Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stupid Character Syndrome

Those of us who read romance novels have all seen it. You know what I'm talking about - the woman in danger thing where the heroine has rocks in her head and can't resist following the bad guy into obvious danger even though you KNOW it's the dumbest idea since...well, EVER. Personally, I see a "heroine" do this and I feel like slapping the character and then banging my head against the wall in frustration.

I watched a movie on television today, based on a romance novel, and this type of thing happened. Of course, the woman character got caught when she should have been fleeing the scene as fast as a gazelle on the Serengeti. She couldn't even bother to flee through the woods. No, she had to run down the middle of the road in high heels where her evil ex-husband could not only see her (he'd be blind to miss her) but could aim a weapon at her and shout at her to stop from a distance of 100 yards. Hell, even I know that if you zigzag while running, he's unlikely to hit you, even from a much closer range. And it would draw attention and other people who could help would be alerted. But noooo, the character does the most stupid, asinine thing possible and stops. This, my friends, this is Stupid Character Syndrome.

Of course, it doesn't only happen in romance novels/movies - it happens in horror movies too. A group of teenagers decide to split up to explore a haunted house. Let me slap my hand against my forehead now.  All I can think is, "Can't you hear the scary music? You're all going to get whacked!" And sure enough, within ten minutes those kids are swiss cheese. 

So why do writers continue to write this kind of thing? Is it to make the reader feel so much more superior and intelligent than the character? Is it to ratchet up the suspense? Is this the way writers see women in general? Or is it just to annoy the hell out of their readers/viewers?

Fortunately, in romance novels, this kind of thing is dying a well-deserved death. Readers want to be able to respect and identify with an intelligent, gutsy heroine. Who wants to identify with a total airhead? I know I don't and I'm guessing that no one else does either. But every once in a while, I come across this type of character behavior and I literally throw the book to the floor and sometimes I stomp on it for good measure (only paperbacks though, hard cover books leave dents - I have hardwood floors). Of course, then I have to pick up the thing and dump it into recycling. And I know I have wasted $8 on a book with an idiotic heroine. I HATE that.

I realize that a tragedy is more about a character's flaws and that's what makes the tragedy. If only the character had made different choices, there would have been a chance at a decent ending. And I know that romance novels guarantee a happy ending. But quite honestly, if a character is that dumb, do they deserve a happy ending? Let her gutsy friend have the happy ending, instead of the victim. 

With so many women reading romance novels (and I know this because sales of romance novels account for 60% of book sales, so you're out there, don't bother to deny it), I think women characters should be portrayed as intelligent, strong, gutsy and vulnerable.  Just like real women. The hero and heroine characters should be role-models - showing how one can go from despair and fear to triumph against the odds, overcoming obstacles and achieving self-awareness and courage. Courage isn't a lack of fear, courage is doing something despite the fear, sometimes because of the fear. Those are the people we admire in real life, so why should fiction be any different?

So many people say that they would never have the guts to do one or another thing. Go back to school, love after disappointment, travel, change careers, change jobs, move. You name it, people have said they don't have the guts. People allow their fears to define them negatively. I can't do this, I can't do that. Yadda, yadda, yawn, snore, zzzzzz. And so, some people read romance novels where the character grow and learn, because they wish they could be the same but they're too intimidated to do what they really want to do in their own lives.

I think writers have a responsibility to their readers. To show what's possible. To show what's achievable. Air new ideas and perspectives. And to show that even though circumstances are not ideal, that there are always decisions to be made, even if you don't like the choices. 

Whether the outcome is happiness or sadness, triumph or defeat, the characters should grow and hopefully not make too many ill-advised decisions. Like running down the middle of the road in stilettos where someone can shoot them.

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