As much as I would like it, both in Worldbuilding and Writing, not every action is logical or "right".

There are two types of this:

Imperfect information: The character(s) lack vital information, making their choices a gamble.

Characters being plain stupid: The classic case when you look back and ask: "What was I thinking?"

Sometimes there's nothing wrong with charaters being stupid, other times it turns out terribly, for example, I hated that scene from Babel where 2 characters were shooting with a hunting rifle at vehicles to see if its range really is 3 kilometers. It felt absolutely disgraceful, dumb, disgusting and upsetting, yet some could argue that they really didn't know what they were doing.

That leaves us the question: How do I have intelligent or normal characters have moments of stupidity, that might or might not drive the plot forward, without feeling like they were possessed by the writer or just breaking character in general?

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    The following words are non-standard English and thus incomprehensible: DSP, waifu, anticitizen, brainlet. Please edit those words away. Language of this sort makes your posts a struggle to read. When you are asking a question, basic respect is for you to make it easy for us to help you. This feels like you're deliberately making it hard work for us just to understand what it is you're asking. Sep 12, 2019 at 20:21
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    The main body of this question is completely incomprehensible. I haven't the foggiest idea how any of it relates to what you are trying to ask. Sep 12, 2019 at 20:42
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    seems you have the answer already in your question, either they are misinformed and relying too heavily on inaccurate information or they make a mistake
    – BKlassen
    Sep 12, 2019 at 20:46
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    I'm turning my downvote into an upvote following @DJSpicyDeluxe's edit. Sep 13, 2019 at 10:44
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    Being a snarky type, I would suggest that you should write characters behaving stupidly by writing them acting as intelligently as you can, because actions & policies that may seem like the best choices to readers (or to voters) of normal human intelligence levels sometimes seem very stupid to me. Since I am sometimes annoyed by the stupidity of fictional actions that seem smart to their writers, I can be even more annoyed by the folly of fictional actions considered stupid by their writers. Of course I am not a typical reader and other readers might not notice all the stupidity that I do. Sep 13, 2019 at 16:54

4 Answers 4


The "stupid action" of your character needs to line up with the traits that character usually shows. It cannot be a random action taken out of the blue - that would, as @Amadeus points out, break the immersion.

What do I mean by "lines up with the character's usual traits"? Let me give you some examples.

  • Jim Butcher, Dresden Files: a wizard's go-to defensive spell is a kinetic shield. Stops all kinds of projectiles, he does that automatically when it looks like things are getting dangerous. Then somebody comes at him with a flamethrower. The wizard responds on autopilot, and only a few seconds too late realises that his shield doesn't stop heat. He has committed himself to the wrong action, because so very often it was the right action, he responded without thinking.
  • Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Pippin is young (under the age of majority), he's led a sheltered life, and he's naturally curious. He acts impulsively on his curiosity: he throws a stone into a well at Moria, we're left to wonder whether the action had any repercussions (whether they would have been found anyway - takes more than a day for that to happen). Then he does that again, picking up the Palantir. In the second case, Gandalf mentions the Palantir actually extends a pull on one's mind. But it couldn't have found a more fitting subject to pull.
  • Diana Wynne Jones, Howl's Moving Castle: Sophie is confident the world is a certain way, and struggles to see anything that doesn't fit with her worldview. Multiple mistakes follow. She has a core belief that leads her astray.
  • G.R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones: Ned Stark figures out Cersei's children are not Robert's. He knows from experience what Robert would do with the children, and, having a moral code, he is compelled to try and prevent that. Same moral code - he can't just stay silent and let a bastard remain the heir. Trusting that people he interacts with would have the same moral code he does, he goes and warns Cersei, expecting her to run. Instead, she chooses to fight.

In all such cases, the grounding is laid for the character to make a dramatic error. The mistake is true to their character, it is acting "correctly" that would be "out of character" for them.

Of course, a character might also be misled, or make a choice based on incomplete information. But those cases cannot be called "stupid".

