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Jenna Black | Too Stupid To Live

March 12, 2008

We’ve all “met” her in romance novels: the heroine who is Too Stupid to Live (or TSTL, for short). I read a novel recently that I really loved–except for one scene where the heroine had a TSTL moment. The book was good enough, and the TSTL moment came late enough, that I was able to forgive the author and still enjoy the book. I’ll even buy her next one. But how I wish I could have been her editor for just a few minutes and convinced her to change that one scene.

Often, a heroine has TSTL moments because the author needs to get her into danger for plot reasons. Perfectly understandable, particularly in suspense plots. But I think most of us as readers prefer the heroine to get into danger for reasons beyond her control. We want to think that she is too smart to make any of these kinds of mistakes–even though we know that even the smartest people do occasionally make mistakes.

There is, however, one character whom I greatly enjoy who has constant TSTL moments. If you’ve read any of the Stephanie Plum books, you know that she’s often having battles between “Smart Stephanie” and “Stupid Stephanie.” Inevitably, Stupid Stephanie wins. And yet, those moments never bother me. I put some thought into it–why don’t these moments bother me, when in some other books, if the heroine did the same thing, I’d throw the book across the room? I came to the conclusion that Stephanie doesn’t bother me because she never seems to get in trouble because of her Stupid Stephanie moments. When she does something potentially stupid (like breaking into the bad guy’s house, for instance), she gets away with it.

Why does that make a difference for me? Because a big part of why I don’t like those TSTL moments is because I feel like I can see the author’s puppet strings. The author needs the bad guy to capture the heroine, so she has the heroine break into the bad guy’s house and get caught there. Which means that the moment the heroine embarks on her quest, it’s like there’s a big, flashing sign telling me exactly what’s about to happen. So not only is the heroine doing something stupid, I’ve lost all sense of suspense, because I know she’s going to get caught. What makes Stephanie work for me is that that assumption doesn’t hold true. Something suspenseful might happen, but it won’t be whatever I’m expecting, and that makes the stories still enjoyable to me.

I’ll leave you with a question that I’ve been pondering lately about those TSTL moments. When I’ve heard the term used, it’s always describing a heroine. I don’t see readers complaining about TSTL heroes. It makes me wonder whether we have a double standard. If a heroine knows she’s in danger, but gives her bodyguard the slip anyway, she’s TSTL. If a hero does something like that, I suspect we’d see him as “macho” or “alpha,” but not necessarily stupid. So what do you think? Would some of those TSTL heroines merely seem brave, rather than stupid, if they were male?

Hungers of the Heart, coming April 29 from Tor Books
The Devil You Know, coming July 29 from Dell Spectra

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