Avoiding TSTL Characters

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about ways to develop your characters (Know Your Characters ). I’m still in the process of getting to know the characters in my new story, and I’ve taken a couple scenes from that story to be critiqued. In one instance I was questioned why my character acted a certain way, and that started me thinking about how people react in various situations.

We all know the TSTL (too stupid to live) character who knows people are being killed by something outside yet goes out into the dark and…yep, gets killed. While reading a book or watching a movie, either silently or outloud, we cry, “Don’t go out there…” (Or down there… Or in there.)

“Don’t go out there!”

In a way, it’s a great trope. We put the readers on edge; they must keep reading to find out what happens. But it can also anger a reader. If a character is too stupid, especially a main character, I’ll stop reading. Yes, we don’t want our characters to be perfect, that’s too unrealistic, but we want them to be smart enough to stay alive.

The problem is, what I consider reasonable behavior may not be what others deem reasonable, so I need to consider what I’m asking my characters to do, and make sure I’ve given them the emotional and physical abilities to succeed. I also need to convince my readers that even though they might not act this way, my character would.

Actually, I have two choices. I either need to give the reader, prior to that scene, enough information about the character that the reader will think, Boy, that’s not how I would act, but I can see why she acted that way, or I have to hope the reader will question why the character didn’t act as expected, and will want to read on to find out why. That second possibility requires the writer, at some point not too distant from the scene, give the reader the necessary information. No saying, “Well, that’s just how she is.” The reader wants (and deserves) to know why “that’s how she is.”

This is where those character sheets and character interviews play an important part in creating a character. If my character knows there’s danger outside, yet she opens the door and goes out, I need to have given her a good reason why she’s chosen to do this. She needs: Motivation. Maybe she’s an officer of the law and even though she knows she’s risking her life, she believes it’s her duty to end the danger. Or maybe she’s a mother who believes the only way she can protect her children is by taking on whatever is out there and killing it. Or maybe the house is burning and if she doesn’t go outside, she’ll die in the fire.

Of course, not everything we do is logical. Sometimes we can be influenced by those around us. People in mobs have said, “I don’t know why I did it. It just seemed right at the time.” And if that’s the case, and if what was done wasn’t typical for your character, there should be consequences, especially emotionally.

After all, these are real people…who live in the worlds we’ve created.

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15 Responses to Avoiding TSTL Characters

  1. I have been known to throw a book at the wall when characters act TSTL. For me, the credibility of the story has just flown out the window. I feel the same way when a hero and heroine could just say a couple of words and solve the whole conflict. Those situations seem so contrived. I like the examples you use to justify a character’s seemingly TSTL actions. Excellent post, Maris.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Betty, you are so right about getting upset with writers who create stories where the couples could simply say something to each other about what’s keeping them and that would resolve the conflict. That ends the book for me.

  2. I try to avoid creating too dumb to live characters. They annoy me as well.

    • Maris Soule says:

      With my P.J. Benson series, since P.J. isn’t law enforcement, I have to be careful that I don’t put her in situations where TSTL could be applied. Sometimes it’s a fine line.

  3. I like your point about motivation. If the writer can find the reason why someone should act as though she were TSTL, then the reader will go along. Good discussion, Maris.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Susan. That’s why I appreciate a critique group. If I haven’t given a good enough reason, and they think the action is illogical, it means I need to do a bit more to help the reader understand.

  4. Stacy Eyre says:

    Im so excited to have found your blog, my in laws live in climax, michigan and have told me a lot about you, and my mother in law actually let me borrow a book of yours to read. Im currently reading “substitute mom”, I love it. You have really inspired me to follow my dreams of writing. I wrote a lot of short stories growing up, and was always writing something as a child. None of them were published nor did I even try to get them published, but now that Im 27, I want to start writing again and thats all thanks to you! I am a new fan of yours and will definitely be following your blog.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Stacy, how great to hear from you. I know your mother-in-law well (and your father-in-law). I’m glad you are now going to follow your dream. Take a look through some of my older (posted last year and before) blogs for any blogs that might help you get started. When I’m back in Michigan, let’s try to get together. (I think we’re also on Facebook.)

  5. MELISSA KEIR says:

    I love having crazy characters but I know they can frustrate some readers. It’s a balance and great post!

  6. Diane Burton says:

    Good post, Maris. Characters who are TSTL really irk me. The one who goes out into the dark woods better have a darn good reason–like a baby crying or going after her little brother. But if the writer lets the reader know why, then I can understand.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I recently read a book, Diane, where the main character breaks into a hotel room to find something she thinks is a clue, but she doesn’t know exactly what she’s looking for or where it might be, and she has no real reason for doing this, other than she wants to helps a friend, and, of course, she gets caught in the room. She lived, but it was stupid.

  7. Susan Payne says:

    I wrote a story where a judge asked – is this guy a dushe (sp) or what? He never had a role model so did not know how to be a husband. I cleared it up later in the story but I wanted to point out not everyone is great in bed first time and heroes aren’t all perfect. They need space to grow. As to the TDTL I bought one this month and can’t get past the stupidity in the first few pages. The plot is TDTL.