If fiction is a streamlined and well-organized version of reality, why on earth should we want one of our characters to make a stupid decision?
That would smell of deus ex machina from a mile away, wouldn’t it?
Now, while this position is understandable, it’s not true. Stupid decisions are part and parcel of ordinary existence and as a result they have an important part also in fiction. The only caveat is that they should be just as streamlined and well- organized as the rest of the story is.
As for the deus ex machina issue, just imagine: your heroine is hiding in a closet, and enemy soldiers are looking for her. The antagonist — the soldiers’ commander — walks up to the closet, looks at it and he’s about to open it, but then he turns and goes out into the backyard, barking at his men to follow him.
This is a terrible case of deus ex machina. Besides, your supposed heroine does nothing. Nothing at all. She’s passive.
Now, passivity could be countered easily. For example, a nearby explosion could divert the antagonist’s attention. But such an explosion should be one your heroine herself has set up in a previous scene, otherwise you’ll be replicating your damn deus ex machina device all over again.
If you’re curious, head over to my post about the deus ex machina literary device. Instead, here I want to focus on stupid decisions in fiction and the way you can slip them into your story in a way that feels organic and pertinent.
Stupid is as stupid does
First, you can work on your characters. Indeed, the easiest way to have a character make a stupid decision is to depict them as someone who’s far from bright. However, you don’t need a perfect dumb-ass. More often than not a simpleton or a brainless bully is enough.
This approach can work for some settings. However, if your character is someone whose judgement can’t be trusted… chances are she is a minor character and not the hero you want to depict in your story.
Of course, there are exceptions — books where the protagonist is the opposite of a genius — but in general in such books the story revolves around the paradox of the handicap the protagonists suffer and the success they nonetheless obtain. In this respect Forrest Gump by Winston Groom comes to mind.
If you don’t want to focus on the above mentioned dynamic, whose scope is necessarily limited, but you still want to have your protagonist to make stupid decisions, then you must rely on other resources.
For example, let’s say your heroine is a loving and brilliant mum who after a car accident suffers from bouts of depression. She’s treated both with medication and psychotherapy sessions. But the drugs her therapist prescribes her alter her personality and worsen her health.
As a reader you know the therapist is doing this on purpose, but she doesn’t. So you read on and see her make a series of bad decisions that bring her to a breakdown.
Then, right when your heroine hits the bottom, thanks to a minor event that prevents her from taking the therapist’s drugs for a while, her reasoning powers gradually come back to her. So she discovers what her therapist was doing and… I think you get the idea.
In this example, stupid decisions are part and parcel of the plot. Besides, stupid decisions or not, readers are on the heroine’s side, no doubt about it.
Also depending on the genre you’re writing in, instead of drugs you can use poison, illness, magic, nanobots, whatever you can think of. What matters is to put your heroine in an altered state of mind. Do this convincingly and you’ll be able to steer her through a whole labyrinth of stupid decisions.
Trust and Information
At night a policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. The drunk says he’s lost his keys. So they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes, the policeman asks if he is sure he’s lost them there. The drunk says that no, he lost the keys in the park. Surprised, the policeman asks why he is searching them here under the streetlight, and the drunk says because here is where the light is.
This story exemplifies the streetlight effect, a cognitive bias that affects the soundness of one’s conclusions because such conclusions are often based on low quality data.
In your story you can set up something similar. To start with, your hero could make a damn stupid decision because he’s unaware he doesn’t have access to all the data he needs. Or, he could make a stupid decision because he acts accordingly to some piece of information he’s been given by someone he trusts, but that’s rubbish.
Honor and such
Your heroine could end up messing up majestically also sticking to some values she believes in. For example, she could honor a promise, defend her homeland, or follow a religion.
In such cases I think the phrase, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, is notably apt.
In fact, actions guided by good intentions can have undesirable consequences.
For example, appealing to an ideal of justice a man could refuse to pay the Mob in exchange for protection. But so doing , when the Mob retaliates, he might end up having to witness the massacre of his whole family.
From here it’s up to you. You can turn that man into a sort of Terminator. Or into a priest burdened by guilt and regret who’s on a quest for atonement.
Even if heroes should never be only emotionally-driven, it’s a fact that emotions play a large part in our everyday life. As a result, if your hero makes a stupid decision because he’s fallen in love, many readers will sympathize with him.
Such is the power of emotions. And this is why even books that aren’t a paragon of good writing still can sell a lot.
If you think about it, you’ll notice that in romance books you can find a good number of characters who make a lot of bad emotionally-driven decisions. Love is complicated indeed at times.
But romance novels aren’t an exception. For instance, also in horror stories decisions based on love can lead to horrific developments.
Vampire stories are a glaring and evergreen example. But think also of a novel as Pet Cemetery by Stephen King. If it’s not some kind of love, what is it that can lead parents to bury their recently-deceased children in an Indian cemetery in the hope they might soon come back from the dead?
Yin and Yang
Did you notice? Stupid decisions aren’t exceptions in a story. They constitute a large part of the whole structure in many types of stories. Indeed, they often offer the backdrop against which the heroes can redeem themselves.
The ones I’ve just hinted at are the most effective ways you can use to lead your hero to make a stupid decision. If you work diligently on them, you can have your hero making the stupidest decision while keeping the readers’ sympathy.
However, one last thing you should bear in mind: a hero should either make one incredibly stupid decision or several but smaller ones. This is so because no one likes a guy who makes a big stupid decision after the other. A guy who makes a big stupid decision after the other is just a guy — not a hero or a heroine.
In short, keep a balance and follow the path.