Friday, July 2, 2010

Characters Who Are Too Stupid To Live

I’ve mentioned several times the importance of maintaining enough realism within a film that the audience can suspend its disbelief and accept the story as true. And there are many things that can kill the realism of films, everything from continuity errors to stunts that don’t seem real to plot points that don’t make sense. But the crème de la crème is the character who is too stupid to live.

The character who is too stupid to live is a character who does stupid, inexplicable and/or dangerous things apparently just to advance the plot. Examples abound. In fact, if you are a movie character, you might be too stupid to live if:
• You go skinny-dipping right after finding your friend chopped to pieces by the indestructible serial killer the radio keeps talking about...

• You knock down the evil kickboxer and then turn your back to do a victory dance, even as the crowd points to the villain as he rises up after grabbing a weapon...

• You hand over key evidence for safekeeping to the guy who is laughing manically...

• You and your ninja friends surround the hero, but then you all wait your turn to fight the hero...

• You are a villain who chooses the Rube Goldberg method for killing the hero and then leaves before the job is done...

• You overcome the first armed guard with an incredible combination of luck and stupidity on the part of the guard, but then you don’t think to pick up his gun to help you in the rest of your escape...

• You see your friend’s body ripped apart and covered in werewolf hair, but you decide there is no danger because there’s no such thing as werewolves. . . as if that somehow invalidates the fact that something used your friend as a chew toy...

• Ditto on those of you who think that zombie that used to be your friend Rick is coming to pick your brain, rather than eat it...

• You say the words: “let’s split up” for no apparent reason when people around you are disappearing...

• You’ve ever said the words: “Turn around? I’m not falling for that!” when there are dinosaurs or purple people eaters in the ‘hood. . .
I can accept characters with poor judgment and people who make mistakes in the heat of the moment. Indeed, stress causes people to do stupid things. Some get confused, others are overcome by fear; some freeze, some run, some do stupid things. Indeed, they have found that in true moments of crisis (like an airline crash) a small percentage of the population will do truly bizarre things like collecting their luggage or picking fights.

But when you’re talking about people in films who have time to think, you need to make sure the characters act with some sense of self-preservation. And if they don’t, then you need to explain why not and you need to lay the ground work for that.

In that regard, the one thing I have never bought into is “the jerk” as explanation. You know the guy, he’s introduced as the conservative businessman who yells and screams and talks about his worship of money from the opening frame. When he’s confronted with danger, he decides to ignore all good advice and do something incredibly stupid because. . . well, he’s a jerk. . . he’s like that. That doesn’t make sense. Even the biggest jerk has a sense of self-preservation.

An offshoot of this, which I also don’t like, can be seen in the Ron Weasley character in the Harry Potter books. By the third book, Weasley had really stopped acting like an independent human being with his own personality and life. Instead, he became a vehicle to move the plot. If Harry was too close to doing something that would solve the puzzle, Ron would appear, encourage him to act irresponsibly, and then leave. If Harry needed a push in a different direction, Ron appears, gives the push, and then leaves. Basically, whatever needed to be done to keep Harry moving forward with the story, Ron would provide it whether it made sense or not. Indeed, many of the things he did made no sense except as ways to move Harry through the plot.

I am a firm believer that every character in a movie or book should stand on their own. They should have their own motivations, their own desires, and they should act accordingly. If that means it takes a little more thought to get them alone with the werewolf or to get the hero to the next plot point, then so be it. Audiences see through characters who are merely plot convenience devices.

That’s my thinking.

22 comments:

CrispyRice said...

So pretty much every henchman in any James Bond movie ever, eh, Andrew?

"I know he's out to destroy the planet, but he surely wouldn't kill little old ME in the process, would he??"

Ed said...

I had the same thought about Ron Weasley. It's like she stopped caring about the character and just used him whenever she needed some way to get Harry to do whatever he needed to do next. I see that a lot in films too. How many times does someone walk into the scene for no apparent reason, say something to move the plot along, and then walk away without any idea why they ever showed up?

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, Yeah, those guys too. Seriously, he says his plan is to "wipe out the human race except for himself . . . but he couldn't me mean, right?"

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I've actually said that myself when I was reading the series. It's like she stopped caring about Ron halfway through. In fact, he becomes rather annoying and pointless as the story progresses and as she begins to focus on other characters more. It's too bad too because I liked him a lot when the book started.

DUQ said...

Yeah, that seems like a cheap trick you see a lot in stories if you pay attention, and I hate that too.

Kind of the flip side of your question. I always felt bad for the "red shirts" in Star Trek. They knew what they were doing and usually had their phasers out, but they still got killed. Not fair.

LawHawkRFD said...

Andrew: I'm still suffering the after-effects of your previous film blog. Last night, I watched Troy again. The first time I knew as an historian I would be disappointed by the plot, and as a fan of period pieces, I would hate Brad Pitt in the Achilles role. I was right. This time, I was watching the CGI as well because of your previous comments. I wasn't five minutes into the movie before I started getting ready to throw things at the TV. CGI armies that clearly had two rows of human-like creatures and the rest more like clouds of movement. And there weren't that many people in all of Greece, let alone in a couple of armies.

My (un)favorite plot development is the innocent character who, upon arriving at a grisly murder scene, immediately picks up the bloody knife or the smoking gun (that the real killer has conveniently left behind), making sure to leave very clear fingerprints and getting lots of the victims' blood on his body and his clothing.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Yeah, that's pretty stupid. So is then running from the screaming witness rather than yelling something like "stop yelling and call the paramedics." And seriously, how man times have we seen this in movies?

