 

As we have been told in books and seminars, the stakes must be high in a thriller. When the stakes are high enough, what would otherwise be reckless and/or stupid becomes courageous. But how the reader evaluates the situation depends on how well the writer has laid the groundwork. What the character perceives as high stakes might not seem so high to the reader. I've been thinking of a real-life example. This happened year ago, but I still think about it now and then when the weather outside is scary. A severe storm warning had been issued. As I recall, there was also a tornado watch in effect. Maybe it had been elevated to a warning. It was late afternoon, and the time when classes were ending and students and faculty should have been heading home. But most of us were sheltering in place in the massive brick and stone university buildings on the downtown campus. With the ferocity of the storm outside, a few of us had even headed down to the basement in our building. I was standing there in the basement hallway, when a man passed me, heading for the exit into the parking lot. Without even thinking, I called after him, "You aren't going out in that?" He called back over his shoulder, "Got to. My family's waiting for me at home."

He was probably a grad student taking a late afternoon class. He seemed in that brief glance to have been in his thirties. In his mind, the need to get to his family and be there for them outweighed the danger he might face as he drove through a storm. If this man were a fictional character in a book, it would be my obligation – if he were my protagonist – to make his actions reasonable. Rational people might think that rushing out into a storm was reckless behavior. What if he were injured or even killed as he tried to get home to his family? Where would they be then? Would his family want him to risk his own safety to get to them? But what if he had just spoken to his wife on the phone and knew she was frightened? What if he knew she was terrified of storms and she was there alone with their toddlers? What if his wife were pregnant and had miscarried before? What if the family waiting at home was his two children and his elderly mother who had been living with them since his wife died? What if he knew his mother would have a hard time coping if something happened in the house? All good reasons for rushing out into the storm. I could make these personal stakes matter. Bad things might happen to people he loved if he didn't take this risk.

On the other hand, I could take this character in another direction. What if his calm and capable wife had assured him during his call home that both she and the children were fine? They were in the basement, had books, flashlights, snacks, and were prepared to ride out the storm. His wife is a nurse. His son and daughter are both Scouts. They all know what to do in the event of an emergency. But my character ignores his wife's concern about his safety. He thinks a "real man" would brave the elements to get to his family. He is sure they wouldn't be able to handle an emergency without him. He has several mishaps on his way home and finally arrives after the storm is over. The power is off, but he finds his children playing a board game by lantern light. His wife is in the kitchen making sandwiches. He feels ridiculous. Maybe he sulks or gets angry when his wife exclaims about how wet and muddy he is and asks why he didn't wait until the storm was over before heading home. 

Before I begin to write – and write myself into that corner that I will have to get out of -- I'm going to think some more about who my characters are. Actually, I rather like the idea of having my protagonist do something really stupid  – with an excuse rooted in who he is and how he sees the world. 

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