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Marissa Lingen

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The stupid mistakes of smart people (are not the same) [Feb. 14th, 2015|11:01 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I have talked in this space before about how I watch a bunch of cop shows, largely because I watch them while working out. This has advantages (pacing! hurrah pacing!). It also has disadvantages, because dang, are some of the things paced the way I need them to be…kind of obvious, honestly. It’s like you can see the places where they said, “[Find motivation for character here],” and then never did a search on brackets. Except that I’m not convinced that they did. I’m not convinced that in every case there was someone saying, “Uh…that motivation makes no sense.”

Here’s the thing. It’s not that smart people don’t make stupid mistakes. For whatever axis of “smart” you have decided is important in this consideration, you can come up with obvious, boneheaded mistakes that people with lots of that kind of “smarts” will make.


If you’ve established that a character is both street-smart and good at math, having them decide to go into debt to a loan shark with no known plan of repayment is so far out of character that you have to seriously jump through hoops to justify it. (Yes, actual example.)

That same character might underestimate an opponent’s competence in a number of areas. They might rely on contacts who didn’t come through this time. They might do any of a number of “dumb” things. But for heaven’s sake, make them dumb things that fit. You only get so many foolish choices without it looking like you’re making things too convenient for yourself, or without losing sympathy for the character, or without undermining their characterization as smart. There are all sorts of failure modes here, and you don’t have to give your character perfect decision-making skills to dodge them.

Something that is helpful here: if you have an idea of what a small characteristic error looks like for your character, you can seed that to ramify into the larger ones later, so that a reader doesn’t say, “They’d never make that mistake!” But it does have to ramify throughout, or it doesn’t work.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-02-17 11:55 pm (UTC)
I so agree with this. "But the character has flaws you see! He isn't always brilliant" doesn't work as an argument if we're talking specifically about a purported strength.

And I definitely agree about seeding the story with something to show the sort of weakness they're likely to have--although I find that this can seem blatant in shows (maybe because time is short, so you know that no thing that happens is random, so if a character forgets to pick up the laundry, you know it's being telegraphed that they're absent minded, for example).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-02-17 11:58 pm (UTC)
Or, cop shows being what they are, not just that they're absent-minded, but that they are NEGLECTING THEIR MARRIAGE AND ALL IS DOOM. Sigh.
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-02-18 12:04 am (UTC)
I know that's definitely a Thing in cop show, but the two that I watch (Gotham--if you can call that a cop show... it's not really a cop show, is it--and Castle) aren't so bad on that score. I was glad in the most recent episode of Gotham when the love interest for the main dude (names. they are a problem for me. By main dude I mean Commissioner Gordon, except he's not Commissioner yet because this is In The Past) showed him his paradoxical behavior (wanting a woman who'd be interested and involved in his work...and then not wanting her to *actually* get involved), and he owned up to that and seemed willing to try to change.
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