Probably one of the most frustrating audience experiences in the world is when a character doggedly, determinedly does something very stupid. You see a character, say, utterly refusing to listen, or pursuing one goal without ever considering that, hey now, this might not be a bright idea, and it creates a sort of tension in the back of your head, like someone’s taking the lobes back there and slowly twisting them.
Stupidity and mistakes, you see, are things that have to be earned. All character actions must be earned, but stupidity has to be earned even more, I think – because it is the mistakes characters make, and their lack of foresight, that often drives forward great stories. Think of Greek tragedies, or Shakespeare, in which one character’s ignorance of the actions of another results in terrific, tragic ironies. Poorly done, these may feel like either contrivance, or something out-of-character.
Because these ignorances and actions (or lack of them) have to exist for a reason. And when there isn’t a very good reason there, it drives the audience nuts – because they can just see the resolution there, right in the open, but the character says, “NO, I WILL CONTINUE IGNORING EVERYTHING AND DO THE DUMB THING,” and it’s worse than in a horror movie when you can see the killer sneaking up on someone.
There are two shows that recently became first-rate offenders of unearned stupidity on behalf of plot. The first premiered its fourth season last night, and it showed no signs of fixing the issues that have become painfully obvious from season two: Downton Abbey.
I’ll summarize the example I witnessed last night (spoilers for anyone who cares):
The Lord of the estate, Grantham, previously had to share power with Matthew Crawley, the estate’s heir. Matthew has died, and now his half of the power could go to his wife, Grantham’s daughter, Mary. Mary is in mourning, and no less than three characters continue to speak up and say, “Managing the estate could make her happy!” But Grantham insists on not involving her, because she is fragile and in mourning, etc.
Now, this could be a functional conflict. For example, this could be a point where we explore Grantham as a product of repressed patriarchy – “I do not wish to share power with a woman, even if she is my daughter.” Why not? Well, the series has always been terribly wishy washy about criticizing the elite: if anything, every damn rich person on this show is secretly a big ol’ sweetheart and is only employing servants out of what is apparently a sense of charity. So Lord Grantham, who has previously been sort of a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold-I’m-only-involved-in-this-corrupt-system-to-help-people kind of guy, can’t about face and suddenly be a rich shit scrabbling to control everything. Even if that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
(This presumes Grantham’s character has been solid and stable for the past three seasons. It has not, however – another frustration. You can’t get involved in a character unless you can reasonably expect what they’ll do.)
Another way this story could work would be if Grantham were actually concerned about Mary, growing neurotically protective about shielding his child after such a devastating loss. There’s drama to be mined there. But it appears to nearly everyone that he’s mostly concerned with running the estate: Mary is the least of his concerns. This makes him out to be sort of a wincing, passive-aggressive turd, someone who isn’t strong enough to grab power and say, “MINE!” but also isn’t willing to give up power. He’s making a lot of noise, but he’s not doing anything. And he’s also not actually giving a crap about his incredibly depressed daughter, which is just hunky dory.
On top of all this, the show hugely prolongs this stupid conflict. Grantham seems to have an endless line of advisors telling him to get Mary involved, and he says almost the exact same line to each of them: “No, very fragile, must leave alone, thanks.” The damn thing goes on forever. This is something that could be sorted out with just a conversation, it feels: 4 minutes of show time at most.
It eventually begins to feel that he is opposing her solely to oppose her: which is exactly what the writers are doing. Grantham is not a person in this scenario: he operates solely as an obstacle to Mary’s arc. He’s a device, he’s not a person. He’s just a thing that unreasonably stirs up conflict for the sake of doing so. These sorts of problems riddle this show’s writing, where conflict is spun on and on and on and it feels like if everyone was just a reasonable person, this show would take place within about 16 minutes, rather than nine 1-hour episodes (or whatever it is).
Let’s look at another show very much on the other end of the TV spectrum: The Legend of Korra.
This is, of course, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and while everyone knew that it was likely Korra would suffer to a certain extent in the shadow of what was a universally acclaimed, incredibly beloved series, I don’t think anyone thought it would devolve into the steaming bucket of dreck that it did.
There are a bunch of issues with this show, among them that there isn’t a sustained conflict like Avatar had, and that there are no real stakes or threats for the main character, Korra: each season, a new Big Huge Problem has to be invented, and the show must contrive to get some of Korra’s skin in the game, beyond just the, “Well, I’m the avatar, it’s my job to give a crap about this kind of stuff.” This is neither satisfying, nor compelling.
But the big issue that makes this show so frustrating to watch is that everyone’s an irredeemable idiot. For example: Korra’s homeland gets invaded. She goes to the President (someone we’d never seen before) for help, and he refuses. So what does she do? She goes to the general directly underneath the President and asks him to basically commit treason, and go off and wage a war with her. And he agrees. As if to say, “Sure, I wasn’t doing anything today, let’s go kill some people and start an international conflict!”
This is dumb. Unimaginably dumb. Just, incredibly dumb. And they get caught, and rather than having them both shot – as most leaders might do – the President just gives them a stern talkin’-to. So not only was this dumb, but it was also pointless. One gets the impression that, like Downton Abbey, the writers grew aware of how much time they had to fill, and decided that the easiest way to do so was to fill it with very dumb characters prolonging non-issues.
But let’s also look at another example in this show, where Chief of Police Lin Beifong – possibly the best character from season 1, and a distinct influence on City of Stairs - is presented with some evidence from one of her detectives, a main character, about a public attack in the city. What does she do? Does she investigate? Does she follow up on his leads? Does she listen to him for more than 9 seconds? Absolutely not. She just shuts him down, calls him a rookie, and refuses to listen about what is quite obviously The Real Plot in this storyline.
This is outrageously frustrating to watch, because previously she had been a highly competent character. BUT, in this situation, she can’t be, because then she would see the problem and fix it – and for the plot to continue, the detective needs to “go rogue” and do some old-school investigatin’, which the show apparently deems much more interesting. So Beifong must be an idiot this season for that plotline to happen.
So there you are. A handful of examples of what is, for the audience, one of the most egregious types of Bad Writing.
Now, this is actually much easier to do in writing than one would imagine. I’ve done it myself, when I write a synopsis, and then months later when I’m way down in the guts of writing the story, I go back and check the synopsis/outline and think, “I need to make this thing I said was gonna happen actually happen.” And so I force it, and this results in some very out-of-character moments that just don’t make sense.
It is, for me, a very inorganic and bad way to write, and it always results in someone who ordinarily would be smart enough to do The Smart Thing suddenly having to do The Dumb Thing in order to Make The Plot Go.
In the end, I usually have to go back and completely restructure the plot, because a plot is a living thing that gets dictated by the evolution of the characters. If you want your characters to live and breathe, then the plot must also do so. Is this easy to do? No, not really. But it’s necessary if you want to avoid having the audience members slap their heads in unison as they watch your characters fumble around like a bunch of damn loons.