It’s become somewhat clear to me over the course of several years that there are a great deal of people writing fiction of all sorts without any idea whatsoever how to take care of themselves. A lot of “horror” or survival type scenarios put forth idiot characters as the main characters. Not only are they woefully unprepared but they’re almost proud of how stupid they are, and it becomes a constant refrain to remind everyone how little they’re prepared for anything.
An example: I can’t recall the name of it, but I think it might have been the Strangers. In this movie there are teenage human antagonists harassing a pair of adult humans. Nothing super natural. The adults aren’t sure how many there are (I think three?), but they find a shotgun and shells (or perhaps a rifle and bullets; it has been a while) — and the man cannot figure out how to load the gun. This isn’t a scenario where he has to load it right that second because he’s being charged or anything. He has several minutes to load the gun before it becomes absolutely necessary.
I’m not sure I can load every gun in the world with my current knowledge. There’s probably a type or two I’ve never seen, designed by someone with a fetish for making loading difficult. But I cannot imagine being unable to figure it out with my life on the line and also time to figure it out.
I get that we can’t have superheroes as every protagonist, nor can the protagonists be perfect all the time. But it would be far more interesting, to me, if the hero of the story had some general ability to protect himself or at least make it hard for the bad guy. In a lot of these movies there’s never any real resistance until the very end.
Another movie which I absolutely cannot recall the name of: a trio of people are stuck in an ATM booth of some sort, harassed by one guy. They piss and moan until he’s managed to completely pin them down when they could have pretty easily overwhelmed him if they’d reacted earlier. If you’re outnumbered and menaced by one guy, and you can’t call for help, you don’t wait around for the situation to get worse. Rush him! Especially when he’s made it clear he’s going to kill you. You literally have nothing to lose at that point.
I haven’t watched the Walking Dead in a while, but I can tell you this: the zombie apocalypse may have started somewhere other than the south, because that shit would be over in a matter of hours here. Those slow zombies would be fair game for all sorts of people. I can’t imagine there are many places in the US where it’d last longer than a few hours and even then, it’d have to sprout up pretty quickly in a densely populated area.
You can actually get away with a hero not able to meet the Evil Genius in battle at the start of the story — you just need to give him room to learn and someone to learn from. Lord of the Rings has a mix of characters with various experience, and the Hobbits learn as they go. The Sword of Truth series starts with a guy without much skill at anything combat related. All the Terry Brooks books I read start off with an unprepared hero. The progression of the hero is a part of the story. But the heroes start out with some basic sense, or they pick up on it rather fast.
One of the problems is also the level of the antagonist. Usually the antagonist is some sort of Evil Genius — even if he’s a brute, he’s damn good at the evil part. The problem is that if the hero ever does anything unexpected or wise, the antagonist turns into an Idiot. There are several entries on the Evil Overlord list that relate to this sort of behavior, and it’s no fun either. I don’t want to read about a hero struggling and struggling, and then overcoming the bad guy because he crapped his pants and froze up at the end.
Now, Idiot Villain is excusable if pride is a part of the villain, and we know that: Walder Frey, for example, did something stupid in being part of the Red Wedding. But he did it because his ego demanded it. It wasn’t out of character for him — and it took a long time for him to suffer for that idiocy.
The problem in both cases is when someone is inexplicably successful despite their idiocy. Sometimes this can be attributed to dogged perseverance, but more often than not, it’s just because the plot says so.
And don’t even get me started on plot armor. Actually, a word about that: generally speaking, plot armor and/or deus ex machina are brought about by the writer trying to be too clever by half, and putting their protagonist (or villain) in a situation where they just cannot reasonably escape alive. Then they have to come up with some crazy, idiotic reason for the character surviving. This happens a lot of time because we want to create as much strife and danger as possible for our interesting characters, and sometimes we find ourselves way up the creek from where we started, and the paddles are still on the dock, and there’s a hole in the boat — and our hero can’t swim and he’s wearing heavy armor! What ever do we do?
Flying mermaids, man.
And now you’ve gone from writing a wilderness survival book into a fantasy. Also, why is your hero getting into a boat with a hole in it? Is he some kind of idiot?