Over the course of this year, I’ve seen several authors talk about reviews complaining about character intelligence. Specifically, readers hate when a character makes a ‘stupid mistake’. They feel it ruins the story and go on a rant. I think we’ve all seen this in action and had this reaction as well. Yet, there is something to consider: REALITY.
First, let’s admit that we’ve all gotten annoyed with a character who makes a stupid mistake. It’s usually something that ruins an established plan or causes the plot to take a sudden turn. We think it’s contrived and done entirely to extend the story, which isn’t entirely true. A character could be perfect and make every right decision to reach the ending fairly quickly. That would be boring, but it’s feasible and what people unwittingly ask for when they rail against character mistakes. Oops.
This reaction is born from frustration and does show an emotional investment has been made by the reader. Authors want this, but is is a double-edged sword that loves to smack its wielder in the face. Emotional investment means you start putting heroes on pedestals and thinking you know exactly what they will do. So, a bad decision will seem incredibly unnatural even if it makes logical sense. I’m not talking about characters suddenly forgetting to use their powers, tools, and skills at a climax when they’ve been doing so under other stressful situations. I’m talking about a realistic mistake where a decision is made based of bad logic or missing information. Those are the ones that seem to really rile up a reader because they come with a level of confidence from the character.
Here is a question that we should ask before we run off to write a review or continue reading out of spite:
Is the mistake realistic?
Everybody makes mistakes, which is a phrase we’ve grown up with. It’s used to help a person not feel bad about screwing up. It’s a phrase of forgiveness because we understand that mistakes happen. In reality, we’re very quick to help people get through even some major bad decisions. Yet, we don’t extend the same flexibility to fictional characters. It makes some sense since we see their mistakes as plot twists instead of legitimate errors by a thinking being. This is where we need to step away from the story and analyze what is going on.
Consider these other questions:
- Does the character have the same amount of information as the reader? If the reader knows more than the character then they’ll know what the right answer is. The character will not because they don’t have the benefit of the full puzzle. It means, they are more likely to make a mistake in a situation where the reader would be able to succeed. We put our own knowledge on the characters without realizing we’re being shown all the pieces.
- How stressful and time constrained is the situation? If you have all the time in the world, you can make a good decision even with partial information. A reader has this because they can put the book down and walk away to think about how the hero will get out of their situation. The character doesn’t have that luxury. They may have seconds or minutes to make a choice. In reality, this is where many people will screw up because of stress and panic. We’re talking people who may be brave and wise, but crack under the right amount of pressure. Characters should be treated no differently here. At least I think so.
- Is the character going to learn from that mistake? As I said, mistakes are very common in reality. This is one of the ways in which a person learns and grows even if they’re already an adult. ‘Trail and error’ is the term instead of ‘do it perfectly on the first try’. If the character realizes their mistake and grows stronger because of it then that makes them more relatable. Think of every time you’ve screwed up and had to improve to avoid making the same mistake. People gave you a second chance, so the fictional characters should get the same.
That third question is key for both readers and authors. You need to show that the mistake had an impact in order to justify it being made. This is especially true if it’s a mid-story decision. It is harder to pull off a finale bad decision, but those are still realistic if set up correctly. The alternative is to make characters perfect and never fail, but then you get complaints that there are no stakes. Just can’t win in some ways.
So, what do you think about characters making mistakes?