Idiot plots, and how to avoid them
I will point out right here that if your plot only works because your characters act like morons (when they are not actually supposed to be), you are writing an idiot plot story. If that’s all you need, you can go on your way right now. You don’t need to read the rant.
1) Decide what level of information your characters have, and make it consistent. The favorite fantasy hero seems to be the clueless kid from a backwater village. He has prophetic dreams and magical powers and a secret hidden destiny, but he knows nothing about it, or at least what it all means, until someone explains it to him.
I hate those kinds of stories, but they do one thing right that keeps them from being idiot plot stories (though it often does not keep them from being painfully stupid). They have explanations. I have a good idea of where the character’s ignorance ends, and if he begins displaying understanding of his prophetic dreams that he didn’t have before, I know it came along in one of those Wise Old Mentor speeches. I may have skimmed those speeches, but at least they were present.
In an idiot plot story, characters’ knowledge fluctuates according to what the author needs, rather than what makes sense. The clueless child at the beginning of the story, who knows nothing about what evil gryphons are capable of, suddenly knows exactly what evil they’re capable of when they actually attack, so that the author can show him defeating them. Or the character who runs away from home because she knows that she’s a beast-speaker and she’ll get no training in her home village suddenly asks, “But what is beast-speaking?” halfway through the story, because the author wants a chance to infodump at the audience. Sometimes you get both of these at the same time. That’s a really special idiot plot right there.
Even if you make specific plot decisions because you fear that otherwise no one will know anything about your world, or because you want your character to look cool, remember that these motivations need to be hidden from the audience. If you show them your contrivances, the plot starts looking, well, contrived. And if no one can figure out what the characters themselves know, they look like exactly what they are: dolls that the author switches on and off as needed.
2) “This magic is highly dangerous!” “Why are you using it like that, then?” Said it before, say it again: The biggest weakness of many fantasists is an overfondness for Drama. If a plot event is big and sparkly and causes grand emotional reactions, most fantasy authors seem to prefer it over something small and quiet and understated.
This isn’t a bad thing, all other factors being equal, which they rarely are. In practice, Drama often warps characterization, plot, setting, language, logic, common sense, and about every other facet of writing there is. If an author comes up with a grand idea in the middle of the story, she can toss it in there without careful retrofitting. A throwaway line, like “It’s always the quiet ones”, is assumed to be enough.
In a fantasy story with an idiot plot, this point of weakness often shows in the story’s magic. The author wants the magic to be Dramatic in every way possible. So it will mow down the protagonist’s enemies in a single blast, with much destruction involved; and it will be rare, possibly unique; and it will be highly dangerous to wield, often up to and including the supposed death of the protagonist and the destruction of the world.
If you don’t see how the third element kind of complicates the first two there, I’ll wait.
But not long, because this is one of my pet peeves. Why, when the hero could accomplish his goal in any other way than this highly dangerous magic, is he using this highly dangerous magic? The author doesn’t bother shutting off his options, or letting him consider that, hey, maybe he should save his power for a last resort, or setting up a situation that will make the possible sacrifice worth it. Instead, throughout the story we get the Drama of what the magic might do, along with spooky warnings, and then we get the Drama of what the magic actually does. Which, you will notice, is often not killing the protagonist and/or destroying the world, no matter what was promised.
Quit it. I have little time for actual idiotic characters, but I have the least time for characters whom the author actually wants me to like and respect—which is most protagonists—and then makes act like idiots. If the protagonist doesn’t even consider another choice, show him getting upbraided good and hard. Or find another way to create Drama than warnings about the magic.
Or—heh—let the magic actually blast him away the way you’ve been promising all story. I think more stupid fantasy protagonists should die from their highly dangerous magic. Survival of the fittest, and all that.
3) Relationships should be more than the means to an end. Sure, you can have a person whose primary purpose for being in the story is to fall in love with the hero/ine, although I do not really think you can do this well. But the story steps closer and closer to an idiot plot the more that every nuance of a relationship was put in there not to be beautiful or amusing or to add to the romance, but to, say, give the main character someone to rescue, or inspire a wedding that the villain can attack at, or start a pregnancy that will cause the character to angst a lot when the villain kidnaps his pregnant wife.
