Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Too Stupid to Live...a familiar trope?

The other night I watched an episode of Waking the Dead, a popular and often shocking crime thriller series in the UK (and no, I don’t watch *just* to ogle the yummy Trevor Eve). One of the characters came home late at night, to her flat where she lived alone, having been through a traumatic experience where her younger sister was kidnapped. She crossed the living room to find the balcony window open. The curtain fluttered in the breeze. She looked startled, as if she didn’t remember opening it herself: looked warily around the room.

Then took off her jacket and settled on the couch.

Now come on! How many of us would do that? I can tell you, I’d have been back out of that flat faster than Speedy Gonzales, locking it behind me and racing down to the police station. Doesn’t she ever watch those programmes on the TV?

But no, she sat there until (as anticipated) the spooky villain appeared in the flat, terrifying her. Even then, she didn’t dial 999, but called her sister with a tearful warning. He approached: she backed up to the balcony.

Hey! Again! I’d have done everything I could to get back towards the front door, or maybe the kitchen where I could have grabbed a knife to defend myself.

No. She backed up, toppled over the balcony and died from the fall. No clue left as to who he was, no fibres under the fingernails, no blood spatters from even an abortive knife defence, no scribbled note of his name, no thumping on a neighbour’s wall to alert them she was in trouble.

Amazing that Trevor and his team caught the villain in the end at all!

Well, of course, we know that faced with this horror in real life, most of us – I know I would – would be a blubbering wreck, not a calm-thinking, ballsy heroine. So the show was far more true to life than fiction. But with my tongue just slightly in my cheek, how often do we read about the heroine – or hero, for that matter – suffering from the TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) syndrome?

You know how it is. They follow a suspected murdered down a dark lane / into a forest / up the stairs of an abandoned house. They pursue the fleeing villain, never calling for backup, without any weapon, never telling anyone where they are. They open the door that’s been locked for 10 years / they confront the person they think did it / they fall for the suspect who has a very dubious past or unusual obsession… etc etc.

My favourite? Their witness calls and says “I’ll tell you who did it when you get here”. We all *know* that witness will be murdered by the time our hero/heroine gets there. Why on earth don’t they *insist* the witness gives the info over the phone? Or text it? Even the initials? Please? *sigh*


I’ve been accused in the past of daft plot devices, of allowing my heroes to be distracted by Sexy Romance when they should be concentrating on Devious Mystery, of allowing them to Miss The Critical Clue that any reader with half a brain can spot! (though possibly with the benefit of hindsight *heh*). It’s a tricky job to balance romance and mystery and plausibility. Do you have any helpful tips – so I don’t fall for that again?

In conclusion, Authors, heed this warning: “A damsel in distress does not equate to a stupid woman, so a writer must be careful to draw the reader into the experience without insulting her intelligence”. (Suite101.com).

Or maybe just: “Clare, no Sexy Romance when the balcony window curtain is fluttering.”

19 comments:

Loralie Hall said...

lol - never thought about it along these lines before, but you are so very right. So many horror scenarios fall apart without that character...interesting observation ^_^

Toni Anderson said...

I'm pretty sure I'm too stupid to live in many ways :) However, I would be screaming the name down the phone and any open windows would be met with microscopic searches of all foot-square hiding places (b/c some people are flexible) and followed by a counting of the kitchen cutlery.
I do think, as a writer, characters don't have to do the perfect thing in response to danger every time--it just isn't plausible. I see how I react to the smallest excitement in my life and know anything could happen if a bad guy came through the door...

Toni Anderson said...

PS. Love WAKING THE DEAD.

Wynter Daniels said...

That drives me crazy. The TSTL heroine should be shot. Since I can't do that, I usually just give up on the book or movie.

Tam said...

I probably would sit on the couch but only because I've never had my sister strangled in the apartment. LOL One day my daughter came home from school to find the door ajar. Turns out she didn't close it properly when she left for school. Yes, she went in.

I read something recently where the guy had a GUN in his hand and when confronted by a werewolf of horror movie proportions, he freaked out, stumbled around, fell over, freaked out and generally acted like a chick in high heels. I was kind of yelling at him (silently in my head) to "Shoot damn it, shoot, you're American and have a gun!" Okay. the gun wouldn't have killed said werewolf but it's the thought that counts.

I'd like to think I would at least have some kind of basic self-preservation instinct which would have me fighting for my life not flailing around like an idiot. And yes, why not just tell someone over the phone? That annoys me because real people don't do that. Okay, I have little tolerance for TSTL people. LOL Then I'm kind of happy when they get murdered. Cleaning up the gene pool and all that. :-) Lordy I'm harsh.

Essayel said...

I watched that WTD episode and thought the same! Though, to be brutally fair, they had already established that that particular character was going to curl up like a snail when placed under stress. Didn't stop me bouncing in my seat and suggesting she lamp him with blender or whatever came to hand. I forgot to watch the second part, too, so I have no idea about the denouement.
This is an irritating trope that crops up again and again. WHY go to Dracula's castle as the sun goes down. Wouldn't 9 am be more sensible? If there's a sound reason why they have to go at that time - for instance, she has to go back in the house with the killer because her kids are asleep upstairs or because she honestly doesn't know he's there - then I accept it, but it's very hard to care about characters who are just plain loopy.

Alex Beecroft said...

I would have grabbed the fire poker or a knife and searched the house, which is still stupid (since I know I'm not up to much in a fight), but at least active. And you can't be phoning the police every time you suspect there's something spooky going on or when you need them they won't come.

josephine-myles said...

