Characters in movies ‘28 Days Later’, ‘Jurassic Park’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ made terrible impulsive choices that cost other characters their lives, but if it weren’t for any of those choices made in the films, they wouldn’t have had any significant drama

  • Ignoring an expert about releasing an infectious chimpanzee causing widespread infection in the UK
  • Releasing some random dinosaurs causing nearly all of the workers to get caught and eaten
  • Giving up and leading other humans out in the Artic cold with a low-risk chance of surviving - causing a sad scene upon finding their bodies later on

NOTE: Mistakes are natural and are what make us human, but logically some of the events could’ve been avoided, that’s why the consequences are annoying.

Am I right?

  • 7
    Poor character choices is one of the foundation stones of the Horror genre. Without it, the whole "horror parody" subgenre (ex. Scary Movie) wouldn't even exist.
    – Alexander
    Jul 27, 2018 at 17:00
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    In Jurassic Park, that wasn't stupid, that was a plot by Dennis Nedry to steal dinosaur embryos. He probably would have gotten away with it if the storm hadn't taken out the signage. Greed/evil, not stupidity there. Jul 28, 2018 at 13:59

7 Answers 7


Terror, Cowardice, Selfishness and Greed.

"Stupid" mistakes need to be understandable or the story is not satisfying.

They can BE understandable if the stupidity is part of human nature: Somebody is overworked to exhaustion and makes the mistake. Somebody is engaging in a criminal exercise, and does something extremely short-sighted in order to save themselves from being captured. Somebody is a coward and in their panic to save themselves at any cost, does something stupid for the rest of humanity.

In Stephen King's The Stand, a virus escapes and kills 99% of humanity because one person, out of cowardice, violated every rule of containment to run away when the virus escaped in the lab; believing against all logic that perhaps he had NOT been infected. But he was. We can understand that as human nature, no matter how highly trained they are nobody wants to die, and faced with certain death if he obeys the rules and a microscopic chance of living if he breaks them, he chooses to break them, to save his own skin, and it truly is human nature (psychology) that a brain flooded with existential terror is NOT thinking rationally or with any empathy for strangers.

Mistakes can be made, stupid (short-sighted) errors can be made, but you need to ground them in the dark sides of human nature: Terror, cowardice, selfishness and greed.

  • 8
    "It has to be, otherwise the plot doesn't work" is the flimsiest of justifications, and people complaining about stupid characters are mostly railing against that, rather than stupidity per se. (Note you get the same sort of complaints about deus ex machina "smart" characters, too.) -- Justify the stupidity in-universe, and most of the complaints go away.
    – R.M.
    Jul 27, 2018 at 18:14

I would say there always is a way to make your plot slightly more logical than stretching the limits of human behaviour. Forcing your characters to make very obvious and foreseeable mistakes without being under pressure makes your story somewhat forced an unnatural, which isn't exactly a bad thing depending on what you are going for (for example, a highly symbolic story could benefit from exploiting its somewhat surrealistic nature with unnatural behaviour), but for most stories, it will just look dumb. The rest of the story resulting from that scene may be fascinating, but that doesn't make the scene less bad, and I think you should look for alternative excuses for your story if you want it to be perfect.

People do crumble under stress. We have seen it happen many times. Sometimes security protocols are badly designed, and we have seen it happen many times. Hell, sometimes people are simply careless and make mistakes like the ones you have mentioned, out of lazyness or even arrogance. The main difference here is nobody wants to hear about the dumbass who didn't put on the hazmat suit because he though he was too hard for that puny giant supermurderretrovirus that should have never been engineered in the first place (which again, we did in real life, with insufficient security measures, because we humans are idiots); these people are real, but frustrating, and more often than not, people don't really like being frustrated in fiction by the same kind of idiots who frustrate them on a daily basis.

Curiously, we often say these stupid characters are cheap plot devices to further the story, and that they have been put there by the author as an unrealistic excuse to drive the story forward, but truth is some of the most dramatic arcs in human story have been exactly that, as if we held fictional characters to higher standards of realism than real people! Ironic, isn't it?

  • 3
    A counter-argument: truth is stranger than fiction, and what happens in real life can be so stupid that -- when put into fiction -- breaks suspension of disbelief.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 27, 2018 at 21:42
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    "and more often than not, people don't really like being frustrated in fiction by the same kind of idiots who frustrate them on a daily basis." very much this. Jul 28, 2018 at 18:57

Remember that all stories are moral. They deal with moral conflict, both within the individual and between individuals. Questions of what it is most effective to do to address a given problem as the matter of essays, not fiction. If fiction deals with them at all, it is to address the related moral issues.

