Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Foolish characters make for great stories

Not all stories have a traditional good guy and bad guy, nor should they. Readers love compelling characters, and they love conflict that propels a story forward. However, no requirement dictates those characters must wear either black or white hats. Many shades of gray reflect personality, decision processes, lifestyles, character traits, and the list goes on.


One option that steps away from the black hat/white hat scenario is a foolish character that unwittingly (or not) upends the lives of a spouse, friends, family, workmates, etc. How can such unwise characters keep readers turning pages? Let's consider a story possibility where foolish choices rule the roost and drive the story to a costly conclusion.

Tears coursed down Marisa's cheeks and fell onto the clothes she was throwing into the large suitcase. She brushed them away, but they persisted. The last thing she wanted to do was leave Tom, but reality was a stern teacher, an unforgiving taskmaster, a destroyer of dreams.  

She'd adored him since second grade, and they'd dated all through high school. He'd seemed so brave when he broke his leg jumping out of the large maple tree, and when he nearly drowned after losing his balance trying to walk the safety rail on the foot bridge over Cooper's Creek, and, as a high  school senior, when he had ended up in the emergency room following an unsuccessful attempt to shinny up the goal post after their team scored the winning touchdown. He had made her laugh with his quirky sense of humor and nearly scared her to death when he never walked away from a dare. It was an exciting life.


All the popular girls wanted to be Tom's one-and-only, but he'd chosen her. They married a year after graduation, and in her heart she knew she was the happiest bride in the world. Deciding to put off having the children she wanted until they'd saved enough for a down payment on a home, they both found decent-paying jobs, and she spent twelve years depositing the funds in a savings account that would secure their future. Still the foolish, daring boy she had known all her life, he got himself into situations a wise person would have avoided, and he invaded their savings account more than once for some frivolous purchase or to pay a gambling debt. Then the house next door to the home she grew up in—the one where her best friend had lived—went on the market. It was time.

A trip to the bank on her lunch hour to withdraw enough to cover the earnest money sent her into a tailspin. The account balance had dropped to less than five hundred dollars. Tom had withdrawn $35,000 just the month before; he'd neither discussed it with her nor even mentioned it to her. As soon as he walked in the door from work, she'd asked for an explanation. He said it was for an investment that would make them rich, and then maybe they could buy a house; he assured her it was a foolproof venture, and they'd triple their money within five years. It was the last straw.

She totally lost it. An argument followed. He ran out of the house to escape her caustic words and tried to jump the picket fence surrounding the front yard. Unable to clear the top, he attempted to land in a standing position. Instead, he hit bottom first, straddling a small pile of boards he hadn't put away after doing a fence repair. He recovered quickly from the emergency surgery to address the physical damage, but the injury was permanent; they would never be able to have children. It was over.

Tom is obviously the fool here, but Marisa is not a paragon of wisdom. She had witnessed his stupid behavior all the years they were growing up, but still she married him. She also gave him continued access to the savings account despite the fact he hadn't demonstrated any financial responsibility. Wiser decisions throughout both their lives would likely have led to a very different outcome.

Foolish characters give stories flavor, color, and unpredictability. They don't need to carry guns or kidnap victims or stalk innocent people. In fact, nonviolent, non-adversarial antagonists can be the most destructive of all.

Do you include foolish characters in your stories? If so, how do you use them?


Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and romance. You can contact her at websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

12 comments :

  1. That's an interesting portrayal of a foolish character, and well done, but I think it's more Marissa than it is Tom. I have one character in one of my books who is a buffoon, but he drives the story. In the end he gets his just rewards, but he's a victim of his own lasciviousness. Those characters are fun to write, but it's a fine line to keep them from becoming caricatures.

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    1. You make an excellent point, Polly. Marissa is indeed an enabler. Rather than calling Tom on his behavior, she has, perhaps unwittingly, condoned it. Both are obviously foolish, and it might be interesting to explore their childhoods to see how each became who they are now.

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  2. The fool character is the one the audience finds maddening, shouting at the screen: "Why are you letting him get away with that. You idiot." :) But they are a source of conflict in any genre. There's often a weak link that causes problems for the hero and even the antagonist: the family thief, the alcoholic, drug addict, or ignorant bumbler.

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  3. You're right that the fool character doesn't have to be the antagonist. He or she can cause trouble for everybody, adding another element to a story and possibly contributing to an ending nobody (including the reader) saw coming.

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  4. It's a very fine line, and probably better for a supporting character or minor character to be so foolish. I've read far too many books featuring TSTL (to stupid to live) protagonists recently that my hackles begin to rise when pure stupidity becomes a plot device. Quite often when an author makes a protagonist too skillful, the only way that protagonist can fail is to make a silly mistake. Sometimes this can be better solved by removing some of the protagonist's awesome skills, while still maintaining their intelligence and level-headedness.

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    1. You make an excellent point, Elle. I agree that a foolish secondary character can throw enough stumbling blocks into the paths of protagonists to create havoc and perhaps even alter the apparent trajectory of the plot. When dealing with a foolish main character, that character mustn't come across as the village idiot. In the example above, I did not address Tom's redeeming qualities or present any reason for the reader (or his wife) to like him or sympathize with him. However, those qualities would need to exist for Marisa to be so distraught about her decision to leave him and for the reader to agonize with her. As you note, a fine line lies between great characterization and an irritant that spoils the story. It's never a good idea to cross it.

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    2. I'm glad you made this clarification to Elle, Linda. I was about to write a similar response. I see what you mean about this use of a foolish character, but I don't think I'd like to read a book with one like Tom or Marissa as main characters. Probably because I really can't stand foolish people in real life. LOL

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    3. I should have been more specific in the article by noting that only the foolish qualities were addressed. Those mentioned were not intended to be the focus of the story but rather to be personality flaws that surfaced from time to time and ultimately stretched the relationship until it snapped. Obviously, there has to be a lot more to the story. Next time, I'll be careful to present a more balanced story description. As for foolish people, I don't tolerate them well either. :-)

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    4. That makes perfect sense, Linda - and please don't think I was picking on your story example (as I know these are always too short to present the whole context). I just wanted to point out that sometimes authors are too quick to take the easy was out of a plot hole they've created by having their protagonist make really cringe-worthy mistakes, and that it's worth a rethink (or even some re-characterisation). Foreshadowing foolish behaviour is definitely the way to make better use of such an element - as you did perfectly in your example by indicating that Tom had injured himself multiple times in the past in similarly foolish ways.

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    5. Other viewpoints, additions, and clarifications are always welcomed because these add depth and round out the big picture. I've walked away from books and sometimes even authors that did not pull me into a story with a relatable protagonist I could empathize with and cheer on. :-)

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  5. Great post, Linda! Yes, I do like to use foolish characters in stories, but I find they're usually the bad guys. :D

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  6. They do make great bad guys, don't they? :-)

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