I want to take a brief moment away from my study of dialogue to discuss a peeve of mine. I recently read a mystery novel with a female FBI protagonist. Naming the book will only offend the author, and I don’t like doing that, so I won’t. But I can’t read anything else by her for this reason: the FBI agent/protagonist did something profoundly stupid, based on an unbelievable motivation.
You’ve all seen this before in the movies. The Too-Stupid-To-Live teen-age girl is home alone on a dark and stormy night. The news program just announced that a crazed killer is on the loose–in her neighborhood. Then a creepy noise comes from the attic. For some reason, the movie-maker wants her up in that attic. So she’s sent up, for whatever reason. Bravely, she tiptoes up the stairs, listening hard, determined to investigate. Viewers are all screaming at her “GET OUT AND CALL THE POLICE!” But this female continues up the stairs, thinking herself a brave young thing. And viewers wonder how she managed to stay alive until this point in her life, because foolish acts like this can only lead to one thing, and it ain’t a Medal of Valor.
The problem is her motivation. If the baby she’s in charge of watching is currently sleeping in a crib in the attic, THEN she’s got the proper motivation to investigate strange noises coming from the attic (and the fact that she put the child in the attic gives the reader a neat look into the sitter’s psyche). If she’s got martial arts training, a nine-millimeter handgun in her right hand, and a cell phone preprogrammed with 9-1-1 in her left hand, THEN she’s got a decent motivation for heading up the stairs. If she’s taking a dare from her boyfriend, who accuses her of being a wimp, that probably won’t work.
Character motivations HAVE to be sufficient cause for doing something that would normally be down-right stupid. Even with a gun in one hand, what kind of FBI agent walks into a dangerous situation, KNOWING it’s dangerous, without calling for back-up first? What kind of agent sees her partner injured, unconscious, and bleeding to death, but instead of rendering immediate aid, decides to trap the killer first? What kind of agent plans to trap the killer in his own house, but then hides in a closet when she realizes he took the bait and he’s inside the house with her? What kind of agent, upon confronting the murderer who’s just attacked and possibly killed her partner, instead of shooting first and asking questions later, tries to have a cogent conversation with said killer? It defies logic.
The author offered motivations for all the points I brought up, but I found them weak. Yeah, I can buy bad cell coverage as the reason for not seeking back-up, but the hiding in the closet and the ask-questions-first plot points left me frustrated. Granted, the author is published and she’s crafted something that a publisher wanted, but I found the story unbelievable.
If you need your character to do something that’s potentially dangerous, back it up with proper motivation! Or at least make the only alternative a more stupid move. Nothing kills the story faster than bad reasoning.