There have always been moral questions surrounding man's conquest of nature. At what point is one presuming to play God is a common question. And if you are presuming to play God, how do you know what God wants?

Moral questions also have to do with value and with advantage. Supposing that one accepts global warming alarmism at its worst, and suppose you accept that the most radical decarbonization proposals are the only efficacious response, there are still a host of value questions to deal with, such as:

  • Why should I in the middle of the continent give up my car and my fresh veggies so that you who chose to build your house on the sand don't have to move?

  • It is wise to wreck our economy today to reduce carbon emissions radically when the resulting impoverishment of our economy could shut down the research that could lead to alternative sources of power or efficient means of climate control?

  • What is the desirable state anyway: Maintaining the natural environment as if man did not exist? Exploiting the natural environment to ensure prosperity for all. Every man for himself and devil take the hindmost? Wealth for those with the wit to get it; charity for the rest?

A lot of these films have a pretty clear moral thread running through them. Jurassic Park is a "should we play God?" movie. The basic rhetorical trick for arguing any moral position is to infantilize and demonize those with opposing positions. You don't have to win the argument rationally if you can rob the opposition of the moral authority to speak. (See the last US election campaign, on both sides.) Thus these movies have their buffoonish villain and their noble just hero. The attempt is to associate the morality of the argument with the morality of the man; to put my position into the mouths of saints, and the opposition's position into the mouths of buffoons and demons.

  • So since the story in 28 Days Later began with a moral conflict, what sort of moral conflict does the ‘Day Before Tomorrow’ play as? Jul 27, 2018 at 15:27
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    I don't think I've ever downvoted an answer of yours before, but you completely lost me on this one. How is this an answer to the question posed? I feel there's probably an on-topic response under the rhetoric --maybe even a great one --but from my point of view you need to do more to explain it and how it connects. Jul 27, 2018 at 17:40
  • @ChrisSunami Because the stupidity that make them memorable is a form of moral stigmatization practiced by the author and (gleefully) accepted by the reader. They work because they flatter the prejudices of the audiences. The anti-corporate streak of most Hollywood films (created, of course, by huge corporations) is there to pander to the prejudices of the audience. It is the one sure way to pander to both the coastal lefties and the flyover working class. They create memorable ideological punching bags because we like to remember them getting punched.
    – user16226
    Jul 28, 2018 at 10:35
  • @MarkBaker I guess my confusion is because your answers typically advocate best practices for writing, but this seems like a questionable approach even if it's effective. Can you make it more clear whether you're recommending this approach or deploring it? Jul 30, 2018 at 16:30
  • @ChrisSunami, I'm not recommending it, because I think it is immoral. But I am pointing out that may writers do it because it is effective. So in a sense I am doing both. If you want to appeal to the moral prejudices of an audience and thus sell lots of books, demonize and infantilize a representative of the opposite position. But if you want to be a genuine artist and write something that will be remembered after the politics of the moment have changed, don't do it because it is dishonest.
    – user16226
    Jul 30, 2018 at 16:56

There's a truism, origin unknown, to the effect that "bad decisions make good stories." If everyone makes great choices all the time, it doesn't lead to much in the way of drama or suspense.

On the other hand, people want to be able to identify with your characters, and no one voluntarily identifies with egregious stupidity. Preferably, your reader would say "I know that's a terrible decision, but I could completely see myself doing the same thing in that situation." As @Amadeus pointed out, this typically involves establishing plausible, relateable motivations. You also want to ground those motivations in the character you've established. If a character typically makes bad decisions, one more isn't going to strain credibility, although it may well make the reader lose patience with the character for other reasons. Or, if this is the character's one and only bad decision, it should be rooted in an established character flaw, not forced on the character to advance the plot. Making a bad decision in honest pursuit of a noble aim is almost always plausible.

Finally, although it might not be the best possible writing choice, you can be a little more lazy with it if the bad decisions are being made by peripheral characters --thus making them part of the external conditions your main characters need to deal with. Dealing with other people's inexplicable stupidity is pretty relateable to most people.

