We’ve all read books where the characters are too stupid to live. There’s even an acronym for it, TSTL. They’re stories where a character does something they wouldn’t logically do, and that action drives a major part of the plot.
Romance writing gets a lot of schtick for characters who are TSTL. Whether they’re full-on romance or just have romantic elements, stories can often have a romantic sub-plot where the characters misunderstand each other and that causes problems. Our two would-be lovers go around angry at each other, doing stupid things as a result, while the reader sits there screaming at them, “For goodness sake, talk to each other.”
It’s not just romantic leads, though. A lot of fantasies start off with the hero (or heroine) going off on a half-baked whim, too. Let me give you an example.
Take twin brothers who haven’t seen their father in ten years. Father writes and asks that they meet him at his new cottage, and that they be there for their thirtieth birthday, as he has something important to tell them. The younger (by four minutes) brother has twin girls at home and his wife is expecting again. The older brother has a relationship with the head of the Mage academy in the city.
As they get closer to the forest, they hear disturbing stories about the creatures in the forest. So much so, they’re already wondering why their father wants to live near it.
Then they get to the cottage itself. There’s no father, but they see signs of a struggle, and tracks leading into the forest.
Youngest brother says, “Our father’s in danger. We have to save him. Let’s go.”
Older brother, “But it’s dangerous in the forest, and neither of us know how to fight.”
“It doesn’t matter. Dad’s life is important.”
So off our heroes race, unprepared, into the dangerous woods, and the whole story is about them rescuing their father, the angst about the partners they’ve left behind, and of course, the mysterious thing their father was to tell them on their thirtieth birthday.
How likely is this? They’re thirty years old, for goodness sake. Settled. Are they just going to run into the forest? They don’t even know if their father really is in there. They’re unprepared, untrained and likely to die. TSTL.
Many readers won’t read past the first chapters. They haven’t got time for a character who deserves what’s coming.
Bit what does it mean as a writer if your characters are TSTL?
In our experience, it means we’re at least one draft off a workable story. And yes, we too have written stories where the co-writer comes back and says, “Why didn’t he just tell her what he planned to do. I mean, they talk to each other normally, don’t they? Why hold this particular piece of information back?”
Why? Usually because the author decides that’s how the story has to go and they’re trying to cram the characters they have created into that story. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a plotter or a pantser you can still force a story down a path that doesn’t make logical sense.
Let’s go back to those twins who go off into the dangerous forest to find their father. The whole story revolves around getting into that forest and on the things that happen there.
Are these two, in any logical storyline, likely to go into the forest alone?
Probably not. If they have any nous they’ll go first to the local law, and if the law doesn’t help, maybe they’ll hire an experienced tracker or someone who knows the forest, to go with them. They might even decide not to go into the forest at all, given they don’t know their father really is in there.
That’s why I say you’re at least one draft off a workable story. You need to fix this massive logic hole before your story is done.
An easy way might be to arrive at the cottage and see their father fighting with one of the forest monsters. They join in the fight—he is their father, after all—and when the monster drags their father off, they chase. That might work, and you’ve only really got one big scene to change, plus maybe some angsty bits where they’re thinking about how they might have done it differently.
If they choose, instead, to find a tracker, then you’ve added another character to the story and you have to write them in. Adding a character isn’t simply a matter of, ‘hey, there’s another person along, mention their name on occasion’. The newcomer will interact with the brothers, they’ll have their own thoughts and feelings and ways of doing things. And if you’ve done it properly, that will change what happens in some of the fight scenes, and how the brothers track their father. Basically the whole rest of the book.
Alternatively, you can change one of the characters to be the sort who does rush off and do this sort of thing, and have his twin always follow to rescue him. Then you’ll have to rewrite the characters to match.
Like I say, there’s at least another draft to write. Probably more.