Even Smart Characters Make Dumb Mistakes

by Jason Black

We writers spend a lot of effort making sure our characters act smart. After all, a certain intelligence and cleverness goes hand-in-hand with being a protagonist. Exceptions (Forrest Gump) are rare. This goes double for antagonists; a dumb antagonist is too easy to defeat, and where’s the drama in that?

Except sometimes we need our characters to make mistakes. Perfect characters are boring to read. Mistakes tend to make a character’s situation worse, which heightens the drama and tension in your story. A sudden mistake can make readers gasp in alarm. A mistake the reader sees coming but the character doesn’t can make us laugh or cringe.

The question is, how can your smart characters do dumb things without undermining the reader’s general faith in their intelligence? Fortunately, it’s the way the character makes the mistake—not the mistake itself—that affects the character’s portrayal. All you really need is a good reason for the mistake. Here are three common reasons people fall prey to all the time.

The bandwagon effect

Did your mother ever ask you, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Of course you wouldn’t; that’s obviously a bad idea. But the world is a complicated place, and often it’s not so easy to make those choices. So we look for shortcuts. One is to use other people’s behavior as a proxy for our own thinking.

For example, if we see two restaurants side by side, and only one has a line of people at the door waiting to get in, we’re likely to conclude that one is the better of the two restaurants. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an awful grease-pit, about to be shut down by the health department, but the owners decided to go out with a bang by holding a “5-cent beer night” special and putting up flyers all over the local college campus.

That’s the bandwagon effect, and it can be quite powerful. It can readily overwhelm rational decision making with emotional decision making. See if there’s a crowd you can create in your novel that you could use to sucker your protagonist into a bad decision. It doesn’t have to be a big one. Even a small crowd of one or two people the character respects can be enough.

The isolation effect

 This is confusing the ease of remembering examples of some event with the actual likelihood of it happening. Our gut feeling of whether something is likely or unlikely to happen has more to do with whether we can easily remember experiencing or hearing about it before. When those easily-accessed memories are also highly emotional ones, they have enormous ability to influence behavior.

Thus, you can manipulate your character into making plausible yet irrational decisions by means of  emotionally charged memories—ones that will be easy for the character to remember—but that bias the character away from the sensible choice.

Imagine your character witnesses a crime. We all know the smart thing to do is report it to the police. But that might mess up your whole plot, if the police get involved too early. Why not put a bad police experience into the character’s backstory? Maybe when the character was a kid, his dad had a similar experience, did the smart thing, but then ended up being treated as a suspect too. Maybe the cops showed up at the dad’s place of business, asked a bunch of baseless and embarrassing questions, which caused the dad to lose his job and the family to lose their home. A character with this backstory might well fall sway to the isolation effect and, by over-estimating the risk of being falsely accused, choose not to go to the cops.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new information in support of what you want to believe. For example, imagine you get it into your head that now is a good time to refinance your house. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t; you’ll have to do the math to really know. But let’s say you turn on the news and hear that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went down by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, lower rates! I’m going to call the bank right now!” On the other hand, let’s say instead that the Fed’s prime interest rate just went up by a quarter of a point. You’re likely to think “Ooh, I’d better call the bank now, before the rates go up too much!”

It didn’t matter what the actual news was. The evidence—any evidence—got twisted to support the conclusion you already wanted to make. That’s confirmation bias.

The great thing about confirmation bias for novelists is that it works so very well with ambiguous information. Which, let’s face it, is about 99% of what we encounter in our lives. So when you have a character on the brink of making a bad decision you need them to make, all you need to do is drop some new piece of ambiguous information on them, and watch them interpret it (or misinterpret it) to support the bad decision.

The other fun thing you can do with confirmation bias, depending on your book’s point of view, is to let the reader believe something different than the character. Create a situation in which the reader can interpret the ambiguous evidence in the opposite way as the character. In that way the reader can watch the character shoot himself in the foot while still fully understanding why the character makes the wrong choice.

Those are just three common patterns for bad thinking. Google up a list of logical fallacies, and with a little thought you’ll see dozens of other ways to have your smart characters make dumb decisions.

Jason BlackComment