CUT TO close-up of our heroes deliberating their next move, speaking in hushed whispers. Summoning up their courage, they push open the front door. It gives reluctantly, long-rusted hinges squealing in protest and causing everyone to wince at the sudden noise, magnified in the stillness. Our heroes look nervously behind them, checking to see the driveway up to the house remains deserted, before proceeding inside.
PAN shot of INTERIOR. The darkness is relieved only by our heroes hastily switching on their flashlights. Bluish-white beams of light stab the stygian depths, revealing sparkling dust motes floating lazily above numerous items of white sheeted furniture, crouching like hidden beasts waiting to spring forth.
CUT TO our square-jawed protagonist. Looking around pensively at his nervous companions, he says in low, sepulchral tones: “Guys, we’d better split up. We can cover more ground that way...”
Okay, time out. Pop quiz, people:
Confronted by the terribly clichéd scenario above, as a member of the cast plopped into these hoary circumstances, you:
- Roll your eyes theatrically and mutter, sotto voce, “Ave, imperator, ”
- Nod enthusiastically, somehow oblivious to the ominous music being played by the orchestra in the next room, and reply, “That’s a great idea!”
- Frown worriedly, but reply gamely, “Okay, but I want the cute chick with the low-cut shirt to come with me, because she’ll get killed first.”
- Smack the protagonist upside the head, hissing, “Are you out of your freaking MIND? Haven’t ANY of you EVER seen ANY horror movies in your entire LIVES? If we do that, everyone except the plucky heroine will be chopped liver (literally) before we go to first commercial!”
(I can’t seriously believe any reader wouldn’t know the correct answer... but in the remote possibility someone isn’t clear, it’s [d]... although writers of said shows would appear to want you to think it’s [b]. Now feel free to smack yourself upside the head.)
My question today is simple: why do smart people --- fictional and non-fictional --- make such stupid decisions in the face of life situations that cry out for caution... or restraint... or maybe even just a few moments of calm, rational thought?
Well, apart from the fact that, no, characters in horror films apparently haven’t watched any horror films in their soon-to-be-tragically-cut-short lives --- they’re nearly all ideal candidates for Darwin Awards, it would seem --- I think the answer boils down to: intellectual laziness, unbelievable arrogance, or a highly exaggerated and completely unjustified sense of self-worth.
(Okay, maybe in crisis situations, in the heat of the moment, it’s a little more forgivable when our decision-making turns out shy of stellar. I’m willing to concede that. After all, when the bad guy is bearing down on you with frightening speed, bloody meat cleaver in upraised hand, it’s no time, to paraphrase what Han once said, to sit down and discuss the matter in committee. But much of the time, story characters --- and people in real life --- aren’t in crisis situations when they make their stupid decisions. Their decisions may be about to plunge them into crisis, yes, but that’s a completely different kettle of fish.)
With fictional characters, we can add something else to that list of laziness, arrogance, or exaggerated self-worth, and it’s a biggie, third on my list of The Cardinal Sins of Writing: uninspired writing. (Gasp!)
Now, look, I know we all do really stupid things from time to time. (I may have been known to make one or two questionable life decisions myself. Maybe.) That’s not what I’m talking about. We rely on characters doing things that turn out, in retrospect, not to have been particularly brilliant. After all, if everyone in stories did reasonable, sensible things that never got them or anyone else into trouble... we wouldn’t have any stories to write.
No, what I’m talking about is writers who place characters into hackneyed situations and then use really, really silly, stale actions that are just plain irrational to move things along. Said writers should be placed in front of the blackboard and made to write “I will not insult the collective intelligence of my readers” 1000 times. Bestowing characters with unbelievable naiveté may work once in a while --- after all, as I just said, the sad truth about humans is we do unbelievably stupid things --- but not in situations where thousands of years of literature argue against a given course of action, and only someone totally illiterate (or someone who’s never watched film at all) would think the course of action is reasonable. Because once you start to make your readers roll their eyes and mutter (or scream) “Seriously?” at the actions of a character, you’re in Big Trouble. And deservedly so.
So, come on Writer. Yeah, you. I’m talkin’ to you. Get off your metaphorical couch and do some work. Put your characters into creative crises, and then come up with creative ways to get them out. Yeah, it’s work. Hard work. I know.
But you’ll be glad you did. And so will your readers.