Dare To Be Stupid

After one of my Arisia writing panels wrapped up, I chatted briefly with an aspiring writer stuck on a story point. She had a character, portrayed throughout the story as highly intelligent, who needed to make a stupid decision in order to keep the story moving.

Now, I don’t know the full details of the story so I can’t say whether the character truly needed to make a stupid decision. I took her problem at face value and shall do so for the purpose of this post, but my tendency is to believe that if your narrative requires a smart character to behave stupidly to keep things moving forward, you might want to take a look at the story to see if this in fact true or if you’re just looking for an easy out. But I digress…

The writer’s problem was that she didn’t know how to let her character have a Duh Moment without it undermining the character she’d built and taking readers out of the story — which is a legit concern. I’m sure all of you can think of a story that hinged on an intelligent character making a painfully dumb and totally uncharacteristically decision and it completely wrecked your suspension of disbelief.

So how do you do it well? Four ways immediately come to mind…

Give the character incomplete information

Your hero, a bomb disposal expert, finds a ticking time bomb. The bomb is a standard homemade job, easy to understand and disarm by cutting the ever-reliable red wire. The timer’s running down fast.The hero has enough time to either evacuate the building or to defuse the bomb. He chooses the latter. Problem is, except the bomb was made by a color-blind individual who couldn’t tell his red wires apart from his green wires. The hero clips the red wire and boom, everyone dies — including himself.

Not a perfect example, perhaps, but it gets the point across. The hero could have made the smarter choice to get everyone out to guaranteed safety, but he instead took a risk that literally blew up in his face.

This approach is a tiny cheat because your character wouldn’t be making a truly stupid decision, but I prefer this method because it preserves the character’s integrity; his choice was revealed as the wrong choice only after all the information has been revealed, so the character wasn’t behaving in a contrary fashion. Your intelligent character was still behaving intelligently based on the information he had at the time.

Make the character choose while under extreme stress

Stress and emotion cloud people’s judgment. Someone mired in fear, sorrow, rage, etc., won’t behave rationally. That’s human nature, which is what makes this a viable option; readers can empathize with someone stuck making a tough call when they’re freaking out about something.

Give the character a blind spot

There are certain topics, situations, and people that cause us to think less rationally than we otherwise would. You probably know someone who constantly makes excuses for a loved one’s lousy behavior but is pretty quick to call out other for displaying that exact same behavior — and I’d bet good money that someone is a parent with a bratty child.

A character with a specific mental blind spot is more likely to be excused by readers for momentarily abandoning their intellect, in part because it is, again, a trait readers can understand and empathize with.

Use the character’s intelligence against him

Years ago I read a piece in Reader’s Digest about smart people having stupid moments. One of the (quite possibly apocryphal) anecdotes involved a college professor who went on vacation and realized he’d brought his house keys with him. Worried about losing his keys and effectively locking himself out of his home, he decided to mail his keys back home so they’d be there waiting for him upon his return.

Sounds clever, right? And it is, until the professor got home and realized that his mail was delivered through a slot in his front door, meaning the envelope containing his house keys was safe and sound inside the locked house.

Intelligent people can and do outsmart themselves. They grossly overthink or under-think a situation, often out of overconfidence in their own intellect, and miss a critical point.

There are other possible approaches to executing a Duh Moment, but regardless of how you do it, the key to selling it successfully is to set it up in advance. The extreme stress option, for example, won’t work if you don’t show your character crumbing under pressure and making a bad call earlier on in the story.

The character cannot have his brain fart out of nowhere.

Yes, people in real life have moments of out-of-left-field stupidity all time, but the paradox of fiction is that things have to make more sense in your story than in real life to be believable. A smart character has to have a clear reason to behave stupidly at a key moment in the story or it will come across as inconsistent characterization and weak writing.

Weekly Update – January 17, 2017

arisiaArisia 2017 is a wrap!

This year’s show, unfortunately, wasn’t terribly successful from a financial perspective. Sales were below last year’s, for both me and my tablemate J.M. Aucoin, but I got to participate in four panels over the weekend, and those were a lot of fun — and educational, for the attendees and for me. I picked up a few new techniques and learned some new approaches to writing, which I’ll never complain about.

Nor will I complain about the fact my last sale of the weekend was to a young girl who walked away hugging her new copy of Action Figures. That made an otherwise slow day totally worth it.

Speaking of Action Figures

WRITING PROJECTS

meg-quantum
Copyright 2017 Patricia Lupien

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play and Action Figures – Live Free or Die: Edited, formatted, awaiting cover art. Speaking of which, check out this color rough of the back cover art, which features Megawatt Quantum, who plays a prominent role in book six. I thought it’d be fun to portray her in the style of a WWII-era pin-up girl, a nod to her penchant for retro fashion. Tricia has some fine details to add but this is basically what you’ll be seeing on the back of book six.

