Why Characters Can’t Be Stupid: Relevance Theory and Creative Writing

A friend of mine is an aspiring writer; he is talented, but we often don’t see eye to eye when it comes to Creative Writing.
One of his latest stories was about a homicide. The murderer was able to magically switch his appearance and look like two different people, a guy and a girl, at different times. He fled the crime scene, made some new friends on the way, and ended up renting a spare room at these friends’ place – in the same city where he committed the murder, just on the opposite side. There, he started a new life as his feminine appearance. Sounds like a pretty good plan to escape the police, right?
Except, he switched appearances already at the murder scene, so both his masculine and his feminine version could be located there at the time of the crime by security footage and witnesses. Therefore, the assassin is still a prime suspect in that murder investigation, even as a girl.

I pointed out to my friend that his character was likely to get caught soon, and that it didn’t make any sense to stay in the same city instead of trying to leave the country while one still could. My friend’s answer was that his character was not the brightest; after all, there are people in real life which wouldn’t run away at the right moment. The character’s stupid move was actually a show of realism.

Whilst I do advocate the importance of realism in Creative Writing, I really mean it more as plausibility. It is possible, and therefore realistic, that a person of average intelligence would not leave the town where they committed a murder; it just doesn’t sound plausible. Some criminals are indeed so blatantly stupid that the police gets to them easily – but in a work of fiction, such a solution would be seen as lame and very convenient.

As realistic as it may be, no one wants to read about a stupid character. It’s simply not engaging; even the least bright member of the cast has to have some abilities, or a temporary spark of intelligence, for its story to be worth reading. It’s an intuitive concept that has its roots in how human communication works, and can be explained through Pragmatics, a branch of Linguistics and Semiotics.

In every moment of our life, our senses risk to be overwhelmed by the countless stimuli coming from the world around us; we need to instantly decide what is worth paying attention to, and what isn’t. According to cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson, we do so by ranking every stimulus on a scale of relevance.
For instance, one may sleep through a loud noise coming from the street – but their newborn baby crying in the adjacent room will startle them awake. Their own child being in need is obviously more relevant than someone slamming shut a car door.

Our understanding of the world is thus driven by the search for relevance. Being able to recognise which stimulus has maximum relevance allows us to save precious energy; for the same reason, when communicating with others we will also produce stimuli that are the most relevant possible. In other words, a stimulus produced by another human being is automatically expected to have a high degree of relevance. Sperber and Wilson call this phenomenon «presumption of […] optimal relevance»¹.

A work of fiction is just another one of the many stimuli the world offers us. The author, who produced said stimulus, is a human being – hence, a high degree of relevance is to be expected. Processing a work of fiction is time and energy consuming, as the hours spent reading a novel or watching a film are an investment impossible to get back. Thus, that stimulus needs to be relevant enough to justify processing it – and a work of fiction is relevant when it is engaging.

People making blatantly stupid choices is something that one can witness every day, on the way to work, at the gym, shopping for groceries: hardly something out of the ordinary, worth being the subject of fiction. Stupid characters are not up to the expectations of a reader that was promised escapism. Here lies the difference between possible and plausable, when it comes to fiction. A convenient solution for a murder mystery is certainly possible; it doesn’t sound plausable in such context, though, because one expects the mystery to be as engaging as possible.

This is why no one wants to read about a murderer dumb enough to be caught in the blink of an eye: a character which is not engaging betrays one’s presumption of optimal relevance. The work of fiction one invested so much time in, then, reveals itself to be not worth it.

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