Is Your MC Smarter than a 5th Grader?

scared girl

(This post originally appeared on RealWritersWrite’s website in August 2013.)

All of us have read the scene where the young, female main character starts to walk down the lonely, dark alley. Where the narration starts to use words like “ghostly” and “melancholic.” The scene where we shake our heads and say to the pages we hold, “Hello, how dumb can this girl be?” Sometimes we put the book down in disgust. Sometimes we hang on tight to the pages as we turn them frantically.

Today, I’m kicking off a three part blog series on MC-smarts. We’ll start with when and how to make your character seem intelligent. In a few weeks, we’ll hit the when’s and how’s to achieve dumbness (yes, this is an essential author-skill). Finally, we’ll go over when and how to believably make a smart character do very, very un-smart things. We’ll start with the basic assumption that authors should be crafting clever MC’s and save all exceptions for next week.

That said, how do you make a clever MC?  First, a list of don’ts:

Don’t tell readers the MC’s IQ. Or grades. Or academic awards.

Don’t rely on info-Tourette’s “Hi. I’m Ted. E=mc2.” “Hi, Ted. I’m the reader. You’re an idiot.”

Don’t have parents or teachers testify of MC smartness.

Don’t dress your MC in whatever you think smart people dress in or put your MC in a prep school or force high-brow grammar on your poor, innocent MC. MC’s are people, too! Albeit, imaginary.

Whew, I’m so glad I got those off my chest. (Yes, yes. There’s an exception for each of these rules. Save your protests for the last post of the series.)

Intelligence in an MC is about situational awareness. World-savvy. It’s about making mistakes early in the story and learning from them. It springs from making mistakes very late in the story and being such a whole person who’s digging so deep, that redemption is earned in quick, dramatic, reader-satisfying fashion. It’s about moral confidence and knowing who you are. And, yes, it’s about cleverness. Solving problems. Decoding human behavior. Using that gut-intuition and being right.

To start off, though, think of MC smartness as binary. On-or-off. Either the MC figures out a puzzle before the reader (MC smartness=on), or the reader figures it out before the MC (MC smartness=off). It’s really that simple.

Let’s take Meg, from A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is confronted by all sorts of situations and reacts to them. But she’s quick to tell you how terrible her reactions were—so quick, that she’s quicker than the reader at figuring out how poorly she reacted. Therefore, she’s smart (MC figures out a puzzle before the reader). That’s right. She’s smart even though she spends all of her time telling you how dumb she is. Lots of smart characters will tell you how dumb they are. Especially if the plot calls for them to learn and grow. Other characters, like Sherlock Holmes, can have a bit of smugness about their smarts because they live in plots that do not call for hardened detectives to journey through character development.

The next building block of character intelligence is pacing. Control pacing, and you control smarts.

Let’s say in scene A, your MC’s best friend is trying to break into a school office. In scene B, your MC is in class and notices her teacher hasn’t got a set of keys dangling from his neck the way he usually does. Now, let’s pace the scene very quickly, interrupting the MC with a love interest’s comment, a villain’s arrival and a powerful physical distraction, like a burn to her fingers when she forgets the Bunsen burner is lit. (This is a chemistry classroom apparently.) At the end of the scene, the MC walks up to her friend and demands the keys she stole from the English teacher to break into the office.

This makes the MC look smart. See, despite all that was happening to distract the reader, the MC was not distracted. She figured out who had the keys. And why. And she used the information wisely.

Take scene B again and change the pacing. The MC is in a chemistry classroom and notices her teacher is not wearing his keys around his neck. Then she chooses to think about something else in narration so that the moment is drawn out. Maybe when she “comes to” from all her thoughts, she is still looking at her teacher and noticing his missing keys. By this time, the reader has figured out the who and why of the situation. MC smartness=off.

MC smartness is already off, but let’s take it a step further and have the MC blurt her findings to the entire class when she finally realizes (late) why the keys are missing, giving the villain and the teacher a reason to target her friend. Now the MC is acting even less intelligently. This is the final building block of MC-smarts. What does the MC do with the mental jumps that she makes?

Analyze your own MC. Is she savvy with puzzle-solving, but too impulsive with handling the info? Does he learn from mistakes quicker than the reader can, while being too cowardly to act on his wits? What if she’s clever and able to act on information wisely and way too boring to grow character? Don’t despair. Remember Sherlock Holmes, the lucky recipient of such interesting cases that his personal journey is unimportant.

May smarts be with you as you craft the clever main character. May you return to the this blog soon for tips on how to turn intelligence on its head. Because, let’s be honest: may none of us underestimate the power of the young, female character facing off with the lonely, dark, ghostly, melancholic alley.

(Pst!  Part Two is already posted here.)


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