Romantic Suspense Author Kris Bock In Defense of “Too Stupid to Live”
Readers complain about characters – almost always female – who are TSTL: “too stupid to live.” Writers dread the accusation but also want to tell an exciting story, and excitement doesn’t come from a character who stays inside with the doors locked and calls the police at the slightest hint of danger. But how do you define stupidity in character behavior? When is a bit of carelessness, inattention, or reckless courage all right, and when is it going to cause people to roll their eyes or throw the book across the room?
I think this is actually a much more complex question than many people realize. A lot depends on personal history, personality, and even region. In my small New Mexico town, I don’t hesitate to go walking or jogging alone after dark. I have never once been harassed in this community. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I’d worry more about drunk drivers and aggressive dogs on the loose than muggers or rapists. Yet I have lived in other communities where it would be considered “stupid” for a woman to go out alone after dark. (I’m not claiming I’ve never done it though.)
The issue has real-life relevance as well, in victim blaming – the tendency to assume that a crime victim has some responsibility for being foolish enough to get into a situation that led to the crime. That is usually untrue and always unfair, but it can make others feel safer because they wouldn’t be that foolish.
I also think it’s unfair that behavior which would be considered heroic in a man would be considered stupid in a woman. A man who hears a noise outside his house and goes out alone to investigate would often be called brave for protecting his family. A woman who does the same thing is called stupid.
Granted a man might be stronger or a better fighter than a woman, but it’s not a given. For either one, the behavior could be rational or stupid depending on whether they have a legitimate reason to suppose that the noise is coming from a stray cat or from a killer. In real life, many of us would assume the former, and we’d be embarrassed to call the cops to chase away a stray cat. But in books we know to suspect the worst, which means characters look stupider when they don’t expect horrible things. (Personally, I’m more likely to roll my eyes at a CIA agent who misses an obvious plot twist than an average person who doesn’t expect danger.)
In my romantic suspense Whispers in the Dark, my heroine recently suffered from an attack. She is not by nature fearful, but this has left her struggling to recognize when panic is legitimate and when it’s something to control. A couple of readers accused her of the dreaded TSTL behavior, though I’m not sure if they’re referring to the times when she controls her panic and keeps going, or when it overcomes her and she flees. In some cases, running away blindly is more dangerous.
Ironically, other readers have said that character rings true, because, in essence “she thinks just like I do.” She’s not a kick-ass action heroine. She’s an ordinary woman who finds herself in an unexpected adventure. She has a hard time believing she’s really in danger, or figuring out which direction it’s coming from.
How People Really Behave
In my romantic mystery What We Found, the heroine is walking in the woods with a man – someone she knew slightly in high school but doesn’t know well now – when they stumble upon a dead body. She assumes they’ll call the police, but he insists they don’t. He takes her phone away and threatens to get her boss (his father) to fire her if she reports this. His behavior throws her so much after the shock of finding a body that she doesn’t know what to do. She delays doing anything, and then a few hours later fakes finding the body for the first time on her own.
Many readers sympathized and even identified with this character. But one reader (a man, perhaps not coincidentally) left a review railing against her choices, because in his mind, if something like this happened, you call the police. You just do, no question. (Curiously, he blamed her, not the man who insisted she didn’t call.)
However, this book was actually inspired by a real experience where friends and I found the body of a murder victim. Of course we reported it, but someone high up in law enforcement mentioned that often people do not report crimes like this. That got me wondering why … all the reasons people might think it’s safer to ignore a crime than report it … and What We Found came out of that. So whether the character’s behavior was “stupid,” it was not unrealistic – it was more real than that one reader wanted to believe.
In real life, are we always smart? How many times have you regretted a choice? How many times do you see your friends making the same stupid choices over and over, even though you, as an outsider, are convinced they should do something different? Is it fair to have higher standards for fictional characters? Perhaps it is, if we expect books to be better than real life. Besides, experienced readers can see things coming in books in a way they can’t in real life, so authors have to work harder to surprise readers. But it seems that not everyone agrees on what behavior is TSTL.
Chances are most of us do “stupid” things frequently and get away with it. Fortunately, we don’t always get what we deserve!
Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. In The Dead Man’s Treasure, estranged relatives compete to reach a buried treasure by following a series of complex clues. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.