Less Than Brilliant Characters: What Works and What Doesn’t

Careless, Caution, Danger, Dead, Death, Electric
Good righters don’t let characters be needlessly brainless.

Back in March, I wrote a post about how to avoid dumbing down your characters. Basically you don’t want your characters to be brainless just to further the plot. Recently Dale commented on this post and asked me a question. “Can you explain why some popular TV shows dumb down their characters usually after the first 2 seasons to the extreme?”

I did some reading looking for an answer. What I found was a bit on what doesn’t work and what does. In 2012, K.M. Weiland blogged about what doesn’t work. She wrote about the need for a character to remain someplace dangerous or not call for help because the plot needs the character to be in this place alone at this time. As she pointed out, it works best when you can create a reason for illogical actions. Otherwise you risk alienating your reader.

I found another piece on the brainless characters that people love. These are TV characters that are more-or-less constantly dim. Included on the list were Andy (Parks and Rec), Joey (Friends), and both Woody and Coach (Cheers). These characters needed to be dim because that’s how much of each sit com’s comedy was generated, but fans not only accepted these characters but loved them. Why? Joey wasn’t brilliant but he was a loyal and protective friend. Each had a strength and in some way was very likeable.

So why the season 3 stupids among TV characters? In part, I think it is lazy writing. It can be tough to create a situation that excuses seemingly brainless behavoir. Doing it one episode after another gets increasingly difficult.

And this leads us to reason #2. Most TV shows exists in fairly narrow worlds. The setting is X. The characters are Y. They appeal to viewers because of Z. Each of these parameters limits possible stories. Add to this the Bible of previous behaviors and episodes and you have a long list of plots you can’t duplicate and other factors you have to include. Each of these things acts as a limitor on story ideas and character behavior.

This means that if you are writing a series, whether it is a book series or a TV series, you need to beware. Your character can do something ridiculous but there are limits? The situation that Dale described in his comment was an intelligent villain (Riddler) being fooled by “Look at that!” Fans may give you a pass on the occassional cheep move like that but do it to often and they’ll go elsewhere for their entertainment.


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