Lauren Carr is the international best-selling author of the Mac Faraday and Lovers in Crime Mysteries. Her new series, The Thorny Rose Mysteries, has just been released.
The owner of Acorn Book Services, Lauren is also a publishing manager, consultant, editor, cover and layout designer, and marketing agent for independent authors. This year, several books, over a variety of genres written by independent authors will be released through the management of Acorn Book Services, which is currently accepting submissions. Visit Acorn Book Services website for more information.
Lauren is a popular speaker who has made appearances at schools, youth groups, and on author panels at conventions. She also passes on what she has learned in her years of writing and publishing by conducting workshops and teaching in community education classes.
She lives with her husband, son, and three dogs on a mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV.
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“Do you think my character is stupid?”
Recently, an author asked me that question about the female lead in her romantic suspense after a reviewer stated “like many women in romantic suspense” her female lead character was “stupid.”
Thus, my friend’s question to me, “Do you think my character is stupid?”
Truthfully, I read a lot of books in which the strong female lead character comes across as less than intelligent. I find that the writer, in his or her effort to force their character, usually an amateur detective, into a suspenseful, thrilling situation, ends up having their lead make decisions that, to most of us, would be considered less than wise.
While lurking on book review sites, it is not uncommon to read poor reviews for mysteries (usually cozy whodunits in which the female protagonist is an amateur sleuth) or suspense novels in which the readers and reviewers will say that the female protagonist ended up in a dangerous situation because of bad decisions. More often than not, that poor decision was not confiding in their hunky detective/police officer boyfriend/husband.
From what I have observed, I believe the problem lies in some writers failing to see the line (I’ll call it pink since it usually involves a female character) between spunky and stupid.
According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the definition of spunky is “full of spirit, courage, and determination.”
The same dictionary defines stupid as “not intelligent: having or showing a lack of ability to learn and understand things.”
As you can see by these two definitions, spunky and stupid are two entirely different things. Sometimes, a writer will have their lead character act in a courageous manner for stupid reasons or without clearly thinking through the situation or considering what could go wrong with their plan of action. This leads to readers and reviewers seeing the protagonist as stupid instead of spunky.
Let me illustrate. Back in my youth, when I thought I was immortal, I went skydiving. I had never even been up in a plane before. My boyfriend at the time had made reservations for lessons and after a full day of learning how to properly jump out of an airplane, what could go wrong, and what to do if something did go wrong, we went high up into the air and jumped out—with parachutes.
Now, jumping out of a perfectly good plane with a parachute after a full day of lessons on how to do this properly (especially when I had never been up in an airplane before) was, in my opinion, “spunky.” It was courageous. (Some of you may disagree.)
However, if I had not taken a full day of lessons—if I had paid a reduced rate to some guy with a plane and gone up in the air and strapped on a chute and jumped out without knowing what I was doing—that would not have been spunky. It would have been an unintelligent decision because I would not have known what I was doing. It would have been tragically “stupid.”
Notice, that one little detail—the decision to accomplish my task—skydiving—and to do it after a full day of carefully examining the pros and cons via those lessons is the pink line between spunk and stupidity.
I can see how easy it would be for a writer, wanting their female protagonist to end up in a hair-raising suspenseful situation that will thrill readers all by virtue of her “spunky” nature, can cross that pink line into the “stupid zone.”
Here are the primary issues that can slip a protagonist across the fine pink line:
• Lack of rationalizing the character’s motivations for the readers. Often, writers fail to adequately explain to their readers why their characters are choosing to behave the way they are.
In the case of my suspense author friend, after reading an early draft of her book, I did believe her character was making a dumb choice, which ended up putting her in harm’s way. Yet, that choice was the catalyst for the whole plot line. She had to make that choice in order for there to be a book. So, the writer rewrote the chapter leading up to that decision to include conversations, etc, explaining the rationalization for her actions.
In rationalizing the protagonist’s actions for the reader, the writer has to examine every other possible avenue—exactly like a real person does when she must make a major decision and address them within the book. That way, readers will know the character has considered other options and will understand her reasons for rejecting those alternatives.
For example, in my latest mystery, Kill and Run, my lead character Lieutenant Murphy Thornton, USN, is investigating a multiple murder case involving a navy petty officer. During the course of his investigation, he discovers a connection between his case and the murder of his stepmother’s first husband.
Of course, his stepmother, Homicide Detective Cameron Gates, is determined to question her only lead, a possible material witness to Murphy’s case. To complicate matters, Murphy’s new wife, Jessica Faraday, insists on going along to question the witness.
It would have been very easy for me to open the chapter in which Cameron and Jessica enter the coffee shop to question the witness—which leads to an exciting action packed gun fight scene with them in the middle.
However, as a writer, I had a duty to my readers, not to mention my characters, to explain why Murphy was allowing his wife to tag along with Cameron to question a witness who he suspected was in danger from the killer. In order to do this, I had to include a whole scene before they entered the coffee shop in which Murphy argued with both Jessica and Cameron. During this scene, readers learned that even though Jessica was a “civilian” she was not totally inexperienced:
◊ She was a licensed private investigator.
◊ She is carrying a gun, has a permit, and has taken gun and self-defense classes since she was a child.
◊ Her father is a noted homicide detective.
◊ She’s being accompanied by a trained and experienced homicide detective.
By the end of this scene, I addressed every possible argument readers would have while adding suspense to the follow up coffee shop scene via Murphy’s concern for Jessica’s safety. Instead of viewing Jessica as a wide-eyed naive young woman playing cops and robbers, she is trained and has knowledge about what she could possibly be walking into—which makes her come across as spunky to my readers.
• Poor reasons for the character’s unwise choices. Let’s say the female protagonist is a chef who is sleeping with the lead detective investigating the murder of her sous chef. She finds the murder weapon baked into a wedding cake.
In this case, the lady chef will need to have an extremely good reason for not calling her detective boyfriend to say, “Hey, honey, I just found the murder weapon!” That is what most normal, intelligent people would do.
Granted, this would not be as suspenseful as having the killer kidnap the chef and lock her in a freezer while he tries to make his escape.
A good reason for not calling would be because she had dropped her cell phone down the garbage disposal and ground it up and the phone lines are down because of a hurricane and she is trapped in the dark with the killer.
A bad reason would be because she tried to call her boyfriend and the call went straight to voice mail and she is just plain too impatient to wait for her honey to get the message so she decides to trot up to the killer and say, “Hey, I just found the murder weapon with your name engraved in the handle. That means you did it. I’m making a citizen’s arrest. Now hand over that gun you have in your pocket and let’s go downtown.”
In a nutshell, writers sometimes need to remind themselves that art imitates real life. While our characters may not be real, their decision making skills and actions need to have one foot in reality. They need to have a good reason for their choices.
Often, it takes some creativity on the writer’s part to put their protagonists in suspenseful situations while making them come across as spunky, without crossing that pink line and making them come across as unintelligent, but then—isn’t that half of the fun, if not all of it, in being a writer?