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When the characters in the book you are writing are TSTL

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.

6 replies on “When the characters in the book you are writing are TSTL”

I remember way back I read a sci-fi short story in which TSTL and TSTR (Too Stupid To Reproduce) were actual verdicts in a court of law. It’s stuck with me ever since and no one else knows what the heck I’m talking about when I use one of the acronyms. 😂

There’s a Patricia Wrede book I can’t think of the name of, Shadow or Shadows might have been in the title. The author said she was writing the book and had to back to close to the beginning, because the character was nor the sort of person to have voluntary gone off on the journey she had to go on.

I think this is a topic that more authors should explore. Not necessarily in terms of individuals, but more regarding societies and relations. One reason I like science fiction is because the “what if”-scenario allow us to explore how our own society works. Why we do things the way we do, how our attitudes and values make up the social framework and how they shape society.
Unfortunately authors often assume that you can simply change fundamental aspects of the social framework, but magically without any side-effects on related values and behaviours.

Individuals can certainly be TSTL and too much of it will destroy the story, but in your example I also think you miss two important aspects, role in society and acceptance of risk.
In traditional societies males have often had the external protector role (yes, it has been misused in various ways, but still exists), with that role comes a higher acceptance of risk. The role doesn’t disappear because you have a family, kids or a relationship with the head of the mage academy, male or female.
From a female perspective or the non-protector role the decision to enter the forest would probably seem like TSTL, end of story, from the male perspective it would depend on the circumstances. I.e. does it seem that the struggle was recent or is there moldy food in the table, little details matter. Doesn’t mean that they are too stupid to understand the risk, they might be scared sh*tless and still go.

You could change the circumstances of the story to for example that the wife of the younger brother comes back to their cottage to find the twin girls missing, again with signs of struggle and tracks leading to the forest. Would we regard her as TSTL if she ran into the forest to look for them despite the risks or how would we regard her if she trekked two days back to the city to get some help to go look in the forest when any help would probably be days too late?
Would it change anything if the society where protagonists live place the external protector role on the females instead, maybe for magical reasons there is a surplus of females and low risk of dying in childbirth? Or if there are no such expectations at all, everyone for themselves type of society, would there even be a society then?

The difference between TSTL and, if not normal, then at least understandable, behaviour can be small and it all depends on the weavings around the story. Instead of thinking that the characters are TSTL and the story needs to be changed, think in terms of what circumstances would be required for their decisions not to be TSTL and are those circumstances consistent with the rest of the world/story. Maybe even what world/story would be required for their decisions not to be TSTL, but that is probably for an earlier stage of the story.

Johan, I think we’re saying the same things. Give the person a reason to do what they’re doing, and in your story ensure that the reader knows the protagonist’s reason.

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