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.