Irrational Character

So, quite a while ago Shamus Young wrote a post talking about plot holes. In it, he talked about an apparent inconsistency in arguments Patrick H Willems made about irrationality:

It’s clear that the video on Plot Holes isn’t totally in line with Willems actual beliefs. In the video he makes the case that you shouldn’t complain about people acting illogically because people are illogical in real life and that’s what drives the conflict. But in his video on Jurassic Park’s Sequel Problem he makes the case that characters behaving irrationally prevents us from caring about them and is one of the major failings of the franchise. It’s obvious that logic does matter to Willems, so I have no idea why he felt like he needed to take such a hardline stance. Maybe he watched one too many irritating episodes of CinemaSins and allowed his anger to carry him into imprudent arguments. Maybe he was trying to do the “exaggerated outrage as performance art” but it doesn’t work because he’s neither angry nor profane enough to sell it. Maybe he just wanted to stir the pot for some cheap clicks. I don’t know.

The problem here is that there are two different ways that things in a work can be irrational. One of which is reasonable and shouldn’t be something you complain about, and the other is the sort of thing that generates plot holes.

Let me start illustrating this by using an example from “Pretty Little Liars”:

Spencer had been taking amphetamines to allow her to spend more time trying to figure out who the main villain is, and got caught in this by her parents, who put her on very strong restrictions and say that she will be sent to rehab if they ever catch her with anything like that again. Their friendly neighbourhood tormentor, A, then leaves a bottle of them in Spencer’s locker. Her friend Emily is there when she finds them, and offers to dispose of them. Spencer says that it would be better for her to do that herself, and Emily offers not one word of protest. Later, Spencer is feeling withdrawal symptoms and trying to figure something out, so she takes some of the pills — having conveniently forgotten to dispose of them — and this leads her to a confrontation with her father and with the mother of her old friend that ultimately ends up with her being sent to rehab.

So let’s go over the irrationality in the scene:

1) Spencer should not have decided to dispose of the pills herself. If she was caught with them by anyone, she’d be sent to rehab, and her parents were at least planning on watching her very closely. Also, she said that she wanted to dispose of them far away but since she had to come home right after school that would be harder for her to do than Emily, who could go absolutely anywhere to get rid of them.

2) Emily should not have simply accepted Spencer disposing of them herself, for the above reasons. At the very least, she should have pointed out the consequences of Spencer being found with them and forced Spencer to at least come up with a better excuse.

3) Spencer should not have taken the pills in her room which led to the precise things she was trying so desperately to avoid.

The last one is irrational, but is the sort of irrationality that we can accept and that Willems is probably saying that we should ignore. Yes, it was a stupid decision, but someone in withdrawal and for whom it would be needed to help them do something is fairly likely to make that sort of stupid decision at that time. It’s consistent with her character and, more importantly here, with the position her character is in. This, then, is also clearly not a plot hole as Spencer is doing something stupid but entirely in keeping with what we know of her.

The first one is borderline. Spencer does seem aware of the risks and knows that A will not do anything to help, and so really should just want to get rid of it and should accept Emily doing it because it’s less of a risk for her. At the very least, she should have more of an excuse than “I should do it”. But as a recovering addict it’s entirely possible that she did that because she really wanted to have them, even as a backup. The show, however, had established vocal and facial tics that establish when Spencer has an ulterior motive and none of them are present. The conversation is completely casual. So while I can come up with an explanation the show probably should have made that a bit more clear if that’s what they intended.

The second one, though, is an irrationality that could become or contribute to a plot hole. Knowing all the risks that Spencer was taking just having the pills really should have made Emily push harder to dispose of them herself instead of letting Spencer do it, forcing Spencer to come up with a better reason. If Emily was someone who just trusted the opinion of others then that would make more sense, but she has been willing to call out everyone including Spencer in the past and had just before that been rather … aggressive towards Spencer and her know-it-all ways. She should have pushed back harder. And this can fall into a plot hole because if Emily had taken the pills, then Spencer wouldn’t have been able to take them and the part of the plot that relied on that wouldn’t have happened. It’s even worse when there were a number of ways for them to get her the pills without introducing that inconsistency and irrationality, such as simply having Emily not be there when she finds them or, even better, have A — who has been established as being able to get into their rooms — hide them in Spencer’s room, which would even eliminate all of the issues with the first one: she finds them in her room after school but is being kept at home and so can’t dispose of them, and so keeps and hides them to dispose of in the morning, but gives in to temptation before she can do so.

The reason the second rises to the level of a — very minor — plot hole is because it is inconsistent with the character and that inconsistency only exists to create that plot plot. A plot hole is like a black hole in that way, where everything bends in the gravitational field of the plot point even if it wouldn’t make sense. Here, it isn’t that big an issue because the point is minor and doesn’t last very long (Spencer gets sent to rehab and returns before the next episode). The way the episodes and plot are structured, most people probably won’t notice the irrationality and if they do the plot resolves itself quickly enough that they can move on to more interesting things. But if this was central to the plot and ran over the length of a season or even the entire show, then people would likely be more bothered by it … especially if it has to bend more characters and situations to make it work out.

