I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched a handful of films and TV shows, recently, where the plot progression is stagnated, by a character’s stupidity. I don’t mean that the character comes across stupid or is actually stupid; I mean that the little things the characters say or do (or don’t do) make them look stupid, when they’re not.
I’m about to use the film ‘A Novel Romance’ as an example and I’m going to dissect the film, to show you what I mean. Overall, I like the film, but the characters are real examples of how good characters can come across as stupid, from sloppy writing, or silly plot/dialogue.
** THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD **
In this one film I’m watching, as I write, the MC is a male writer, who publishes under a pseudonym, because his parents were famous. His pen-name is a mysterious character, who no-one has ever seen and his publisher is arranging his first ever public appearance. He meets a girl on a plane, when she’s ‘mysteriously’ bumped from coach to first class. They talk and there’s an attraction, even as she sits and reads his latest book, without knowing it’s his. She says it’s not as good as the first one and he seems to appreciate her honesty. I knew at this point that she was a book reviewer, though it took another 5 minutes for the film to tell me that.
So, we find out that she’s got major trust issues, after being cheated on my a pro-sports player. She and the writer don’t exchange numbers or anything, but they take a picture with each other and she knows he flew first class and gave her a lift in his limo, when they reached Portland, their destination.
He’s there to get over writers block and she’s returning home, after going for job interviews in New York, because the small paper she writes for might be going out of business. The plot is stable until now and actually quite funny in places, though I find it very cheesy. But then, I love cheese, especially in romance films.
His big reveal day comes, in Portland and she’s sent to cover the story. He sees her there and freaks out, running away before anyone finds out who he is. Makes sense, since he doesn’t want her to think of him as this big novel writer, just as an ordinary guy. They ‘accidentally’ meet, after he reads her review of his book in the paper and discovers where she works. They start hanging out and she, stupidly, pushes her friends on him, to ‘gauge’ whether he’s trustworthy or not, since they all knew her ex was no good before she did.
Stupidity #1 – she puts the writer in awkward situations, that he accepts without question, where her friends interrogate him. They end up loving him, which she’s surprised by. He looks like an idiot, who hasn’t got a clue what’s going on and she looks psycho, by constantly complaining that he’s ‘hiding’ something. Even though it’s their first date.
She Googles him and…
Stupidity #2 – there are no search results. Then she repeats the search adding in Portland and suddenly, miraculously, there are lots of results, telling her that he’s the son of two famous movie stars.
Stupidity #3 – She complains, constantly, that he hasn’t told her the ‘tragic’ story about his parents yet. Even though they’ve only been on one date. Her best friend even tells her that she’s being ridiculous, but she doesn’t care. She insists on another ‘test’, because he’s lied about his job, obviously.
Stupidity #4 – This one really bugs me. She calls him and he admits to where he’ll be for lunch, with a ‘client’, who is really his publicist. She practically stalks him and sees him with the publicist, but instantly jumps to the conclusion that he ‘knows’ the famous writer and the publicist. But nothing, not one instinct in her body, makes her think he’s the writer, despite all the lies and secrets. It makes her look really stupid.
Stupidity #5 – She sees her new ‘boyfriend’ the writer (still not knowing who he really is) talking to a co-worker and although the co-worker flirts with him and he barely says anything, she instantly jumps to the conclusion that he was flirting. She then – stalker moment – goes to a club she heard the co-worker mentioning, to see if he shows up, because she’s ‘devastated’. When he calls and tells her that he showed up at her office, to ask her to lunch, but would be working all night, she instantly disbelieves him. Then, when she gets there, she thinks she’s right, when she sees the back of a head that looks like him, until she discovers that it’s not him.
Really, I can’t get past these moments of stupidity. If I was rating this, as a story (like a book review) it would be a 3.5 star, because of these moments. It makes the characters look vapid, stupid and kind of pathetic, when really they should come across as romantic, naive and scared, which is what they are supposed to be.
Stupidity #6 – They have this ‘date’, where she plans to confess how stalkerish she’s been and he plans to tell her that he’s the famous writer. Then she butts in and demands to go first, so she goes on and on about how she had a famous ex, with a public break up and she’s learned her lesson to never date a famous person again, and how it drove her to mistrust him. He accepts it, with no problem (even though it should be a problem) and suddenly he doesn’t confess, because of what she said. Now he’ll never confess that he’s famous.