Hehe, it's silly isn't it, but I suppose sometimes stupidity is confused with bravery. Mind you, better to obliviously confront the villain armed only with a cushion than to cower behind the sofa. Probably. I suppose it depends on what they're armed with and whether it can be deflected with a bundle of fluff.

Clare London said...

Loralie - *hehe* of course, I think it means we *need* these characters sometimes, or the book/programme would be over too quickly!

Toni - rubbish! no way you're TSTL *pets*. Remember, I'm exaggerating here for fun LOL. And yes, I think a lot of us would - and do - do stupid things. But I'm sure I'd TRY to give the hero a clue over the phone...:).

Wynter - it's a fine line between racking up the suspense and wanting to throw the book at the wall :).

Tam - the open-door thing is a raw memory to me in a different way. We came home one weekend after visiting friends to find it difficult to open the front door, as if it had stuck. We found out later it's a common burglar's trick - they bolt the front door from the inside to alert them if the house owner comes home early. Blissfully unaware, we just forced the door open and went right on in :). Luckily no one was still around - though unluckily they'd taken all my jewellery and the computer - but it just goes to show that we think the best of things first.

(you don't want to cleanse me from the gene pool now, do you...? O_O)

Tam said...

(you don't want to cleanse me from the gene pool now, do you...? O_O)

Heh. Not yet. I think most of us assume an innocent explanation. Now if 3 of your neighbors faced the same issue and you KNEW that, then yes, I'd be annoyed, but it would never occur to me that it could be a criminal thing. Afterall, I blamed my teenager for not locking the door properly. :-)

Clare London said...

Essayel - I don't feel so intolerant now I know you thought the same :). "was going to curl up like a snail when placed under stress." Fabulous phrase! And I'll email you later if I remember to let you know what happened LOL.

Alex - well, that's true, there'd be the "cry wolf" syndrome. Plus these characters only have the *one* instance of drama, whereas we readers/viewers are living it regularly, and can afford to get cynical LOL. And you're braver than I am - I'd pick up a poker but only if faced with attack. If I had to go looking for it... no way :).

Jo - oh yes, bravery is necessary, and especially for our heroes. But can't you arm them with something other than a cushion?! Maybe it's all about the power of the mind ... no, I think I'd still run away :).

MaureenAMiller said...

Oh Clare, this is so true. You hit the nail on the head. Sometimes I will turn on horror movies simply to watch how stupid the people can possibly get. Each time they amaze me all the more!

But I admit, I would probably turn into a blubbering pile of mush if I was thrown into some of these crazy situations. Fortunately I haven't had anyone chase me with a saw recently. :)

Marcelle Dubé said...

What particularly irritates me is the fact that the TSTL character is usually female. No woman I know would deliberately walk unarmed into a dangerous situation unless she was suicidal. I mean, sheesh.

Elise Warner said...

All right, Clare, how did the police find the murderer? I once did, along with with the people I was working for, a TSTL. Worked a bread and butter temp job at the NY Convention Center. Answered the phone. Voice: "Because you are so nice, I've hidden a bomb in a briefcase that will go off at 1:00 pm." I was smart enough to call security--both Center and Show-- and the police but they all told me not to worry, the chances of a real bomb were quite slight. Dear fellow writers, we sat there and did not evacuate. TSTl.

Janni Nell said...

Oh Clare, I face this all the time - finding a way to keep information hidden without the heroine appearing TSTL. It's so tempting to use the witness phone call - I'll tell you when you get here. Note to self: stop using that one.

Anne said...

Love 'Waking the Dead'.

I do wonder if any of these 'heroines' have watched any of these movies with these tropes. One of those spoofs - Scary Movie I think - worked on just that and made fun of all the tropes, as they do.

Chris said...

I have a really low tolerance for TSTL characters - and they show up in m/m romance, although I think maybe a bit less than in m/f. Usually my reviewette of those books includes the line "I felt like smacking characters."

Shirley Wells said...

I'm a huge fan of Waking the Dead (nothing to do with Trevor Eve at all...) and I felt exactly the same when I saw That Scene. Too stupid to live sums it up. Which I suppose is why she died...

Of course, in the same situation, I'd turn into a complete moron and, yes, I'd probably phone my sister. :)

Clare London said...

Maureen - I know, it's easy for us to watch and scoff from the safety of our armchairs LOL.

Marcelle - hmm, you're right of course :). I prefer it when they make their heroines more kick-ass than the simpering females hanging on their hero's arm! And we're brought up in real life to be more cautious, especially as women.

Elise - *hehe* I have to admit there were a couple of other "suspend disbelief" leaps in police procedure, and then Trevor's character made the connection and confronted the murderer.

That's a scary story about the bomb call! Though I think it's natural to trust the police's experience on it above any personal panic. We used to get them at the bank at least once a year, and they were always hoaxes. Some people need to get a life.

Janni - *lol* I hope to God I haven't made your poor heroine so self-conscious she can't sparkle!

Anne - I think that's why the Scary Movies are such fun. I don't necessarily like all that humour, and they are *really* cheesy sometimes, but the fact they're so cleverly based on the tropes makes them a guilty pleasure for my family.

Chris - *nod* it's a really fine line between an effective plot device and making the reader want to slap the damn character :).

Shirley - this is fun, sharing That Episode with other viewers LOL. But yes, I can sit and smirk when I'm safe at home in front of my TV, but if there were a bloke with a sack on his head coming for me....*shudder*.