We’ve all experienced it, that TSTL moment in a story when everything has been going along just right. The character’s traits have been demonstrated: strength, courage, intelligence, maybe a little pluck, arrogance, or sarcasm to keep it fun, some grief, trial, or fear to engage the reader’s emotions. The plight has grown increasingly complicated because it’s a decent plot, good tension, nice character dynamics, a developing relationship of one kind or another.
We’re really into it, developing rapport and more—we feel like we’re in the story with leads we care about. And then it happens, that moment when the character does something Too Stupid To Live. What? Wait a minute, character. You’re not really—oh … yes you are. You’re going to do something inexcusable, because the author needs to raise the stakes, increase the suspense, put tension in the relationship, whatever.
But because we all know it’s the WRONG thing, the character needs to justify it. So her thoughts go: This is like one of those moments in a horror movie when the heroine goes into the dark basement and everyone screams don’t do it! But what choice do I have? I have to prove (fill in the blank) or save (fill in the blank) or just be stubborn because, doggonit, I won’t be told what to do or not do.
Even though there are other options, better choices, the character rationalizes against these. That’s where I stop caring. If it’s awful enough or continues, as it usually does, I might even wish bad things for this character. I skip pages. I start telling the other party, “Move on. Find someone with a brain, a heart, a conscience. This character is not worth it.”
As I was experiencing this in several books recently, I got to thinking that TSTL isn’t just in literature or movies. It’s real life. It’s human nature. I choose to do, say, or think something wrong and justify it, rejecting the better choice because, well, I’m TSTL. The Apostle Paul said he does what he doesn’t want and doesn’t do what he should. This is me, raising my hand.
In fiction, authors have the chance to overcome the tendency, to save the character from TSTL moments by making trouble come even though the character is doing her utmost to choose and behave wisely. Fiction or imagination can be a training ground for wiser, better living. But what happens when it doesn’t work?
Does God move on and decide we’re not worth it? Does he wish bad things for us? Does he skip pages in our lives? I’m so glad he doesn’t. Even when I’m TSTL, God loves me. He loves all of us when we justify our wrong choices, words, or actions. His disappointment is worse than mine about a story that falls short, but I know he’s rooting for me to do better next time. He is not only going to read to the end, he’s authored it.
I’m hoping this advent season can be a time of introspection, of preparation, of character development. A chance to stop making excuses and justifying the wrong things and prepare a manger, no matter how humble, in our hearts for the infant Jesus to come and dwell. His incarnation is my hope and joy, because he walked among us, the frail, faulty characters in the book of life. O Come, Emanuel. Rejoice, rejoice!