I read a lot of books. I read a lot of reviews of books too. There are a lot of opinions about plot and character and the way that stories unfold out there! As a writer, I find it important to stay on top of what people do and don’t like about a wide variety of stories so that I can improve my own writing and avoid common author mistakes. But there is one accusation that I see thrown at romance writers a lot that I think sometimes isn’t justified:
“If the heroine/hero just would have talked to the hero/heroine, then they could have solved all of their problems without all the fuss and nonsense!”
Yep. I hear that one all the time. It’s often accompanied by the statement that the heroine/hero is TSTL (too stupid to live). And yeah, there’s nothing more frustrating than a plot that hangs on the feeble thread of a secret or confession that is overblown or just plain unimportant.
It is my personal belief (an experience) that you can’t just blithely write off all kept secrets and unshared revelations in novels as stupid and unnecessary, even though it might seem like they are at first glance. Why? Let me put it this way: Have you ever tried to confront someone with an uncomfortable truth or an emotionally sensitive issue? Do you realize how hard that is in reality? I know some people (myself included) who will go to great lengths of seeming stupidity to avoid a confrontation or potential embarrassment. Lengths that might seem stupid to an outside observer but feel very real and dire to the person experiencing them.
Okay, so how do you navigate these moments of un-revelation in a story without having your characters come across as TSTL?
Yeah. It’s incredibly, mind-numbingly difficult, isn’t it. Because across the spectrum of readers, different people have different standards for what they are willing to say and what lengths they are willing to go to in order to keep something unsaid. One reader might get exactly where you’re coming from when your heroine just can’t bear to tell the hero that her father is actually loaded, whereas another will throw the book across the room because to them personally, something like that doesn’t make a lick of difference.
The trick is to make your characters rich enough to support the decisions they make. It’s one thing to write characters who conform to your personal level of outgoingness or secrecy, but if you stick to the parameters of what you would do, I hate to tell you, but your characters aren’t going to be very interesting. A rich character is one that operates on a variety of levels that have nothing to do with your own personal moral compass or level of introversion versus extroversion.
It takes more than that, though. In order for a decision on the part of your character to ring true instead of irritating the heck out of the reader, you have to establish the spectrum of what that character would or wouldn’t do. In other words, if you’re going to hinge your plot on something not being said or done, you need to make sure that that decision is absolutely dead-on the definition of who your character is. In order to do that, you need to weave corroborating details and incidents of similar behavior into the plot.
Take Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, for example. A huge chunk of the last third of the book revolves around the fact that Darcy strong-armed Wickham into marrying Lydia instead of just ruining her, and around the secrecy he maintains about those actions. You could argue that Darcy is dumb as toast for not just telling Lizzy what he’s done so that he can sweep her off her feet and avoid the rest of the drama. But we buy his reticence though every action he has made in the book up to that point and the whole mountain of other things that he doesn’t say. We buy it because Austen has set his character up from page one to behave that way.
In so many of the novels I read, the problem is not that the heroine/hero is too stupid to live because they don’t come right out with the one piece of information that will unravel the whole plot. The problem is that the characters have not been set up to be the kind of person who would hold onto that kind of information. Frequently this means you have a strong, outspoken heroine who won’t be talked down to by anyone and who asserts herself above the standard for her times…who then turns all squeamish and vapory over one indiscreet fondle by the baddie in the library (or something like that). The plot hinge incident doesn’t fit the characteristics of the heroine’s personality. We don’t buy it because that particular heroine has been written to be the type who would blurt everything out to stand her ground.
Kept secrets and un-revelations can be a very cool, super suspenseful way to navigate a plot. If you’re going to use them, however, you have to make sure that it is something the characters would actually do as opposed to a device you want to throw in as the writer to make an unwieldy plot click. Remember that the plot is actually there to serve the characters. Characters are not stick figures to be walked through a plot.