Oh Binky, It’s Not Your Fault ….. by Nicole Kimberling

Four letters strike fear into the hearts of romance writers everywhere: TSTL.Nikki in the Dealer_2

Too Stupid to Live—the worst possible criticism. The brand on the forehead of idiotic protagonists that just can’t be ignored. The sign that the reader really, really hates your character and hopes that they won’t survive till the last page.

Today I ask what, really, is TSTL Syndrome? Gut instinct says that it’s a problem with characterization, because the ire of the reader gets focused on the offending character. But I suggest that TSTL is merely a symptom of other afflictions in a book—and not just one.

Here’s an example:

As the first shots rang out, Binky felt Brutus’ hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered his arm.

From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing.

“Why are they shooting at us?” Binky demanded. “What have I ever done to them?”

“You killed their mother,” Brutus growled. “What did you expect?”

“No, that was an accident.” Binky recalled the day clearly, the image of the woman lying motionless in the crosswalk still burned in his mind as though it were yesterday. “I was just trying to get through the light because I was late for a rehearsal I had to be at. It was my first leading role at the Cupcake Playhouse.”

“Right.” Brutus drew his pistol.

“And that wasn’t even my fault because how could I have known the toilet was going to overflow? And so I was driving fast and I didn’t see the old lady in the crosswalk because it was dark and she was wearing all black. I regret it every single day.”

“She was the widow of the head of the Tortellini Family,” Brutus said, through clenched teeth. He lunged out to return fire. The report of the gun echoed through the cavernous space like thunder. “What did you expect?”

“You mean they’re in the mafia?” Binky’s heart hammered.  “But it’s a mistake. Couldn’t I try to talk to them?”

“The time for talking is over.”

Binky stared at his rescuer, taking in his lean, strong body as he pumped out round after round. Finally the shots faded. Their pursuers had fled. Brutus holstered his weapon and turned toward Binky.

Staring into those deep blue eyes, Binky whispered, “Who are you anyway?”

nicole - warning tstl sexy copyI have four fresh letters to describe this scene: B.A.R.F.

Here two separate forces conspire to make Binky look like a moron. First the author is trying to get too much exposition into an action scene. Could Binky possibly think of ANY other time to talk about his play? Like maybe when fewer bullets were flying?

And how could Binky, who would have certainly been tried for vehicular homicide, not remember his victim’s name and not know her family by sight? If they truly are the Tortellini family, wouldn’t they have been glaring at him from the gallery during his trial?

In addition to that, the author is doing her best to make the love interest, Brutus, look cool. But rather than having Brutus do anything exceptional or clever, she just has Binky get dumber and dumber so that Brutus can seem more awesome by comparison.

Another common fail could be referred to as, “Is this really the time?”

When the first shots rang out, Brutus grabbed Binky, pulling him behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. The sensation of Brutus’ body against his suffused Binky’s entire awareness.

 He felt his cock swell with desire. His heartbeat quickened, his skin flushed. Were they going to do it right here?

Now if you’re like me you’re wondering how Binky could possibly manage to get a boner while in imminent danger of death—not after surviving but during what should be the most terrifying moment of his life. Binky’s TSTL attack is the result of the author trying to create a unique sexy setting (under fire under a highway overpass) without realizing that any dumbass who thinks about his dick this much while in a life-threatening situation is not a keeper.

This brings us to my personal favorite drama-based TSTL scenario: Hurt/Comfort gone wrong.

As the first shots rang out, Binky felt Brutus’ hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered the pylon.

From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing. Brutus pulled out his gun.

“Why are they shooting at us?” Binky demanded. “What have I ever done to them?”

“You killed their mother,” Brutus growled. “What did you expect? Here, take this.”

Brutus pulled a second pistol from his jacket and pressed it into Binky’s hands. “Cover me.”

“Cover you?” Binky stared at the gun. “I don’t know…” Suddenly a barrage a fire erupted from the van. Binky jumped and the gun fell from his hand. After that he felt a thunderous crack and blinding pain and a bullet penetrated his leg. The gun Brutus had given him seconds before lay smoking on the asphalt.

“I can’t believe it,” Binky stared at the blood welling from his injury.

Brutus was at his side immediately. “It’s going to be okay, baby.”

“I’m sorry,” Binky said, through tears of pain and humiliation. “It misfired. I…”

“It’s my fault,” Brutus’ voice turned husky. “I should never have given you a gun.”

I suppose some of you might think that by shooting himself, Binky has reached maximum stupid. And you are right. But also consider Brutus:nicole - warning tstl shooting What kind of person must he be that he finds a man this inept attractive? What the hell is wrong with him? Is he such a power-tripper that he has to find idiots to rescue to make himself feel better? How creepy is that?

While it is undeniably true that drama requires characters to take more risks than the average sensible real-life person might, it is also true that when drama goes wrong TSTL is right around the corner.

