Willful Ignorance & Sudden Onset Character Traits

I enjoyed the first two Hunger Games books tremendously.  They were certainly an improvement over the blunt force trauma of Battle Royale but there was one sour note that ran through the entire first novel and most of the second: Katniss’s mistrust of Peeta.  In spite of his history of doing nothing but kindness by her, she presumed every gesture was as trick of some sort.  It seemed to smack of willful ignorance, that ability of a character in a story to be blind to something that is dumbfoundingly obvious simply because the plot requires them to not see it.

We see this willful ignorance most often in horror stories when potential victims, plainly aware they’re being hunted by this point, strike out on their own or go down into the basement or check out that noise in the garage.  The one truly funny running gag in Scream was Jamie Kennedy’s pathetic attempt to warn characters in a horror movie not to act like characters in a horror movie.  It seems trite now, but it was really refreshing at the time.

I ran into this pitfall myself with Pawn Takes Knight because it was important that Roy not recognize a particular series of events that he had plainly seen before until the denouement was in the offing.  Of course, the unintended consequence of willful ignorance is that your character looks stupid.  That can be forgiven if they’re cannon fodder for a serial killer but not so much if they’re the brilliant detective protagonist.

The other pitfall I came across was in Aaron Sorkin’s new show, The Newsroom.  Now, I think Sorkin is one of the greatest living screenwriters and his work in The American President, The West Wing, and The Social Network are unparalleled.  He has an incredible gift for making intelligence sound normal, which on today’s television shows is remarkably rare. 

He’s great.  We all love him.  But the Newsroom* has issues.  The dialogue tends to come off like regional theater, for one thing.  The only other time I’ve seen professional actors at the top of their game sound this staged is in every Mamet movie ever made.  When actors have too abiding a love of a writer’s words they fail to take ownership of them.  They’re so concerned about getting every pause and stammer just right that they are basically reading.  And they sound like they’re reading.  That’s what I think is happening at times on The Newsroom.  The actors are stepping out of their roles, relinquishing ownership of their characters, and just trying to speak Sorkin’s admittedly brilliant dialogue exactly as written.

Oddly enough, that’s not the pitfall I wanted to talk about here.  Instead, I want to point the accusing finger at suddenly appearing yet profound character traits.  For instance, in this episode of The Newsroom, Dave Patel’s nebbishy character suddenly develops an obsession with Bigfoot.  It grabs him with such fervor that he calls in his cohorts on a Saturday to give a PowerPoint presentation on the subject.  And they come.  Even though they all plainly state they never come into work this early on a Saturday. 

Two questions: When did the news program’s official blogger suddenly become vested with the power to call the line producer and others who plainly outrank him into work on a Saturday?  And, when did this character become Bigfoot obsessed?  We’ve never heard a word about this before from him and I suspect we never will again.  Even if we do, it’s still so out of character for someone who is as plainly intelligent as Patel’s Neal Sampat to believe in something as hokey as this that it weakens everything he will say from now on. 

I mean, I get it.  You’re trying to pull this story together and you really need for someone to pick up on a subtle clue that only a habitual Yahtzee player would understand but none of your characters has ever mentioned a passing interest in any kind of dice game.  What do you do?  You stitch a quick scene at the beginning where one character says, “Where’s Bob?” and the other character rolls his eyes and says, “Off playing Yahtzee again.  You know him.”

And you see, here’s the problem: We do know Bob and we know from the last three books or sixteen episodes that he’s never mentioned anything about Yahtzee.  So it rings false to us.

The other hack, of course, is for Castle** to say, “Wait a minute!  Three sixes and two fours?  That’s a full house!”  Then he shrugs at Becket and says, “I spent a lot of time playing Yahtzee with my grandmother when I was a kid.”

Eh?  Did you now?  Because that sounds like a case of sudden onset character trait (SOCT) to us.

* I love this show and I’m seriously hoping it gets over the speed bumps and makes it into a second season.

** I love this show, too, and I wouldn’t want them change the way they do anything.  I just picked it as an example of things that have to happen in television land – which sounds like the title of my next post.


3 thoughts on “Willful Ignorance & Sudden Onset Character Traits

  1. I understand where you were going with this post, and I do think that, to a degree, you are right. SOCT can certainly be an issue for a second or third novel, or even a lengthy first if it’s handled inappropriately.

    TV shows, I don’t, I give them a little more credit, the episodic format and only 44 minutes to tell us a whole mini story as well as something about the overarching story is a lot to deal with, SOCT moments may only look like SOCT, but who knows; maybe it was something they knew all along but can’t, in good faith to the show, do anything but make it look like an SOCT.

    • Absolutely, the pressure of turning out a 44 minute movie every week has got to be beastly. Fortunately, television has become more of a writer’s medium, so we’re getting some of the best entertainment it’s possible to squeeze into that narrow window. I think in most cases I give it a pass but for some reason on The Newsroom it seemed more egregious than usual. Could have just have been a bad day on my part.

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