Monday, October 8, 2012

The Mythbusters vs James Cameron and Plot-Induced Stupidity

I love the Mythbusters, okay? I don't watch the show as often as I'd like, mostly because my wife isn't a fan and I have to compromise on our TV time.

But a Titanic episode? On whether Jack could have survived at the end of the movie? That compromise is going my way.

Be warned, spoilers for the episode follow. I guess spoilers for Titanic have already happened, but we're a decade out, people, go see the movie already!

After somewhat extensive testing, Adam and Jamie determined that Jack could have survived, if he'd used Rose's lifejacket MacGuyver style to keep the board afloat. And there was a rocket surfboard, too. Good episode all around.

What I find telling, though, was James Cameron's response when the Mythbusters told him what happened. Basically he said it didn't matter if Jack could have lived; the script said he died, so he died.

R'as al Cameron in action.

What James said is practically the definition of plot-induced stupidity. It's a problem of fiction wherein the characters do something stupid, not because the character is stupid, but because the plot of the story demands it.

This is almost always a bad thing. We don't want to read about people who do stupid things for no good reason. We want to read about people who do stupid things because they think it's the smart thing to do. We believe a gun nut who keeps shooting zombies in the chest because he's got an automatic weapon and thinks it'll kill anything; we won't believe the same of a well-trained sniper with a bolt-action rifle who knows about zombies and headshots.

While I'm on the subject, Harry Plinkett did a great segment on plot-induced stupidity for Revenge of the Sith. Check it out here:

So how do you avoid plot-induced stupidity in your fiction? Well, the first and best step is to always be ready to ask yourself "Why is Character X doing this?" If the answer is any variation on "Because that's what happens next", you absolutely need to rethink it. If the answer is "Because X doesn't have a choice", you might be okay, but you'll be much better off if you can say "Because X thinks he doesn't have a choice, since he doesn't know about Y and he has strong beliefs about Z." Basically, you should let the character drive the plot, not the other way around.

Now, with all that said, I think James Cameron has a better argument for Jack's death than "because the script said so". For one thing, Jamie and Adam had to do some outside the box thinking to bust the myth, something a pair of 1912-era lovers with no knowledge of physics are unlikely to manage while freezing to death. (I'm not going to get into the issue of how choppy the Atlantic Ocean would have been, but I hope the Mythbusters revisit it at some point.)

And even if the lifejacket trick had occurred to one of them, I don't think Jack would have risked Rose's life on the attempt. It's in character for him to try and tough it out to give Rose a better chance; hell, it's the entire point of the scene! So I'm going to let Cameron have this one. Plot busted!

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