Shamus likes to talk about “Story Collapse”, where the audience gets pulled out of the work and into the “Primary World” and so both stops enjoying the work as much and also stops trusting the storyteller and so notices every little contrivance that has to be there to make the plot work. The times when that’s a completely fair criticism are the times when the irrationality really is a plot hole, in that it only exists to make the plot work. Shamus’ discussions of Cerberus highlight that: the group shouldn’t be able to do what they do but they have to be able to do that to make the plot work out. If you’re interested in the plot, then you might be able to let some of those things slide but if you are like Shamus and wanted something else, the plot and characters bending to accommodate it will be really annoying.

When the charge isn’t as fair is when it’s something like the second example above: the decision is stupid, but it is entirely in line with what the character would do. That’s not a plot hole, that’s plot. That’s characterization. And that’s where Willems’ first point comes in: in certain cases and in certain situations and with certain characters they will, at times, act in irrational or stupid ways. That’s not a plot hole. If we were limited to characters who had to act perfectly rationally at all times, a lot of plots couldn’t happen and those people would seem incredibly unrealistic. So you can’t simply say that something is a plot hole just because a character acted irrationally. They have to be acting irrationally in a way that that character in that situation wouldn’t for it to become a plot hole.

There is a lot of criticism of horror movies for relying on that sort of stupidity, where characters do stupid things that get them killed. But I noted in a comment thread — that I can’t find anymore — that in my watching of even some of the older and more classic horror movies that get called out for this the most often that it isn’t really a fair criticism. In most of those cases, the people who do those stupid things either aren’t aware that they’re under any kind of threat — and so can’t take the precautions we know they should take — or else have another reason for going there anyway and investigating the strange noise. It would be unfair to claim that someone should react in a way that relies on them having information that they don’t have but we do. So while this is a famous trope and parody of horror movies, it isn’t as common as we think it is.

But horror movies are another case where people can indeed act irrationally and have it fit with the setting and the characters and how they’d act in that setting. If you are being chased by a homicidal maniac or dealing with a supernatural threat, you are unlikely to be thinking all that clearly and may well do stupid things. So even here someone acting out of character in an idiotic way isn’t something to necessarily hold against the work. It would actually happen in real life.

That being said, it doesn’t mean the work is flawless either. For one, they really could have made a mistake and made them too idiotic to be believed, at which point saying “Well, they could be a bit idiotic in real life” wouldn’t be much of a response. But all of this, it seems to me, would come down to the work not making it sufficiently clear what that idiotic reaction follows from. Take a case where a movie shows that a character deliberately locked a door and then, when faced with the killer, runs right to that door in an attempt to escape and finds it locked, which leaves them trapped and forced to face the killer. On the one hand, the character shouldn’t run to a door that they know is locked and try to escape that way. On the other hand, when suddenly attacked it’s actually not unreasonable for them to forget that the door is locked and run to the nearest one in the direction that’s away from the killer. If the movie lampshades that, then it can work. Even if it’s just done with a facial expression of sudden realization or a line of “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, we know that the character was the one who forgot that the door was locked as opposed to the writer. So if the writer makes it clear that the character is acting irrationally but that this fits with the character and their situation, then the writer shouldn’t be criticized because the character acted irrationally. Most of the worst cases, though, are ones where the character acts irrationally and that irrationality is, in fact, out of character.

Of course, if you’re into the work and the inconsistencies are minor, most people will skate over these things and accept them as necessary to advance the plot. It’s when the inconsistencies are very noticeable or go on for a long time and have a huge impact that people start to notice. Again, the writer lampshading them and making it clear that this is consistent with the character — or even that it’s inconsistent but a brain cramp — will go a long way to making it fit in universe, as the character themselves notes that it was out of character for them, letting the audience come to the same conclusion but accept it as part of that world, and something that does, in fact, occasionally happen.

The problem isn’t with characters acting irrationally. Characters and people act irrationally all the time. It’s when characters act irrationally when they shouldn’t that there’s a problem, and it ends up being a clear flaw in the work, and something that we can call the writer out for.

3 Responses to “Irrational Character”

  1. Tom Says:

    There’s a variation of this that film critic Roger Ebert once called the ‘Idiot Plot’, so-named because every character in the story has to be an idiot for the plot to work. The TV show Friends had a subplot with this problem: Chandler watches porn and is, well….doing his thing with himself. Monica comes in and sees him, he quickly changes the channel to Discovery (or whatever) so that she sees he’s watching a show about sharks: ‘Chandler watches shark porn!’ She ends up buying him a shark attack video because she loves him and wants to accept what she thinks are his strange sexual tastes. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s just so, so dumb…..

  2. Idiot Plots in “Pretty Little Liars” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] “Pretty Little Liars” (I’m at the end of Season 5), and last week I talked about plot holes and in a comment someone mentioned “Idiot Plot”. So in looking it up on TV Tropes I […]

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