Drama gone wrong is not the only reason characters end up branded TSTL. Another source is unmet expectations of skill and competence, as you can see below.

As the first shots rang out, Dr. Binky felt Brutus hand clamp around his bicep like iron. He pulled Dr. Binky behind the shelter of the concrete pylon. Overhead cars thundered across the overpass. Binky gazed up at them helplessly as shrapnel peppered the pylon.

From the shelter of their van, the gunmen kept firing.

Binky stared at his rescuer, taking in his lean, strong body as he pumped out round after round.

Staring into those deep blue eyes—the eyes he remembered so coldly telling him that they needed to “take a break” so many years ago. Dr. Binky cried, “Why are you doing this?”

“You’re the president’s top neurosurgeon, Binky,” Brutus growled. “And I’m here to save your fine ass, so you can save his.”

Just as Brutus spoke a bullet whizzed past his arm. Brutus ducked back behind the pylon. “I’m hit.”

The tiny rivulet of blood trickling from Brutus’ shoulder reminded Dr. Binky of all the time that had bled away since their days together in the Special Forces.

“A tourniquet should stop the bleeding.” Brutus’ voice was low and strong.

“A tourniquet… Right.” Dr. Binky felt the panic rising within him, what if he lost Brutus—again? Dr. Binky’s vision tunneled and he hit the dirt.

Oh, poor Binky! How could the cruel author have made him such a bad surgeon? Sure, fainting at the sight of a loved one’s grievous injury might be somewhat acceptable if Binky were an accountant or Waldorf School teacher. But when Binky’s surgeon there is an expectation that he can handle the sight of a little blood, particularly if he’s supposed to have also have served in the “Special Forces”. On top of that, his author seems to have sent him to an unaccredited medical school where scratches are treated with tourniquets. When he keels over, we keel over too, groaning at how badly he’s failed in the face of all the expectations that the author has built up around him.

And yet we know why our author did it. Her impulse was to show Binky’s visceral reaction to Brutus being shot. Unfortunately, in doing so she made him unbelievably incompetent at his job.

The same rules apply to Special Agent Binky, Detective Binky, Chairman Binky, Top Gun Binky, Genius Hacker Binky… Even Father Binky.

Writers of the world, I beg you. Don’t keep making Binky look like a dope! Give him a little common sense, be willing to do some research on his behalf and we’ll all come out of it happier…and maybe even smarter.

Got any favorite TSTL situations? How do you think they could be solved?

Nicole Kimberling’s Contact Information

email: nicolekimberling@gmail.com

44 comments

  • In addition to that, the author is doing her best to make the love interest, Brutus, look cool. But rather than having Brutus do anything exceptional or clever, she just has Binky get dumber and dumber so that Brutus can seem more awesome by comparison.

    This is something you see a lot in crime and mystery fiction. In order to make the killer seem fiendishly brilliant, the hero is usually forced to be a complete dumbass who can’t follow procedure or even commonsense — even when his life (or his loved one’s life) depends on it.

    The old Throw the Gun Away or I’ll Kill Binky directive, for example. And the cop/special agent/reporter/whoever does it. Every time!

    The flipside of this is giving the antagonist omnipotent powers because somehow it’s easier to make the villain superhuman than just come up with a few believable really smart tricks and traps.

    What a great article, Nicole!

    Reply
    • Hey Josh! You know I always get so excited when you like something! (I’m such a fangirl)

      “The old Throw the Gun Away or I’ll Kill Binky directive, for example. And the cop/special agent/reporter/whoever does it. Every time!”

      And it’s really counter-productive because all that’s going to happen in that case is that Brutus throws the gun away and Binky picks it up and shoots himself with it.

      Binky’s gonna get plugged either way.

      :muck: …plugged.

      Reply
  • Thank you, Nicole, for being able to frame this discussion in the kind of snarky terms that shouldn’t get into reviews, but everything is spot on. And rollingly funny without pointing fingers at anyone. But yup, I have read too many Binky characters. And Bella is definitely TSTL.

    Reply
    • Hi Cryselle, thank you! I knew that any discussion of characters or scenes that were TSTL would have to be deliberately written by me or the whole thing would just be an exercise in hurt feelings.

      Reply
  • Great article even from a reader’s point of view, because sometimes I know something isn’t working and I can’t name it 🙂

    I treasure the moments when a hero decides to step away from danger instead of bomb-diving into it, it also makes for a more interesting plot, I think. You have to find a different way to address a situation, it’s too easy to storm a room gun-blazing or disregard the most obvious instincts of self preservation and be captured. Let the bad guys work for it a bit too 😀

    Reply
    • Hi Emanuela, thanks for reading!

      “Let the bad guys work for it a bit too.”

      Excactly! A hero is only as smart as the villain he outwits.

      Reply
    • Good Evening, kiracee. And thank you for the comment. It is only through the feedback that I know if something worked or not. 🙂

      Reply

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