I was less than impressed with Troy as well. In fact, all around it was poor. The CGI, the fact that they tried to jam more people onto the field than existed in Greece, and the acting. . . all stunk.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, Yeah, it is a cheap trick. And it's lazy writing. How hard is it to come up with something a little more creative rather than suddenly making a character who hasn't been the world's biggest idiot into the world's biggest idiot?

I agree with you about the red shirts. . . they should have unionized! ;-)

Doc Whoa said...

It worked! Houston, we have photo!

Doc Whoa said...

Let's see if this works! I changed my account because the other one didn't work anymore.

I like your film articles. I took a look at the older ones earlier. I think you make an excellent point here. Quite often, films seem to take the easy way out when it comes to certain points. I don't think it's as common in books as it used to be, though I don't read everything these days, but it certain has become more common in films, and I definitely agree that this is always a weak spot in these films.

MegaTroll said...

Interesting topic to think about over the holiday! Happy 4th, if I'm not back this weekend.

I know a lot of people who say "why did that do that" and sometimes those people just don't understand or weren't paying enough attention. But lot of times, I completely agree, they do totally stupid things just to keep the story going.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, I'm glad it worked! Welcome. . . again.

I'm not sure how common it is in books. It's probably less frequent because usually the too stupid stuff is done to make the movie a lot easier to fly through the plot.

That said, I do hear about occasional too stupid to live characters in books.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, I'll be around on the holiday so feel free to drop by and leave comments.

I definitely draw a distinction between actions you wouldn't take or those that are explained in the story, and those that simply make no sense. Like you, I often hear people say "why did he do that?" but they just weren't paying attention.

What I'm talking about are the more obvious "you've got to be kidding me" moments.

Of course, if you are the writer/director and the public leaves thinking "I don't get why he...." then you probably blew it, even if does have an explanation.

USArtguy said...

Too stupid to live, eh?

How about the "let's go into the dark spooky house, (basement, forest, abandoned ware house, etc.) to investigate screams/weird sounds/vanished friends armed only with a flashlight" types.

Or the parent desperately trying to keep from being detected from the bad guy/alien/tax man outwitting them at every turn but for some reason isn't smart enough to put their hand over their kid's yap.

And why, oh why, is it that someone being chased, who has time to open a door and go through it can't spend the fraction of a second it would take to slam it behind them and push the button to lock it before running to the next one?

Candidates for the Darwin awards one and all.

BevfromNYC said...

USArtGuy, I will take that one step further - They always go down to the basement with a candle in a house where the walls are bleeding and voices are telling them to leave! If a house tells you to leave, then LEAVE!! Do not go to the basement with a candle to check out anything!!!! Just go!

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Darwin awards! LOL! Isn't that the truth! And all excellent examples.

Seriously, why can't they turn around and lock the door? It only takes a millisecond and it will buy them a good deal of time.

And why the heck can't they ever shut the kids up? This is life and death. For that, you could probably even bring yourself to jam a sock into said orifice if need be. You can deal with the parental issues later. . . when you're still alive!

I wonder too about the people who start arguing when they're being chased. Do you really have time for that?

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, In Eddie Murphy "Delirious" he had this funny bit about the difference between whites and blacks in horror movies:

He said (paraphrase):

"When you hear an evil voice tell you GET OUT why is it that white people always want to stay and investigate? When blacks here this. . . here's what happens:

Realtor: “Nice house, beautiful neighborhood."
Voice: "Get. . .out!"
Black couple: "Too bad we can’t stay."

ScottDS said...

Re: the businessman who does something stupid, I immediately thought of Viggo Mortensen's character in Daylight (like anyone remembers that movie).

As much as I hate stupid characters, I'm also annoyed by characters who are stupid only so the other characters can explain things to them (read: the audience). It's even worse on a TV series after the character has been established as having some intelligence.

For some reason, I thought of a Star Trek: TNG episode titled "Disaster." The Enterprise is dead in space and this conversation happens:

O'BRIEN: "If it falls to fifteen percent... the field will collapse and there'll be a containment breach."

TROI: "Which means...?"

Troi really didn't know what that meant? Hell, in this case, I'd bet the viewing audience had the idea.

And in Michael Crichton's novel Airframe, the hero gets a new assistant, just for the purpose of having to explain things to him (and, by extension, us).

USArtguy said...

Besides the obvious joke about Joe Biden here, I'll add one more: the couple who have only moments to save themselves/loved ones/world yet have enough time for a long passionate kiss.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's a real problem for a lot of series. And I think one of the easiest ways to tell a good writer from a bad writer is how well they manage to work the information into the story without the audience noticing that they're being fed the information.

One of the complaints about the old Doctor Who was that the companions were largely there just to say "what does that mean Doctor?"

Like you, I see it a lot in Star Trek TNG. Sometimes they do it well, but way too often they just have somebody pointlessly say "what does that mean?" As if the character wouldn't have known. And this is usually followed by a very simplistic, almost insultingly dumb answer like "it would be like trying to squeeze a truck through a garden hose."

On the businessman bit, I haven't seen Daylight, but I've seen the same character dozens of times:

Hero: "The monster is in that closet, it killed Bill. Note the blood pouring out from the closet door."

Businessman: "I'm rich and superior to you, so I will do whatever it is you tell me NOT to do. So I'm going to open that door because you're poor and stupid."

Monster: "Crunch... crunch."

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, Movie heroes always waste time. My favorite is the "the world is going to blow up if I don't throw that switch, but I'm going to go find my girlfriend or help some kid find a lost teddy bear first, before I pull the switch and save the world!"

Get some priorities people. If you don't save the world, then it doesn't matter how many lost teddy bears you deliver before everything blows up.

United Citizens Council said...

I love reading the comments on this site.

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