Why would a character do that?

Over at Kill Zone, editor extraordinaire Jodie Renner discusses a fault she sees all too frequently in manuscripts she reviews:

Have you ever been reading a story when suddenly the protagonist does or says something that makes you think, “Oh come on! Why would he do that?” or “This is crazy. Why doesn’t she…?” or “But I thought he…!” or “I didn’t know he/she could [insert extraordinary ability].” The character seems to be acting illogically, to be making decisions with little motivation or contrary to his personality, abilities, or values.

Renner is right — there’s no better way to lose a reader than to force a character to do something brainless or out of character just to advance the plot. But it happens, and some writers get away with it. In my opinion, the worst example of a character suddenly behaving both out of character and illogically is in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

SPOILER ALERT!

Lisbeth Salander, a plucky computer hacker, figures out that Martin Vanger is the serial killer she and journalist Mikael Blomkvist have been trying to identify. Meanwhile, Blomkvist has also figured out Martin is the killer, but the wily Martin captures Blomkvist and prepares to torture and kill him in his dungeon. Fortunately, Lisbeth sneaks into Martin’s dungeon just in time. Martin, who’s coldly and methodically killed dozens of victims, totally panics and RUNS AWAY from a 90-pound girl armed with — a golf club. Now, Martin’s in his fortress, with guns and other weapons all over the place, but for some mysterious reason, he decides to abandon it by running upstairs and out of the house to his Volvo. Okay.

But it gets worse! Lisbeth chases Martin on her little motorbike. As they race down the mountain, all Martin has to do is tap the brakes, and his pursuer would squish against the rear of his Volvo (which I think is Swedish for “Tank for Civilian Use.”) But no, instead our previously calculating and unflappable villain crashes and ends in a fiery wreck.

And millions found this believable? Give me a break!

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5 thoughts on “Why would a character do that?”

  1. Cormack,

    The two movies differed from the book, where Martin deliberately wrecked. Was that out of guilt? Unlikely. He could’ve run down The Girl With the Dinky Motorbike and he’d be a free psychopath. Remember, Mikael Blomkvist was still chained up back in the dungeon.

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    1. It’s one thing to have the protagonist make a mistake that gets him into even more trouble – that boosts the tension. But when the bad guy does something stupid that lets the good guy win, it looks like cheating – or just lazy story telling.

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