In Defense of TSTL

In Defense of TSTL: or more, accurately, in defense of labeling characters as TSTL (Too Stupid To Live).

Today on Twitter, I stumbled across a series of tweets by Ann Aguirre where she railed against the gendered double standard when it comes to the TSTL label in genre fiction. She also made the claim that TSTL is a useless label because characters are supposed to be flawed and sometimes make poor decisions when scared or angry.

For me and many of my reviewing colleagues, we don't apply TSTL when a character acts in a way we would not. We apply it when the character acts in a way *they* would not based upon the characterization shown.

There's a second, separate application of TSTL, though, that comes directly out of the damsel in distress trope. Many, many readers cannot stand it when a character does something against all common sense that places themselves or others in peril. It's a judgment, absolutely, but it's one I make in real life, too.   For example: I can't stand those people who set out to go hiking ill prepared and end up risking the lives of those who have to come rescue them.

The main reason it's usually the heroine who gets the label is because it's usually the heroine who has been written as having done something that imperiled others. Show me a hero who puts himself or others in danger through poor decision making or a misguided belief in his own abilities, and I will slap him with a TSTL label as well. That includes the men who won't see a doctor when injured, who insist on doing something alone when they really need help etc.

The biggest reason any character gets that label, at least from me, is because the author failed to make me understand why the character made those poor decisions. It was a failure in storytelling. TSTL is a result of the reader being pulled from the story enough to be annoyed, frustrated, incredulous about the progress of the plot. Done right, with sufficient skill, a heroine (or hero) can act like an idiot and no one judges them. That's successful storytelling.


  1. I agree with you 100% on this. What I really hate is when a character (and it seems like it's always the female) starts out as a highly trained undercover agent or whatever, then makes (several) exceptionally stupid lapses in judgement and has to be rescued. If she's so strong and competent up to that time, why is it that she suddenly falls apart? It's like a complete betrayal of everything that she has done up until that time. Male characters are rarely written this way, so they don't come off as TSTL as frequently, but I don't like it in them either.

    In general, I also really dislike characters with no common sense who generally act stupid. I don't hang around those people in real life, so why would I want to read about them? If either of the leads is acting that way at the beginning of the book, I usually either won't buy it (I sample everything before I buy), or it will end up as a DNF if it doesn't improve pretty quickly.

    1. Right! I can understand a lapse in judgment up to a point due to being scared, upset, angry etc. But don't show me a competent, resourceful woman making dumb decisions and then have the guy rescue her. It undermines why we were reading the book in the first place.