By Writing Excuses | November 20, 2011 - 6:44 pm - Posted in Theory and Technique

Let’s face it. The characters in your book will do some dumb things. We’re here to help you make sure they do those dumb things for the right reasons.

Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of dumb, and how you as an author can write dumb smart. Or smartly write dumb. Something like that.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Variant, by Robison Wells, narrated by Michael Goldstrom.

Writing Prompt: Create a solid romance in which the characters cannot be together because of good, intelligent, character-driven reasons.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 20th, 2011 at 6:44 pm and is filed under Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. November 20, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

    Hey Howard,

    Can you link to the panels showing Murtaugh’s fateful decision? Loved the show.


    Posted by Tony
  2. November 20, 2011 @ 8:35 pm

    Does anyone else think this episode is perfect for NaNoWriMo? Yeah.

    Posted by Eric Lake
  3. November 20, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

    This podcast really helped me put a finger on why I strongly disliked a book I read recently called an Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England. The main character was so dumb that I just got completely disconnected and didn’t care if he suffered.

    Posted by Tyler Mills
  4. November 20, 2011 @ 11:25 pm

    @Tony: The sequence starts here, where Murtaugh has everything well in hand.

    This is the moment I was referring to, where she makes the wrong decision. We know it’s wrong because we’ve got lots of information she doesn’t have.

    Posted by Howard Tayler
  5. November 21, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    I think this is really about writing character-driven stories instead of plot-driven stories. Character should drive plot. I think most authors agree on that.

    But there are times when you really need something to happen in your plot. And that’s when it’s tempting to let plot drive character, or in other words to make your character do something against his or her established personality, preferences, etc. That’s what we as readers perceive as dumb behavior.

    I love the solution that Howard proposes, which is to change the information available to the character. Brilliant!

    Posted by K. Bill Albrecht
  6. November 21, 2011 @ 10:30 am

    This doesn’t quite qualify as a dumb character doing dumb things for the sake of the plot as much as a couple of dumb characters period, but Nature (the prestigious science journal) recently published a short story called Womanspace. I bring this up because given the poor quality of the writing and the rather distasteful plot, I’m guessing Nature isn’t getting much in the way of submissions. So, if any of you writers out there have a science fiction short story gathering dust, may I suggest submitting it to nature. Those of us scientists who enjoy fiction and don’t want to be subjected to more of this kind of sexist twaddle will thank you.

    Posted by Kristine N
  7. November 21, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

    Howard, question: what decision could the Murtaugh character have made at that point, that she could have won? I view her situation then as unwinnable. (The principles she could have used to avoid that unwinnable situation will be available in due course)

    Posted by Ed
  8. November 21, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

    Unfortunately, I can’t think of a specific example, but I know this was something that became very annoying to me and my friends in later seasons of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can only use “awkward interpersonal relationships cause our characters not to talk to each other leads to major calamity” so many times before the audience stops suspending disbelief when the same characters don’t talk to each other.

    “So many times” is three … I think.

    Posted by NinjaLime
  9. November 22, 2011 @ 12:33 am

    Good pod cast as always. I just wanted to take a moment to say think you to take time out of your busy lives to do this pod cast. My writing has improved greatly since I started listening. Hopefully one day I will write something that you guys will find enjoyable. Thanks again for all the help and inspiration.

    Posted by Jim
  10. November 22, 2011 @ 8:19 pm

    Aw… Thanks, Jim. I learn so much doing the casts. It is fantastic to hear that it is helpful. I think it is safe to say that you have just written something that I found enjoyable!

    (But I know what really you meant and look forward to the day)

  11. November 22, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    MIND MELD: Writing Tools and Exercises…

    [Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Please let us know!] November is National Writing Month, the month of Nanowrimo. In celebration, this week’s question involves Nanowrimo and other writing exercises: Q:What is the value of writing……

    Posted by SF Signal
  12. November 23, 2011 @ 5:11 pm

    Great Topic!

    Your discussions reminded me of a “dumb’ thing a character did in a book/movie – but it is one of the essential scenes. It’s the ending scene in No Country For Old Men where the Sheriff decided to go back to the hotel to try catch Chigurh and the audience is mind-screaming “No! What the heck are you doing! Get outta there! He’s behind the door!” as we see Chigurh laying in wait.

    I remember it being a great point of discussion of what really happened. Alternate universe of coin flip? Schroedinger’s Chigurh? The mind’s eye of the Sheriff? Different rooms?

    Definitely one of the ways a dumb move makes the story.

    Posted by Nichas
  13. November 23, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

    If you’re looking for the words behind the dumb moves, search no farther! Go right over here to the transcript…

    Posted by Mike Barker
  14. November 25, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

    Thanks Howard.

    Posted by Tony
  15. December 1, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

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    Posted by Geoffrey Stokker
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