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    +1 Note that both the reader and other characters might still decry the character's action as "dumb", but it will still be believable as long as you've established the character trait beforehand.
    – Llewellyn
    Sep 13, 2019 at 19:49

You can't do just "dumb." You can write a mentally impaired character, like Lenny in "Of Mice and Men," that does dumb things that cause complications out of an inability to understand. Stephen King has a mentally impaired character (Tom Cullen) in "The Stand" and turns that mental impairment into a strategic asset (the bad guy cannot read his mind).

Otherwise, in an MC, any consequential dumb mistakes are a deus ex machina, it is the author putting their thumb on the scale in order to force a plot point.

Nobody cares if that "happens in real life." A novel is NOT real life, a novel is about humans facing adversity and doing their damnedest to overcome it. They can have some bad luck, that may BE the adversity (like getting cancer, being in a car accident, being held hostage in bank robbery).

They can also have been dumb in the past, that can be the adversity (e.g. drove angry drunk and killed a child).

They might guess wrong given multiple options, they might be misled, they might be betrayed or trust someone that lies to them.

But they cannot be just dumb. Any reader that sees a dumb move that has plot consequences will not identify with the MC, that breaks their immersion, and that is a bad story.

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    I fully second this. A few years ago, I read a sci-fi book (by a locally famous author) which I enjoyed a lot, until at one point one character did a dumb thing out of the blue which affected the plot tremendously. I couldn't bring myself to believe the book after that, it just felt "the author needed this particular twist of events, so he forced it." It basically ruined the whole book for me. Sep 13, 2019 at 14:30
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    You can do 'just dumb" but you can't do it out of the blue. it must be made plausible, by being in character for the person who does it, and by fitting the circumstances. It also has to be well-written to work, in general. Sep 13, 2019 at 23:01
  • @DavidSiegel exactly. If you're a short-sighted bubba, then you're going to do the kinds of things that short-sighted bubbas do (such as shoot at far away trucks just to see if your shiny new rifle can hit something far away, ignoring the consequences.
    – RonJohn
    Sep 14, 2019 at 0:47

Foreshadowing. Basically, anything you do, any coincidence, and personality quirk, that you introduce in order to move the plot in the direction you want it to go will appear as transparent manipulation to the reader if there is no precedent for it in the story. On the other hand, almost any coincidence, almost any personality quirk that you introduce to move the plot in the direction you want it to go will be accepted without a qualm if there is a precedent for it.

So the method here is actually pretty simple. If you need a character to do something stupid in order to force the plot to turn a corner, go back and foreshadow it by having them do something stupid that does not force the plot to turn a corner.

Nothing is exceptional once you have seen it already. It only becomes a problem if you don't foreshadow these things properly.


As the other answers have pointed out the key to not breaking immersion is to have the actions be in character and consistent with previously established traits the character has. You can have a character make decisions that seem incredibly stupid either in hindsight or to the observer but that made perfectly logical sense to the character in the moment, either because they have limited information (compared with the reader) or because they are in a stressful or time-pressured situation.

Having characters do "dumb" things is not always the easiest of things to do well (and there are many, many examples of even very well regarded writers getting it badly wrong) and the times this is gotten wrong tend to stick in the memory of the audience simply because they are often very jarring - and the examples where the writer gets it right usually don't because they are consistent with the character or even make sufficient sense that the reader can see how the character came to make the decision.

You can even have a character realise at the time that what they are doing is stupid - after all who hasn't done something like that and realized almost immediately what they have just done? It's a near universal shared experience so the reader can relate to and possibly even sympathize with the character.

In some scenarios you can do blatant and almost outrageous stupidity where it is consistent with the established norms of the "universe" - this would be normally done for comedic effect (usually in a farce) and in order to get the audience to accept this the levels of this stupidity ramp up during the story, often starting from something at least semi-reasonable. Things like Happiest Days of Our Lives and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil are good examples of this sort of idiocy curve - neither film, despite being ostensibly a comedic farce would have been able to start at the sorts of levels of stupidity to which they ultimately progress.

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