Remember, folks, I am making a small number of advanced reader copies available, so if you’re interested, drop me a line and let me know. I can give you full details then, but I’m looking for people who have read the entire series to date (book six pulls heavily from other events in the series, especially book one), can read book six before it’s released to the public in late February/early March, and will post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and/or their own personal websites, so serious inquiries only, please. ARC readers will get a finished copy of the book when it’s released in their preferred format.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: First draft finished.

Action Figures – Issue Eight: Crawling from the Wreckage: First draft in progress. Arisia took up my weekend so nothing got done on this or anything, but I hope to get back to it soon.

Action Figures – Issue Nine: Rough plotting in progress.

The Adventures of Strongarm & LightfootBlades of Glory: Rough plotting in progress.

Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins:  Audiobook recording in progress.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

MISC.

rejected-princessesBook recommendation time! I’m currently reading Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Hereticsby Jason Porath, partly for fun but partly for research and inspiration for one of my future projects (currently going by the working title of The Well-Behaved Women Trilogy), and I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to give this book a try. And you can keep up with Jason’s ongoing Rejected Princesses project at his website, on Facebook, and on Tumblr.

Panel Time! Imaginary Friends: Crafting Memorable Characters

Monday, 10 AM in Marina 3

Even the most gripping plot will fail if you don’t have memorable characters. How do you create a sympathetic protagonist? How much backstory should you give them? How do you develop interesting supporting characters to accompany them on their journey? There are many ‘tricks’ you can use to flesh out characters, as well as ways to juggle multiple character viewpoints. Come learn how to write characters so realistic your audience will be talking about them long after they finish your story.

Panel Time! Writing a Worthy Adversary

Sunday, 8:30 PM in Douglas

Nothing brings a story to life like a worthy antagonist, but how do you figure out the yang for your protagonist’s yin? What is your villain’s backstory? What are some of the ways they can twist, torment, and temper your main character? And how can a good antagonist act as your protagonist’s mirror? Boo! Hiss! Come learn how to write bad guys your audience will love to hate.

Panel Time! Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat

Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis

Violent encounters are a good way to up the tension in your story. Our panel of martial artists will not only explain the phases of combat, what goes through their mind prior to ‘going at it’, and what makes a realistic swordfight, knife-fight, stick-fighting or hand-to-hand encounter, but they will also demonstrate a few basic moves, answer questions, and help one lucky attendee work out the mechanics of their work-in-progress.

Arisia, Ho!

It’s Arisia time!

As of post time, I am about to eat lunch, and then pack up the car and drive to Boston nice and early for set-up. I’ve been in Boston rush hour traffic many times before and I’m perfectly content to sit around the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel for a couple of hours if it means I don’t spend that time crawling down the Mass Pike at 10 miles per hour. Screw that.

galleria-2017-locationI’ll be down in the dealers’ room alongside J.M. Aucoin all four days, so come say hello! I’ve marked our table on the map on the right. If you can’t make the con but want to keep tabs on what’s happening, I’ll be posting throughout the weekend on my Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram pages, so follow me there!

The dealers’ room opens to the general public at 5 PM tonight, but the event itself gets rolling this afternoon. Head over to the Arisia schedule page to see what’s happening today and all throughout the weekend.

And remember, I’ll be participating in four panels throughout the con. Below is the list of my panels, along with the dates, times, and locations. You can find the rooms where they’ll be held on this handy map.

Writing Swordfights, Knives, and Hand-to-Hand Combat

Saturday, 2:30 PM in Otis

Violent encounters are a good way to up the tension in your story. Our panel of martial artists will not only explain the phases of combat, what goes through their mind prior to ‘going at it’, and what makes a realistic swordfight, knife-fight, stick-fighting or hand-to-hand encounter, but they will also demonstrate a few basic moves, answer questions, and help one lucky attendee work out the mechanics of their work-in-progress.

Getting Into Character

Sunday, 1 PM in Faneuil

From the way you walk, to the way you talk, getting into character is key to making your cosplay shine. Our panel of performance-minded costumers share with you their secrets for bringing their costume to life.

Writing a Worthy Adversary

Sunday, 8:30 PM in Douglas

Nothing brings a story to life like a worthy antagonist, but how do you figure out the yang for your protagonist’s yin? What is your villain’s backstory? What are some of the ways they can twist, torment, and temper your main character? And how can a good antagonist act as your protagonist’s mirror? Boo! Hiss! Come learn how to write bad guys your audience will love to hate.

Imaginary Friends: Crafting Memorable Characters

Monday, 10 AM in Marina 3

Even the most gripping plot will fail if you don’t have memorable characters. How do you create a sympathetic protagonist? How much backstory should you give them? How do you develop interesting supporting characters to accompany them on their journey? There are many ‘tricks’ you can use to flesh out characters, as well as ways to juggle multiple character viewpoints. Come learn how to write characters so realistic your audience will be talking about them long after they finish your story.