Stupidity #7 – He goes to New York, to try to convince his publishers to not reveal his real identity. Meanwhile, she quits her job and goes to the ‘big public reveal’, while he searches everywhere, to try to talk to her in private, to reveal himself to her in person. So because she’s at the event, he can’t tell her, before everyone else. What idiot waits? Then, when she’s offered an exclusive interview with the author, at the event, who she’s told is already there…what does she do?…she goes to meet him, finds her ‘boyfriend’ there instead and tells him how excited she is that the author will be there soon!! I mean, really? It still doesn’t click with her? She doesn’t get the point, that he is both people?
So what does she do? She calls him a liar, says that she can’t believe she ‘let it happen again’ and runs off, because she was too stupid to see the true, every time he tried to tell her, or show her the truth? Then, her best friend even tells her how it is – that he wanted her to know him as a real person, not as the famous author, and she doesn’t believe it. She’s all about herself and her trust issues, while it should be more about the truth.
Stupidity #8 – When he tries to apologise and make her understand, she keeps comparing him to her ex. Even he tells her that they’re not the same person, and that he’s not his ‘famous’ persona, but that he’s a real person. She’s just too stuck up and caught up in herself, to see the truth.
SIX MONTHS LATER – SIX MONTHS!!! – when she speaks to the publicist again, about his new book (the publicist is meddling again, which is awesome), she assumes that he’s has women throwing themselves at him. She’s very bitter and rude about it all, which I hate, because that shouldn’t be what it’s about. Then she reads the dedication – to her – and she still has to get her friends opinions on it and him? It’s really stupid. Then she accuses him of betraying the trust of her friend, by putting his personal story into his new book, until the friend admits that he called and asked for permission, first. And still, it takes a lecture before it all snaps into place? Really?
Then…ridiculously…she interviews him, during a public appearance, and walks up onto the stage, both of them ‘gravitating’ towards each other, as if it’s perfectly normal to be in making out in front of 100 people and cameras. While, obviously, standing right in front of a massive screen with his new book cover on it. Really!
Overall, I enjoyed the film and the romanticism, especially the detail of his books. I actually paused it, when it showed his ‘notes’ and read what was written – it was a real story draft, which was a nice touch. But the stupidity of the characters grated on my nerves. There was no need for it, except to draw the story out into a full movie. The same story, with all the detail, could have been told in 1 hour, in steady of 1 1/2, if the stupid moments had been removed. Yes, parts of the plot would have been obsolete, but these are parts that would have been cut from any novel going into the market today. They’re unnecessary distractions, to keep the movie going, for the time it needs to cover. But they add nothing to the plot or the romance; they’re fillers, that ruin the story, for me anyway.
These are all the ways that not focusing on your characters can ruin your story. If you make them do silly/stupid/ridiculous things, just because it’s not the right length yet, or you don’t want the couple together yet, or the crime solved yet, then you’re going to end up with a less than stellar book. Your readers will be disappointed.
You might ask what I know about this, since I’m hardly proficient in publishing and I’m not famous. I hold my hand up and admit that I’ve made this mistake – numerous times. My novel ‘Runaway Girl’ had some unnecessary stupidness and characters that aren’t needed, but that was my fault, as a first time novelist, with my first time publishing, in my teen years (which was when I first wrote the book). Read the reviews and you’ll see comments that there are characters I don’t need, that there are aspects of the story that don’t make sense or whatever. These are all things that I, eventually, want to fix, when I have time. At the moment, my publishing commitments don’t leave me enough time to go back and fix those issues, now that I know better, but I see them, I know they’re there and I know the potential of the story, is more than it seems.
We all make mistakes, but doing them on purpose is going to hurt you, in reviews, in sales and with your fans. I have over 70 stories that are complete (after writing for 10 years), but I’d say that only 10 of them have been edited to a high standard, where this isn’t an issue anymore. This is why my writing to-do list is so long; because I need to go back and fix these silly, amateur mistakes that I made either on purpose, to drag the story out, or by mistake, because I didn’t know any better.
Eventually, I want all of my stories to be precise, tightly locked down and only contain moments that are relevant. But we’re all still learning, in this journey of writing. Every book we write is another lesson learned, and we all see things in different ways, so trust your gut and look at your book critically, to make sure there’s no fluff, silliness or filler. It won’t help your story, your book or you. Edit your baby until there’s nothing left to cut or change; you want your best work to be out in the world and so do your readers.