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TSTL Defined


By Lisa Karon Richardson

* Virginia Madsen in The Haunting in Connecticut

* Lacey’s fingers trembled as they gripped the banister. The heavy clunk came again and a shiver slithered up her spine. The serial killer she had been hunting still hadn’t been found. Could he be here, in her house? No, it was impossible. As a woman living alone, she always locked her windows and doors. She swallowed against the lump of dread lodged in her throat. She could go back downstairs and get a weapon or call the police. But that might waste vital moments. She rounded the landing, and started up the last flight. From somewhere deep in the heart of the rickety old mansion a guttural chuckle punctuated the patter of rain on the roof.

As an avid mystery reader moments like these make me want to cringe. Why? Why? Why won’t this woman call for help, or get a weapon, or simply leave the creepy old house harboring a serial killer? A sort of shorthand developed among fans of mystery and suspense novels to describe these bizarre characters—TSTL—Too Stupid To Live. As in “There is no way she is making it out of that house alive.”

Since I first heard the acronym a great deal of furor has apparently risen among people who may misunderstand what it was coined to mean. Apparently some people think those who use the phrase are advocating the wide scale slaughter of naïve characters. On the contrary, we’re generally advocating for the character. We want these people we’ve come to know to be savvy. Or at least to use a modicum of common sense.

The fact that these moments crop up so often in fiction prompts a few obvious questions. One: Why do otherwise intelligent and gifted writers fall into the trap of forcing otherwise intelligent and gifted characters into downright stupid actions? And, two: How can we avoid the same pitfalls?

They (and by “they” I mean the all-knowing industry wags) say that an author can make anything plausible with the proper set-up. I suppose the trick is figuring out the proper set-up.

Part of it has to do with motivation. If we use my paragraph at the top as an example, it is easy to see that the only thing compelling Lacey up those stairs is her own morbid curiosity. A pretty thin reason, if she suspects a murderer is lying in wait for her. But what if we up the stakes? Perhaps a fire is spreading through the bottom floor, and the only way out is through the window and down the tree she used to sneak out of the house when she was a teenager. Or maybe she believes the killer has a hostage. That may explain the haste, if not the lack of forethought in grabbing a weapon.

I think the rule of thumb has to be our own life experience. Faced with the same situation would I respond in the same manner? What basic precautions would I take? Then we can take the next step of figuring out how to plausibly strip the character of those options and force the action.

So how about you? Do you find the notion of TSTL offensive? Have you ever been accused of having a TSTL character? How did you remedy the situation? As a reader, have you ever been frustrated by a TSTL moment in a book?

Originally published Sept. 21, 2009. 

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