TSTL Syndrome

I didn’t mean to come in here all cranky to blog. I didn’t. But then I read this one book. And it ruined my mood.

Kids? We need to talk about TSTL Syndrome. It’s real, and it’s deadly. It will kill your chances of publication, and if you indie publish, it will kill your fan base.

We’re talking about creating characters who are Too Stupid To Live.

Don’t. Do. It.

Take, for example, the book I mentioned. In it, the heroine is charged with doing an Important Task, a task upon which thousands of lives depend. High stakes! Excellent! As it turns out, she must catch a Bad Guy. This is spelled out to her in a Very Important Letter that her superior has sent to her. She has read it many, many times in preparation for the Big Night.

This is all fine. Unfortunately, the author begins to commit unpardonable narrative sins. First, the story opens on the Big Night, and our heroine exhibits her first symptoms of Too Stupid To Live Syndrome when she pulls out the letter to read again even though her suspected Bad Guy is due to arrive at any moment.

Kids? That was dumb. Please don’t make me explain why, and how this could have easily been avoided.

But she did it. Next she is interrupted while reading and cannot therefore tuck the letter away safely. Second narrative sin: the author never explains why the heroine, who sadly is now a Hapless Heroine, can’t just stash the thing somewhere. For whatever reason, she must keep this letter on her person. Her person is clothed in an elegant outfit and the letter sticks out like a sore thumb. I KNOW.

It gets worse.

People keep noticing the letter and commenting on it. And still she keeps it where it is and kind of . . . wishes people would stop noticing it.

So literally hiding it anywhere else would have been better: under a cushion or a rug or rolled up tiny and tucked inside her hairdo. WHATEVER. WHEREVER. Just not sticking out of her outfit.

And then, Hapless Heroine goes to do something sneaky and when she attempts to return to her regularly scheduled activities, she suddenly realizes that the letter has gone missing off of her person.

No, really: @#%!, @#%!, @#%!

So. The thing is, the author attempted to create suspense by endowing this letter with Great Significance. We are to keep the eye on the ball, er, letter at all times. It’s IMPORTANT. She has beat us over the head with this. And then, the author attempts to drive the stakes up by having something happen to this Very Important Letter and now Hapless Heroine’s ever so Important Task is at risk of failure.

Oh noes!

Except…I didn’t care. If you had read this book, you would not care. You would think, “Man, this girl is too stupid to live.” And so you kind of want her to die. Of dumbness.

Fine. I wanted her to die of dumbness.

Do you see? The attempt to drive up stakes came at the consequence of solid characterization. Or at least it did if the attempt was to make the heroine sympathetic and give the reader a rooting interest in her survival.

You know how certain TV shows depend on a character’s consistent screw-ups to deepen dramatic tension? Me either. Because the second I realize that’s a thing, I’m done with the show. It’s possible that’s just me. But I bet it isn’t.

Don’t be That Guy who writes That Guy or Girl. As writers, we’ve got a Very Important Task too: GOOD STORIES.



Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.

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