Conflict is at the root of storytelling, and there have been some great ones over the years: stalwart good vs. primal evil, innocence vs. corruption, the power-mad vs. the freedom fighters, and so on. But today I’m going to complain about what I find to be the most annoying conflict of all: not talking. I see this conflict show up a lot between people who should be allies, but because they won’t talk to each other, they end up screwing each other over through pointless infighting.
Let me give you a couple of examples from a book I recently threw across the room. The two main characters are a femme fatale bodyguard and the man she’s protecting. At one point, she tells him to go while he insists on staying. This results in a willful battle between the two as he insists on engaging in some unannounced ritual, leaving them open to attack by a pair of opposition agents. Then afterwards, the bodyguard is laid up in the hospital while the protectee heads off to where the bodyguard wanted him to go in the first place.
Sure, we get a chapter or two of action and introspection out of it, but couldn’t we instead have had some more intelligent characters who actually talked about their opposing desires?
“It’s time for us to go.”
“Actually, I need to stay for a while.”
“Well, I need to engage in this little ritual. It’s important for my health. Let me explain it to you so that you can best protect me while I’m performing it, ok?”
“Sure, I’ll tell the rest of the team to wait for us.”
Admittedly, it’s not nearly as exciting, but it doesn’t make me want to smack the characters around for being stubborn idiots.
The next example from that same book involves those opposition agents who had attacked during the ritual. Our heroine managed to fight them off the first time, but they certainly make another appearance later on. We get, of course, another battle between our bodyguard and the opposition agents. The bodyguard wins, but in her weakened state another bad guy shows up to kidnap the protectee away from her. Only then did these opposing agents tell our heroine that they’re trying to protect the same guy she is and that the real bad buy is the one who just now showed up to kidnap him.
Again, we get another chapter or two of action and discussion, but couldn’t we instead have had some sane decisions by these other agents, like maybe warning the bodyguard early on?
“I know you don’t want to trust us, but we want to keep your guy alive too. Our intelligence tells us that the threats have been coming from Big Bad Jones. We’ll be working that angle, but you should be on the lookout for magical eagles in case we fail. Here’s my number if you have more questions.”
Yeah… that would have pulled the conflict out of maybe the first half of the book, so again, it’s not nearly so exciting. However, as it is, I got so annoyed with the stupidity of these heroes that I stopped having any real sympathy for them. Without that sympathy, I stopped caring whether or not they succeeded in their goals, so I would have been perfectly happy to see Big Bad Jones succeed in his poorly explained plan to destroy the world. At least Big Bad Jones had thus far been acting like a reasonable man. Plus he had the magical eagle thing going for him – how cool is that?
And so I stopped reading the book. There are something like four sequels to this book, but I won’t be buying them. Sorry, author, but you shouldn’t have made your heroes act like such pigheaded dolts in the first book.
Yes, I understand that not all characters are perfect. Yes, I understand the appeal of flawed heroes. And yes, I understand that things going wrong prevent the stories from becoming exercises in wish fulfillment. But I just can’t sympathize with a hero who withholds vital information for no good reason. Maybe I’m just being picky, but as your potential reader, that’s my right.
So, what character flaw/mistake/action will you not put up with in a protagonist?
One character flaw I encountered recently, and i’m not sure it was a flaw, was the leading man essentially raping the leading lady, only it’s presented later as not being rape. He was a bit of a chauvinist and had some other interesting traits I didn’t like, but I got a bit pissed when what I read to be rape turned out not to be and I wonder how many other readers also felt that way. Interestingly enough, this book was also written by a woman.
I hate someone suddenly becomes temporarily stupid or acts completely out of character in order to get the plot where the author wants it to go. I understand characters who occasionally act out of character, but it can’t be because the author couldn’t figure out a better way of getting from A to C, plot-wise. That is a bad no-no in my book. (bump-CHIH!)
If the character has a reason for being temporarily dumb or in some other way temporarily incapable, I might excuse it, if it’s not strictly for the reason of moving the plot along. If someone can’t pick a lock because she’s been tied up for hours in the story, that I can believe. But suddenly, her vaunted lock-picking talents fail her for no explicable reason… Lame.