It occurred to me this week that editors, reviewers, and readers share a pet peeve: We are highly intolerant of stupidity. We want our books peopled by intelligent characters who do smart things and make all the right choices. Anything less and we feel as though the writer is insulting our intelligence. Or, equally unpleasantly, we feel as though the novelist has been lazy about plotting, or doesn't have the psychological insight required to write effective characters.
What, really, is more realistic than stupidity? I think we can all agree that we see multiple examples of it every single day (particularly on the road). In reality, not all people have IQ's well above the one-teens. And of course plenty of us are brilliant in some areas and downright idiotic in others. I can edit a manuscript like nobody's business and see through tiny plot holes even on a fast read. But can I keep track of time and date? Absolutely not. I look at my watch thinking it's 11 a.m., when it is really 2 p.m. and I have missed two meetings. I can find my way out of an underground cavern in the pitch black, but when I try to play video games with my children, my avatar is dead within seconds, because I have fallen into a booby trap or off a cliff. And so on.
The point I'm trying to make is that nobody, not even smart people, can be smart all the time or in all conditions. And it's those really dumb moments that can help drive a plot. I think my favorite "stupid moment" of all time can be found in Alfred Hitchcock's film version of DuMaurier's "The Birds." Tippi Hedren, who knows damn well that something really bad is happening inside that attic, can't stop herself from opening the attic door. Is this stupid? Yes. But I understand it at a more visceral level...it makes sense to me. It's that human compulsion to stop and stare at car wrecks, or the desire to take hold of your fear by confronting it, because you hope against hope that the birds are NOT there in the attic, and once you've ascertained that fact you can go to sleep peacefully, even if all the evidence points to the fact that YES, there are thousands of ravens in the attic just waiting to peck out your eyes.
So what I'm asking is that we have a bit more tolerance for stupidity, as it really is such a fabulous and realistic driver of plots and human interaction. Where would drama be without people behaving in stupid ways to one another? The goal, of course, is for the writer to make the stupidity understandable. Fortunately, the mystery allows for this, because a mystery usually throws someone into unexpected situations; and in unexpected situations, where we don't know the scripts or the rules, it's easy to behave in ways that third-party observers might consider dumb. It's also pretty easy, in real life, to miss things right beneath our noses; again, in the hands of a good writer, such scenarios will come across as highly realistic rather than "stupid." (For instance, my wife has maintained for years that one of her friends was in love with me. I brushed this off as ridiculous. And then, before the friend moved far away, she sent me a note in which she drunkenly verified everything my wife had feared. When I mentioned this episode to a couple of close friends, they shook their heads sadly and pointed out how it was obvious to everyone except me.)
Of course, the sub-genre that lends itself to the most credible acts of stupidity is the amateur sleuth, who often finds herself in way over her head. But even those hard-boiled cops can do dumb things, such as falling for the wrong person, or being misled in love, or thinking they can buck the system and win. As for villains--not all murderers are criminal masterminds; in fact, many are of quite sub-par intelligence, so I'm not opposed to a dumb villain either. As with everything else in fiction, it's not what you do--it's how you do it.