Writing "Stupid"

By Janet W. Butler

What’s your first thought when you see the title above?

Do you think of being "freed" to write badly, to have "dreck" as a first draft, knowing it’s only your starting point? That you can make notes to yourself about “stuff” you don’t know, or places where you don’t have a clue what comes next, and correct the lapses later?

Well, while that aspect of “writing stupid” can be part of the creative process…

...it’s not what I’m referring to here.

My subject here, rather, is the capacity to write people in your books who do stupid things. People who make decisions you vehemently disagree with. Maybe even decisions that, on some level, don’t make sense, and you know they don’t. But letting them do those things anyway, and watching them completely screw up...because they're human.

For those of you sitting there scratching your heads and wondering, "How is that a big deal?" I can tell you that, for some of us, being brave enough to write people who are irrational, who blunder because they're scared or timid or acting under a mistaken impression—and who

make really bad decisions as a result—is hard.

The old "unreliable narrator," as my critique partner is fond of calling it, is tough to write. And I know that because I have frequently lacked the courage and/or ability to do it before. One of the criticisms I've gotten in the past is that my characters were "too perfect." Not so much because they were too pretty, or too successful, or too untroubled--but because they were so ding-danged rational.

Not that they'd never get mad or upset or crazed; they would. But they'd get over it really fast...and usually by talking themselves out of it. Using calm, reasoned, oh-so-adult maturity, and

sensibility, and never flying off the handle to the point where they'd said something truly awful that they couldn't take back.

Well, there was a good reason for that gutlessness, friends: I didn't want people to dislike my characters.

And then, lo and behold, along comes Debbie Macomber. A woman who writes characters, at times, so completely frustrating to me that I'm yelling at them as I'm reading the page.

"No!" I'm saying, as the hero and heroine fight over something and sound like children. "No! Stop that, you two! Grow up! You know better!"

Or characters who aim for a goal with such single-minded focus that they go completely over the edge, alienating everyone around them and messing up their relationships and lives.

To which I'm muttering, "Oh, come on, girl. Open your eyes. You're being ridiculous."

But the woman sells like gazillions. And is loved by gazillions. Why?

Because she writes real people.

Real people who are snotty at times.

Who are immature. Who are vindictive. Who are stubborn. Who give up on something way too soon, or who push so hard for something that they trample others underfoot. Who let themselves be led down primrose paths, or who "chicken out" before they even get to the path in

the first place. Who can be myopic, and oversensitive, and miss the obvious when it's standing

right in front of them, painted in ten-foot-high red letters.

In other words, they act like we all do at times.

Yet somehow, they end up in a happy-ever-after ending anyway. Because they do figure out that they're wrong—before they can't redeem themselves, or the situation, or the relationship, or…

I’m here to tell you, however, that writing people who do that requires a couple of things.

Talent, of course, first.

But even more, I think, than talent, it takes guts. And patience.

Because if you put your character in a mess of her own making, it's going to take time for her to clean said mess up, make amends, apologize, patch things back together, and return to True North. Time that you as an author have to give her. Have to walk her through.

And, the whole time, have faith that your character will still be "likable" in the end, even if he or she's been a complete ass for several (or several dozen) pages.

Even if he or she's been...stupid.

I’ve only begun to have the courage to do that in my books. The first time I wrote a heroine doing something I knew was a bad idea—that she was even told was a bad idea!—it scared me half out of my skin the whole time. Yes, it made for a neatly foreshadowed “black moment.” But, because this is in a recently finished novel, it’s still unpublished and in process—so I’m not even sure it works. Yet.

The other part of this question—another reason it gives me pause—is that not only am I concerned about whether a reader will “like” my character. But, as we all know, there’s a fine line indeed between realistic, and flawed…

...and TSTL.

And I don't want to cross it.

Scary? You bet it is.

But does it bring to life people, and stories, that are more real? You bet it does. (I hope.)

So…cover me, Goose. I’m goin’ in...