Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don’t go in the Cellar—Why do Characters take Foolish Risks?

We’ve all read the passage--the heroine is home alone when she hears a strange noise coming from the depths of the house.  What could it be?  The reader holds a breath silently praying, don’t go down there.  So what does our heroine do?  Call 911?  No.  Get help? No.  She heads right for the cellar stairs and goes down, often calling out in a loud and frightened voice, “Is anyone there?”
Does the heroine expect a serial killer/burglar/monster to reply “Just me?”  What would she do if there was an answer from below?
Here are examples of some hare-brained decisions that characters often make in books and movies:
***Go down the cellar steps, or into the basement or out into an empty yard after hearing an ominous noise.
***Walking in the direction from which they just heard a suspicious gunshot.
***Keep on walking after hearing footsteps behind them, dogging their path, when they could easily get to safety.
***Take a bath after receiving a threatening phone call. 
***Find an opportunity to make love while on the run with vampires/ the police/a serial killer in close proximity.
***Keep searching for a serial killer after discovering a fresh corpse or a suspicious-looking bag of bones in a house, park, or other secluded place.
***Enter a cave or other dark place unarmed and alone when there are rumors a killer, monster or vampire is present.
In certain genres, such as suspense, gothic romance, and horror, a little foolish risk-taking is expected.  In my above example, how else is the author going to get the heroine in jeopardy? If she doesn’t go down into the cellar, if she calls the police instead, the story is dead in the water.
When faced with this dilemma, authors should try to make the protagonist’s decision as rational as possible so that a potentially dangerous situation doesn’t leave the reader in stitches.

If the writer can make the reader understand the whys of it, they will be more likely to forgive a character for making an impulsive decision. How can a writer accomplish this?  Maybe the protagonist doesn’t trust the police, maybe their fearlessness is a character flaw that often gets them into trouble. While protagonists must often venture into dark and dangerous places, their actions should be justifiable and make as much sense to the reader as possible.