These lead to idiot plots because the author doesn’t bother justifying the events—such as love scenes, conversations, and battles side by side—that lead up to the plot event she really wants to get to. The characters could have spent ten years apart and done things against each other’s deepest convictions, and in the end, it wouldn’t matter. They’re friends or lovers because the author says so. In the worst cases, both characters are stock figures (not that they aren’t already likely to be, if they’re stuck in an idiot plot), and the author has important phases in their relationship take place entirely off-stage. Suddenly, they’re married, and the villain is attacking at the wedding. Who cares about how the characters relate to each other?! Don’t you want to see the villain attack at the wedding?!? He’s got fireballs!!!!
Relationships are one of those elements in a story that can stand some—damn it, I do not have a good name for them, so I am once again resorting to calling them “shadows.” The shadows are ornaments, aspects of the relationship that are there for themselves, not to be a means to an end. They still don’t violate the characterization, and they don’t make the story’s people into stock figures. On the other hand, they don’t exist only because the author needs them to advance the plot. If a relationship is created solely for plot reasons, it’s going to be difficult as hell to get away from, “They’re like this Because I Said So.”
4) “These things we hold to be self-evident (until the author says otherwise).” Fantasy characters are usually deeply passionate people, with strong convictions, beliefs, and motivations. Some of them will try for apathy, but the author does not let them get very far. (The sole common exception I can think of is the “emotionless” character, and they still feel hatred and anger and the like. I wish I could come up with a whole rant on that character type, because it annoys the violet fuck out of me, but I don’t think I could come up with much beyond, “That’s a self-contradiction. Are you stupid, or what?”)
So why does the author try to convince me that these characters are deeply rooted and hard to change, and then change their convictions, beliefs, and motivations like someone channel-surfing?
Examples of this:
-the character who swears undying vengeance and then forgets about it until the villain shows up at the end of the story.
-the character whose most important and driving passion is her own freedom, since she was once a slave, and who is perfectly okay with the fact that her Designated Love Interest subjected her to a magical bond without asking her first.
-the character who knows that she’ll be killed if she stays where she is, desperately wants to live, and yet never tries to escape. More to the point, when someone comes along to offer her help in escaping, she slaps and insults him.
-the character who has excellent reason to conserve his magic and yet uses it up in useless displays to impress people who question him.
-the character who believes passionately in equality for all people and yet gets upset when someone else presumes to address him without his title.
(All of those are from amateur stories except one. Go on, guess which one).
Now, I’m not saying that the character has to think about his belief or conviction or motivation every single minute of the story; it’s understandable that someone’s mind will turn to other things. And, of course, if the author provides an explanation for these changes, such as the character not really being an egalitarian even though he thinks he is, then they’re not contradictions. But most idiot plot authors don’t. The characters believe in or are motivated by whatever’s convenient for the plot at the time. If the author wants to use the middle of the story to infodump on the reader about her world, well, that pesky villain will just have to wait a while, until the author wants the hero to remember his vengeance.
I don’t care how hard it is to keep the plot on track. If you write organically, without an outline—that’s what I do—then it’s your responsibility to go back and check for flaws later. And if you find out that a character is not adequately motivated to spring on the firebreathing dragon’s back and ride it across the city, then you’ll just have to introduce adequate motivation, or else get rid of that section.
5) Essential components of the world can’t just show up whenever they feel like it. I like the kinds of fantasies where the author makes me puzzle and tease out nuances, the functions of certain words or customs or objects, and what Dark Secret the characters are sharing between them, rather than just dumping it all on me at the beginning. I hate the kinds of fantasies where the author gets halfway through the story before mentioning that, “Oh, yes, every mage has to have a mirror to do magic.” I especially hate the kind where plenty of mages have done magic before then, and none of them used a mirror.
You can come up with great ideas on the fly all you want. But, as with Point 2, if you do that, then it’s your responsibility to make sure that they fit seamlessly into the world after story’s end. Something so deeply basic as the mirrors= magic thing should show up pretty damn early, even if it’s just by the author including a mirror in every spell and ritual rather than giving a ten-page infodump on the theory behind it. Then, when the character does something without a mirror later in the book, or breaks his looking glass, the readers can know that this is extraordinarily good/bad/weird, without the author having to look sideways at her audience, say, “Oops, I never mentioned that, did I? Well, I’m mentioning it now!” and run ahead with her idiot plot set in an idiot world.
And, oh, yes. I’m back. *runs about answering comments*