My character might be wrong. My character is allowed to be wrong, she is not allowed to be stupid. (Lucy Lawless on Xena)
“…some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door, it's insulting.” (Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott in Scream (1996))How many times is it acceptable for a heroine to do something stupid in the course of a book?
For me personally - like the use of the word literally and the big misunderstanding plot device - I'd say a heroine can be stupid once. After that it's a problem.
Ever since reading the Lucy Lawless quote, (which I think she may have used a few times in different interviews as I've seen different versions), I've always kind of measured my heroines by that. I think it's a good yardstick.
And I think the important word is choice. A heroine needs to decide what she is going to do, have a plan of action that she is able to adapt to changing circumstances - is she going to run up the stairs or out the front door?
It can be a subtle thing. If before she accepts a drink from a stranger she thinks - this is not a smart thing to do - then she should listen to that voice. There is something telling her that there is something wrong with the situation. If she ignores the voice and accepts the drink she is being stupid. If she listens to the voice and accepts the drink, she may or may not be making a mistake, but she is making a choice. She is not letting life or - in the case of fiction - plot just happen to her. (Of course if she repeatedly ignores the voice she's got some kind of problem).
And that's where I think it causes a major problem in fiction. If the plot is just something that happens to characters, rather than being something that they engage in and are affected by, and which they in turn affect, then it isn't going to work as well as it should. Even if, as a reader, you can't always explain it or put your finger on it and instead you end up saying 'Oh that heroine was TSTL'.
I'm lucky in that most of the books I read I've not been left with the feeling that the heroine is stupid. A heroine can be wrong. A heroine is allowed to make mistakes. But she shouldn't be stupid. Being stupid once is a mistake, being stupid repeatedly is a lifestyle choice.