  • " Dealing with other people's inexplicable stupidity is pretty relateable to most people." LOL. That's an understatement especially when so many people classify anything they don't agree with in that category.
    – Joe
    Aug 1, 2018 at 4:14

It's not mandatory, but it is nice when the inciting incident echoes the overall theme of the story.

If ultimately the theme is greed leads to evil, then suggest the accident at the beginning of the story occurs because of some smaller version of that same kind evil, but petty and unrelated. If the theme is nature cannot be contained then the incident might involve a mundane version of trying to control nature, weeding a garden or dealing with insect pests.

If the plot is a Rube Goldberg of inter-related incidents one leading to another, the inciting moment can be a mini-example of things going progressively wrong causing the character to miss a bus.


Let's look closely at Jurassic Park.

The programmer (can't remember his name) was dissatisfied with what money he was getting. (In the movie, I don't believe there was an explanation, but in the book it was a case of changing requirements, which makes him more sympathetic.) He wanted to make more money, and came up with a plan to steal and sell dinosaur embryos. This plan involved disabling the power for a short time, but as a fierce storm came up in the agreed-on time, the programmer went off the road and got killed. The programmer is acting rationally for what he believes and wants.

So, we've got a conflict between two people, which is one of the things stories are about, and something horrible happens as a result of an accident during the conflict. This is good.

(The fact that the cages were unable to hold the carnivorous dinosaurs with the power off was a really bad choice that glossed over, and the use of an automated car system that used technology used indoors in factories was really questionable. The true idiot - as opposed to unfortunate antagonist - was the guy responsible for designing the park.)

  • 2
    That "cages don't work without power" was truly stupid and broke my suspension of disbelief (I was a dually appointed professor to Engineering and Computer Science at one point in my career). It would have been easy to write around: Make security better. So the programmer cannot sneak anything out by the normal exits, power failure or not. So he carefully programs the closest animal gate to unlock, briefly, so he sneak out the stolen goods that way, and then a dino fights the closing gate, gets trapped in it, blocks it open, and voilà. Greed motivated stupidity + bad luck.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 27, 2018 at 18:29
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    @Amadeus "cages don't work without power" didn't break my SOD. Instead, it indicated the hubris which permeated the book.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 28, 2018 at 7:24
  • @RonJohn For me, pulling off a legitimate engineering miracle (beside a biological sciences miracle, computer science miracle, etc) requiring true geniuses at every step is a great premise. To make an integral part of this collaborative work of art a mistake that only a Freshman engineering student would make was just too dumb. As a billionaire I'd hire PhDs throughout to work on this design, inside and out. Every design can be defeated by treachery, and this story already had a traitor in it! For the JP budget they should have had PhD consultants on the ride, and listened to them.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 28, 2018 at 11:19

I agree with you, in a very literal sense, in terms of the words 'memorable' and 'stupid'. I just watched the ending of a film called, 'Dinner for Schmucks', on television. It had resurfaced in my memory as being something I wanted to rewatch since I saw the title listed in the guide.

The premise of the film is a portrayal of a dinner party where a group of socially successful and intelligent people get together to mock their respective picks of 'most idiotic' guest. The winner is crowned as 'most interesting', which is code for the bullying, corporate-types, as 'biggest idiot'.

Now, this is, albeit, a clever device to showcase silly, humorous performances from the various guests, but my point is that while not an altogether profound film, the plotline was certainly memorable (as my memory was inundated with its unfolding simply by recalling the title).

A more profound example (and perhaps the most obvious in American literature) would be Lenny in 'Of Mice and Men'. Certainly memorable, mostly because of the actions of the mentally-challenged character. If it were not for one action in particular, which is the climax of the storyline, would anyone remember that tale?

I'll concede that the device could be used as a crutch, but that doesn't discount it's worth entirely. And perhaps that's not quite the variation of those words you were intending to address, but that's my two cents, fwiw.

  • +1, I agree with you. I would just add that 'Dinner for Schmucks' is just a pale copy of the original French movie 'Le dîner de cons' which is a comedy masterpiece. The series of stupid mistakes made by François Pignon led the other main character (Pierre Brochant) to question his own behaviour and lifestyle, in a way that touched the heart of the audience. In France, this movie was a hit. This is a very good example of how stupidity, mistakes and clumsiness can make the plot go forward in a remarkable way.
    – Ghajini
    Jul 28, 2018 at 8:05

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