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A big pet peeve of mine about Stack Exchange's Science Fiction and Fantasy website is that's filled with questions that I describe as "why didn't character x act rationally" questions. Recently, someone asked the question Why didn't Hermione or Dumbledore use the Time-Turner to defeat Voldemort?, which is essentially a "why didn't character x act rationally" question. I wrote a comment complaining about these types of questions, the question was downvoted and closed, and several people upvoted my comment. DForck42 (who voted to close the question) wrote a comment saying that:

@Hamlet I prefer "why did they do this" rather than "why didn't they do this", the former tends to have better character analysis and adds more appreciation to the character's choices

I'm just curious to get other people's thoughts on this. Personally, I don't think these questions should be closed, and I'm not actually sure why this question was closed in the first place. However, I also think these questions tend to be low quality (for the reasons DForck42 gives in their comment), and I think it's correct that the question was downvoted.

What are people's thoughts?

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    After reading this, I now even more agree with ur comment on my post. Such questions should probably be on scifi.se. – Penguin9 Jan 18 '17 at 22:20
  • I asked a question like this; it's open, last I checked; it had a score of 1, no VTCs... – Mithical Jan 18 '17 at 22:27
  • @Mithrandir could you provide a link to the question? – user111 Jan 18 '17 at 22:27
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    @Mithrandir if it was worded differently, as in "why did she make the choice to burn in the fire" rather than why didn't she jump, I think it would be a better question – DForck42 Jan 18 '17 at 22:34
  • @DForck42 I don't even see what the difference is. – Mithical Jan 18 '17 at 22:35
  • @DForck42 better now? – Mithical Jan 18 '17 at 22:39
  • @Mithrandir yes :-D – DForck42 Jan 18 '17 at 22:45
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The thing about characters is that they don't always make the best decisions. Asking "why didn't they do x instead of y" to me is a bit disingenuous to the character. As readers we have perfect, or near perfect information about the situation a character is in. We don't suffer from the same character flaws or the emotions that they were feeling at the time. Asking why they didn't make a different choice doesn't tell us about the character.

Rather if we ask "why did they make this specific choice" we can use the history of what we've been told about the character to dig into the character, their history, their previous choice, and come to an analysis that helps us further understand the character.

"Why didn't they" are cheap questions, "Why did they" provide us with real understanding and appreciation for characters.

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  • Do you think it would be appropriate for someone to edit a question to change it from "why didn't character do x" to "why did character do y"? Or would that violate the original intent of the question? – user111 Jan 18 '17 at 22:43
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    @Hamlet I personally think that if it doesn't change the intent of the question, that's fine. if it completely changes the intent of the question, maybe not. aka, case by case – DForck42 Jan 18 '17 at 22:44
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    +1 I think that even in a "why did they make this specific choice" question, the burden of proof is on the asker to substantiate why they think their choice was the better one to make. Once that is done, I think those have the potential to be great questions – Shokhet Feb 12 '17 at 5:05
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My biggest issue with "Why didn't some other thing happen" as a question, is that for many, many questions, the easy answer is "the author didn't think of it" or "that's not how the author wanted the story to go."

It's really hard for me to get behind the notion that there is, or might be, or should be, an answer to "Why didn't the story go some other way." It's the kind of question that's pretty easy to ask lots of (if you're a halfway-decent nitpicker), and possible to answer (as in, you can make up suggestions why those holes weren't plugged) -- but it's hard for me to see that as anything more substantial then a launching point for idle fan speculation. And is that what we want the site to be?

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  1. They should definitely not be closed.

    I think that's an existing consensus, and I won't justify that here - if it isn't, let's have a separate focused Meta Q&A.

  2. They should not be downvoted as a class.

    • They don't qualify for the normal, formal, SE downvoting reasons.

      • They don't show lack of research effort (as a class - obviously some will and some won't, but that's 100% uncorrelated to them being about character actions).

      • They aren't unclear as a class (same caveat)

      • They are not "not useful".

        Now, this assertion is of course more subjective, but the argumentation is simple. The question is not useful when reading its answer, a representative user would not learn anything useful.

        Given that for many - and I would say, the majority - of such questions, the answers do contain useful information, by that criteria the question wasn't "not useful".

      • They don't even fail "practical needs" requirement. When a character in a literary work acts in a way that makes the reader go "WTF?", it breaks your immersion into the work, and distracts you from the flow of it. As such, being able to resolve such issues may be important to the reader.

    • Very frequently, not only are their answers useful, but they are completely unexpected and amazing, synthesizing both the expert knowledge of in-universe lore, and out-of-universe analysis.

      Again, by the only SE criteria that matters (did asking this question make the Internet better by allowing the question's answer to be posted), the question is a good one.


P.S. Examples of useful, informative and somewhat unexpected answers arising out of "Why" questions:

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    My issue with this is the implicit assumption that such questions have an answer. It's hard for me to take such a question seriously, without some indication that an answer is likely to exist, beyond "The author didn't think of it" or "The author glossed over it but I can make something up." If it doesn't have an answer, then... in what sense is it answerable? – Standback Jan 24 '17 at 7:56
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    @Standback - (1) "not have an answer" isn't a valid reason to declare something offtopic unless you can prove it. (2) If I had a rep point for ever "this doesn't have an answer" question that was actually conclusively asnwered by text or word of god on SFF, I'd have tons of rep. This happens ALL the time. – DVK Jan 24 '17 at 12:54
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    IMHO, it's a question of who the onus is on. I feel like if you post a question, it's on you to demonstrate there really is a question. If you ask "Does $NOUN in $BOOK symbolize a particular Somali Resistance Leader", that's fine, as long as you demonstrate at least some plausibility for a meaningful answer -- otherwise you can ask a million on-topic questions and the site would suck. Likewise, "Why did $CHARACTER not do $THING" seems to me to depend on demonstrating at least some level of plausibility for an answer existing. – Standback Jan 24 '17 at 13:12
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    But, I'd love to see some of those SFF examples -- they sound interesting even if the questions aren't to my tastes :) – Standback Jan 24 '17 at 13:12

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