There’s a line. You don’t always know where it is, but you know when you’ve crossed it. A certain amount of stupidity is tolerable, and may even be expected. We assume that a degree of “Duh…” is “normal” in many situations. The line between an acceptable amount of Goober-hood and “That boy just ain’t right” may vary depending on the circumstances. One might tolerate less boneheadery in an operating room than in a bait shop.
Wherever humans go, we bring our capacity for legendary stupidity with us. “Hey, guys! Watch this!” has preceded many a pathetically inept demonstration of “anti-intelligence.” It goes beyond obvious pratfalls and gravity miscalculations to include jaw dropping shrieks of, “What is wrong with you?” No other species we know of considers “Are you an Idiot?” to be a rhetorical question.
So, the question is, how much stupid is right for characters in a story? Can you see that character making that empty-headed decision in that circumstance? Is the situation itself just too asinine for the book? Sometimes I think about the role of the stupid in the story.
Some stories feature a nonsensical scenario and the characters must grapple with the absurd. In these cases, the character stands out as an everyman character, reacting in an increasingly extreme situation. Others feature zany characters which place the reader in the role of the “sane” person. Some stories may make the reader feel superior to the characters by comparison. In some tales, the buffoonery may play a central role whereas in others, it may merely provide color.
When I’m writing a particularly idiotic pile of words, I often wonder if this particular scene is “too stupid.” Does it cross the line between “so stupid it’s funny” and “so stupid it lowered my IQ?” If I can’t tell the difference, is the damage permanent?
Anytime I grow overly concerned about the depth of the overwhelming idiocy within my characters, I stop writing and look around at the world around me. It’s important to pull my head out of my imaginary world and reorient on reality for a time. After watching how real human beings move through their world, I no longer have any concern about the stupidity in my own.