Don’t let your Heroes be Stupid

It is all too easy for writers to make their heroes do something stupid to move their story forward. If the writer cannot give the audience a good explanation why, they may not buy into the story.

If your hero is smart enough to get out of the jam, how did he get into it in the first place?

When I wrote my movie script The Anger Trap, I began with the end, which was an extended chase sequence. In order for the chase to happen, my hero had to make some very bad decisions, and in order to survive, my hero needed to make some very good decisions. I realized that the first part of the story had to explain why someone so smart would do something so stupid.

I thought of several ways to explain why the hero would do something stupid.

The hero has a character flaw, like greediness, that leads them into trouble

Many classic stories give the hero a fatal flaw to explain their bad decisions. Not only does it allow the drama of the story to develop, it also makes the hero more human.

Several of the explanations I thought of are really variations of this explanation.

  • The hero is willfully blind to the threat
  • The hero misunderstands the situation until it is too late
  • The hero trusts the wrong person
  • The hero is distracted
  • The hero is tricked or fooled

Each of these is a different type of flaw, but I believe that it is useful to think of them as different explanations.

The hero has to choose between two bad options

This is another classic way to explain the hero’s behaviour. The choice they make reveals their character. The internal struggle over which choice to make can be a major element of the story. I have often seen this suggested as one of the more interesting ways to explain a character’s choices.

The hero must decide before the consequences are clear

This explanation has more to do with the circumstances than the character of the hero. This can make it a less interesting explanation, but people often need to decide before they know the consequences. I believe this can make it easier for the audience to identify with the hero.

The hero understands the situation, but has a sense of duty or obligation to act

Many people would see this as the same thing as the character flaw explanation above, but I think there is an important difference. I believe that most people would see a sense of duty as a positive characteristic rather than a flaw. This makes for a very different kind of hero.

How to Build a Hero that isn’t Stupid

In my stories, I rely on more than one explanation when I create my hero. Characters are more interesting when several different forces push them toward their fate.

In The Anger Trap, my hero trusted the wrong people, misunderstood the situation, and made his decisions before he knew the consequences. He found himself trapped, not as the result of one bad decision, but because of several. Each bad decision had a different explanation.