Is Your MC Smarter than a 5th Grader, Part II

Welcome back to MC-smartness=off.  (See a previous post for MC-smartness=on)  You’re here to craft a main character who’s one of the duller pencils in the writing box.

Wait, what?  Why would you want that?


1)      Characters need flaws.  Stupidity can be one of them.  (Jane Austin’s Emma, Inspector Gadget, Forrest Gump)

2)      Characters need complexity.  Since there are layers to intelligence, you can tug one all the way toward brilliance and let another be far from sharp, lending awesome paradox.  (Captain Jack Sparrow, Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Columbo)  Note: I would argue that nearly all characters in item #1 secretly belong in item #2.  Forrest Gump wasn’t a smart man, but he knew what love was.

3)      Dumb characters do all sorts of interesting things.  (Um, like me waking up to this.)

4)      Isn’t it prejudice to only write about smart people?


Notice how I referred above to a “dumb” character.  This is short hand.  In reality, there are no dumb characters (or humans).  Likewise, there are no smart characters (or humans), either.  There are only characters that do things that are dumb or smart.  It’s an important distinction.  It reminds us to see beyond the label “dumb” or “smart” so that we can capture, appreciate, and enhance the wholeness of our characters (not to mention the humans around us).

Another note.  There are many types of intelligence: musical, logical, interpersonal, linguistic, spatial, etc.  A flaw in one doesn’t mean a flaw in all.  However, there are times when a character, like a person, has a lower level of intelligence across the board.

Now, quick, think of a stupid character, not one listed above.

Did you think of a comedy role?  That’s because our society values intelligence.  The lack of it creates sympathy, but also derision.  That irony often lends itself to humor.  A tip to remember when crafting the comedic fool is that we can laugh at him and not feel guilty only if we love him.  Only if, deep down, we’d cry at his demise.  Disobey this rule, and you’ll find that the quick laugh you produced turns hollow and your readers don’t return.

Create a non-comedic character who consistently displays his lack of intelligence—social intelligence especially—all while pursuing his goal with unerring passion and you’ll have a character who readers can sympathize with forever.  We love underdogs.

We do not love inconsistent characters—the ones who are clever one moment and dumb the next because the author has no control of the information being dispensed.  We established in the last post that MC-smartness is a function of who wins at solving the puzzle first, the reader or the MC.  The author control who wins.  Always.  Even if she doesn’t know she’s in control.  Readers, even ones with an IQ of a million, can only follow clues the author has given.  It is a clever author indeed who makes their reader smarter than their character, especially their main character, who often narrates the story.

Think about how complicated it is for your reader to know something (on purpose) that your narrator does not know.  This is more than just switching POV’s and telling the reader something directly, like that the villain is hiding behind the car.  That’s a great way to add suspense, but obviously your MC isn’t dumb for not seeing something he can’t see.  You also can’t let the narrator simply state that the MC is dumb.  A) It’s lazy.  B) Perhaps the narrator is the dumb one and the MC is quite intelligent.  This makes readers lose faith in the author.

No, for the MC-smarts to dip authentically, you have use the MC’s thoughts and the MC’s awareness of the scene (the dialogue, the visuals, the action of other parties, etc.) to tip off the reader to something dastardly or shocking or delightful, all while keeping the MC completely in the dark.

For example, say you want your reader to know that the bearded man is evil, while your MC gushes on about how great the bearded man is.

(Don’t make me repeat all my rules about not dressing your evil character “evilly,” not forcing “evil” diction on them, not surrounding your action scenes with lame side characters yammering on about how, “Evil-girl’s evil and Good-man’s good.”  Writers, let’s be above that.)

(Good grief, I said I’d cover exceptions to the rules in my third post!)

One example is to have the main character catch the bearded man doing something evil without realizing it’s evil.  This suggests that the MC is naïve, young, or simple-minded.  David Copperfield watches his idol, James, seduce a young girl away from her home and credits James for good.  David doesn’t understand sexuality.  But the reader does.

Another example to turn off MC-smartness is to have your MC state a theory and watch it be proven wrong.  Emma Woodhouse almost convinces the reader that she’s good at setting up her friends until she’s hit with a grand failure . . .  and takes it with no humility.  She’s good at setting people up, dang it, and she’s out to prove the first mistake was just a fluke.  And since pride goeth before the fall, the impending disaster is foreshadowed.

You could try your hand at crafting a character who’s slow at processing.  Like a computer that spits out an answer to one input before it’s able to look at a second.  A character will seem unintelligent when she does the same thing—spits out an answer to a line of dialogue before she thinks about the body language of the speaker.  Or before she considers that her jealous husband is within hearing range.  Remember, she has noticed these things—that’s often the only way the reader could notice them—but she has failed to use the input in a meaningful way.  Let’s keep going.  Maybe after the character speaks, she realizes that she looks dumb, but can’t figure out what she did wrong.  What if, even worse, she doesn’t understand how dumb she looks, leaving the reader embarrassed or fearful on her behalf?

Forrest Gump is a great example of a strong, sympathetic character with low intelligence.  Forrest Gump failed to understand inference. Or sarcasm.  He could run when told, but he couldn’t use his feet and his brain simultaneously and figure out when to stop.  He used maxims often and incorrectly.  Forrest only saw things that were right in front of him, not what those things could mean.  When he occasionally sensed that someone wanted him to “figure something out,” he would get nervous and guess quickly and wrong.

Add layer after layer of the MC failing to understand what other characters and the reader do understand.  That’s an MC with an intelligence flaw.  Dumbness has nothing to do with forgetting the capital of Georgia.

I have great respect for the author who can portray well the complexity of humans, avoiding the clichéd, “Hello, my MC is smarter/prettier/kinder than all of the other characters in this book because my job’s easier that way.”  The author who makes characters earn intelligence and overcome intelligence failures—and feel so real in the process it’s a shame they aren’t real. Wouldn’t it be a pleasure to meet Forrest Gump?

Wouldn’t it be a pleasure to do justice to the real people around you who have intelligence flaws?

Give it a try.

Just don’t tell your brother if he’s your inspiration on this one.

Be sure to visit Part III of this topic right here!

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