The idiot plot

As you probably know, an idiot plot is defined as one which only works because the characters act like idiots. Knowing there’s a maniac loose in the building, they decide to go off alone. Or the woman sees her boyfriend with a beautiful woman, assumes that it must be his wife and never thinks to ask him or she’d learn it’s his sister/ward/aunt (a plot so hackneyed, Jane Austen joked about it back in the early 1800s).
There are, however, times when having characters act like idiots will actually work.
•They are idiots. Mystery novelist John Westermann (author of Exit Wounds, among other things) observed in an article for Writer’s Digest that having a stupid, incompetent lead can be a gift: If they screw up an investigation or miss a vital clue, hey, they’re morons——what do you expect?
•They can’t do the smart thing. In Twilight Zone: Printer’s Devil, for instance, Burgess Meredith as a sinister typesetter suggests that if the protagonist wants his services, he should sign a contract giving up his soul. The protagonist understandably balks, so Meredith starts needling: Imagine a modern sophisticated man like you actually thinking I’m the devil, and that I actually buy and sell souls! You’re that credulous? The protagonist can’t admit this, so inevitably, he signs …
•They act like idiots for character reasons.
Take Lt. Worf on Star Trek. If the sensible thing to do happens to be dishonorable, he’s going to be stupid, because he loves honor more than anything.
Or consider Marvel’s Fantastic Five miniseries of a few years ago (set in their M2 universe). By the last issue, Doom has conquered the world with a robot army, trapped the Fantastic Five——but then Reed tells him that if they don’t settle their long feud man to man, Doom will always have to wonder if Reed wasn’t his superior.
Doom spends a couple of panels muttering that he’d have to be insane to risk everything he’s won by going one-on-one with Reed … but Doom has an ego the size of Mt. Rushmore and deep down, he fears Reed is his superior. So while it’s completely stupid to play Reed’s game, it’s completely in character.
I tried something of the same in my psi steampunk novel Questionable Minds. The book establishes early on that my protagonist, Simon, has some anger issues concerning his wife’s death. So it’s entirely plausible (I hope) that when the villain announces he has Simon’s daughter prisoner and she’ll die if Simon crosses him, Simon’s response is to go berserk and try to kill the guy, without even thinking about the girl’s fate.
Most idiot plots, of course, are just stupid. But once in a while, idiocy makes sense.

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