Uncommon Sense

By James Gilbert

Common sense is one of the most important things in a writer’s toolkit. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but with more than a little truth in it: even the most fantastic of stories rely on common sense to lend credibility to the actions of the characters and the events in which they are caught up – and, more importantly, to keep the audience caught up in the drama.

It is not simply that writers should use a bit of common sense when constructing plots and characters: common sense needs to be a functional element in what is being written, no matter how fantastical the setting. Even if there are wizards running amok and flying saucers doing the post round, people should not do stupid things for no good reason or run things on the principle that every day should end with a large explosion. If common sense is noticeable only by its absence, the audience is liable to be left asking awkward questions such as ‘why didn’t they just leg it out the window?’

The following list is not a comprehensive collection of common sense failures but it does represent some of things that I think any writer ought to avoid like the plague. I have lined them up to emphasise that common sense is vital to creating the underlying feeling that the world around the story could work, no matter how bizarre it is – and to show that without it, drama will fall flat, tension will evaporate and characters will be aggravating to the point of alienation.

Incompetent Leads

Write and Sell the Hot Script

Main characters in horror movies who wander obliviously into obvious danger are the poster-children for protagonists without common sense and they exemplify why this is a problem. While drama demands that things do not go smoothly, it is hard to root for people who get into trouble simply because they are too oblivious to avoid it and too stupid to get out of it. Sure, it might be feasible that people would end up inside the evil monster’s lair (monsters can be quite cunning) but once there, why does no one grab a chair, smash a window and jump out?

How people handle themselves in the situations into which they are forced is crucial both to keeping a foothold on reality and to earning the audience’s sympathy, the second being far more important. Ignoring potential escape routes, blundering blindly into the monster and generally displaying survival instincts that would shame a lemming are not ways for characters to present themselves in the best light. More than likely, the audience will end up egging the monster on.

Even outside the horror genre, protagonist stupidity is not unknown. It might be arguing pointlessly in the middle of a life-or-death situation, or not spotting the villain even when they’re twirling their moustache at every opportunity, or it might simply be a truly inappropriate choice of clothes. Ultimately though, the problem is the same: the leading characters, the ones that the audience is supposed to be engaging with, display a frustrating lack of sense.

Useless Supporting Cast

So the heroes of the story act with a little common sense. Fine, but what about everyone else? What is often forgotten in the rush to make the heroes look good is that people are generally trained to do their jobs. It would be fair to expect them to show at least a minimal amount of skill and not make appallingly stupid decisions for no apparent reason.

Unless it is an explicit plot point, people should be given some credit for knowing how a research facility or an airbase or a hospital should be run. To put it bluntly, if they don’t, why are they there? Certainly, there will be people doing work that they are unsuited to but when that work is in some high-security government installation, there had better be a good explanation for how they got the job.

It is not just that having morons in mission control requires a higher suspension of disbelief. The old method of making the protagonist look smart by making everyone around them act dumb fails not only because it clashes with the audience’s common sense but because it undermines the principle that the hero must do things above and beyond the normal. Simply doing what is obviously sensible is underwhelming.

The same thing applies on a team level, be it spaceship crew or homicide squad. In any profession, there are bound to be groups who stand out as particularly successful and effective. But this does not mean that everyone else is useless, or that they always need to rely on one team to save the day. It can only demean the special group if all that is unique about them is that they do their job properly.

Bad Mechanics

Characters are not the only components of a story that can suffer under an absence of common sense. Its absence from the mechanics of the worlds they inhabit can be just as jarring – if not more so. This flaw afflicts a lot of science fiction – where spaceships are often without decent backup systems, super-weapons have ridiculously complicated start-up sequences and giant robots are never built with appropriate safe-guards – but it is not limited to the genre and the damage it does to a story’s credibility can be devastating.

‘Mechanics’ is a very loose term. Obviously, it can be used literally, to mean any machinery involved in the plot. If this was clearly designed by a half-wit, some adjustments are probably needed. This is especially true when the story takes place in an extreme environment, since a great deal of time and effort is spent ensure the equipment taken into space or the deep ocean will function properly and not fail at a crucial moment.

Here though, I am using the term to cover a lot more than nonsensical technology. The structure and operation of organisations, the design of buildings, even weather and climate can all be considered ‘mechanics’ and they can all suffer from being poorly thought through. All of these things can present characters with problems – but idiotic safety standards, foolish hierarchical structures and a complete absence of crisis planning are often used to create problems for the sake of problems, sacrificing common sense for cheap thrills.

And they will seem like cheap thrills for one very simple reason. Though things often go wrong at crucial moments, safeguards none-withstanding (say ‘unsinkable’ and everyone will think ‘Titanic’), disaster is all the more impressive if it breaks down a rigorous set of safety precautions. It is more than run-of-the-mill efforts can handle. The protagonists’ eventual triumph becomes exactly that: a triumph, of skill and preparation over abnormal adversity.

Common Sense Conclusions

All this is not to say that everyone in a story must act sensibly all of the time, or that common sense is some magic cure-all that would prevent anything going wrong. People do make mistakes, especially when scared or distracted, machines sometimes do break in interesting ways and the improbable strings of coincidences that kept the Thunderbirds in business do have their more realistic counterparts – and, of course, common sense is unlikely to account for dangers such as spectral invasion or alien attack (unless that kind of thing has happened before).

The comedy value of a lack of common sense should not be underestimated either – and there is much to be said for stringing the audience along with actions that are obviously not sensible, only to turn the tables and explain why they are. Both these tactics can be immensely entertaining and fun to write; neither can work without common sense being in evidence elsewhere.

The world around a plot must both give rise to the problems that drive the story and be believable enough to make them worth overcoming. The characters too must be believable, real people acting in realistic ways rather than idiots whose sole purpose is to break things. And the protagonists, whoever they may be, must not give the audience cause to wish them dead. In all these cases, a careful application of common sense is essential.

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About The Author

James Gilbert is a sci-fi and fantasy writer and historian of science. He is the former editor of the Durham Science Fiction and Fantasy Society’s magazine, Metamorphoses.


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