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

We’re back, folks. In today’s final post, we’ll discuss how to make a smart character do all sorts of dumb things. Check out Post I and Post II on this topic for more info on creating (and controlling) smart characters.

Wait, did I just label a character as smart? Sorry, that’s imprecise language-shorthand. To reiterate the last post: no character (or human) is smart. Characters (and humans) merely do things that are smart (or not). And, obviously, they can never do things that are smart all the time and in every sphere because smartness depends on viewpoint.

Don’t believe me? Try it. We’ll start with a basic Western view of intelligence and set logic, abstract thought, self-awareness, communication, and emotional knowledge as our basic building blocks of smart. Endow your character with all of them. But when this character bumps into a reader who values something else, you’ll find the character’s smart-factor starts to dip. Polynesians might mock the character’s lack of spatial awareness. Eastern thinkers might demand problem-solving using spirituality, meditation, mysticism, or tradition. Westerns might stab your character with their literary set of small knives. Who likes a know-it-all? Even if you could make your MC do smart things all the time, why would you?

A general recommendation (for Western stories especially) is to invent an MC with plenty of smarts in their back pocket, but with an intelligence failure that can be defined clearly and early in the story.  Some examples:



Couldn’t Rhett Butler have been nicer to Scarlett? You know, after he knew he loved her? Sure, but she would have used that weakness to mock and manipulate him. The price of love was humility. He wouldn’t cultivate that trait because Scarlett wouldn’t either, damn it.


Anne Shirley defined romance too narrowly and almost missed out on Gilbert Blithe.


Um, can anyone say femme fatale? Hooking up with that long, cool tube-of-lipstick is asking for trouble. But plenty of characters are asking, if you get my drift.


The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things features “larger-than-average” Virginia, who has a “plus-sized” inferiority complex. Virginia doesn’t understand why the guy who sometimes kisses her would want to hang out with her in public. She doesn’t get it because she sees herself from her point of view, not his. The reader can see she’s pushing away the very thing she needs most: someone who cares about her.


If you want something so, so bad, but can’t have it without a terrible cost, it can drive you crazy (Captain Jack). You can make your character’s thoughts spin until they don’t make sense. Start the story while they’re still sane and let them spiral into madness. Or start the story after they’re loopy and give careful hints so that we see their madness is actually rational THOUGHT? about a desperate goal (Catch-22One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). You can even have your character obsessed with catching a whale (Moby Dick). Reason doesn’t matter to these characters.


(See David Copperfield’s story in post Numero Uno)


(See all of post Numero Dos)


Indulge me, because you’re about to read an excerpt from my own manuscript. In this scene, Salem is sitting in a high school class, processing the fact that her sister Carrie’s supposedly accidental death may have been a murder committed by gang members. The boy sitting behind her has just said her name.


At the sound of my name, I snap around to look at the guy.  He’s accessorized in gang paraphernalia, not caked with it. His only completely visible marking is an upside down V inked onto his right cheekbone.

Expressionless, dark eyes stare at me from under a stiff, backward-facing ball cap.

Terrified, I whirl back around to face forward.

A gang member.

And he knows my name.


Up to this point, Salem has narrated faithfully and the reader trusts her. She says the gang member Cordero is ominous. We believe her. When we see evidence of his evil deeds later, we hate Cordero as much as Salem does. But watch what happens when Salem runs into Cordero’s positive qualities:

“Cordero is dangerous,” I warn her. “He was trying to kill the guys in the car.”

“No, no. He just chased them away,” AddyDay answers.

“He was shooting at people,” I insist. “He wanted to kill them. That’s what he is, a killer—”

She cuts me off and I haven’t told her what she needs to hear. She needs to be afraid of Cordero—she needs to hate him. He took Carrie. He took everything.

“He saved my life,” AddyDay repeats.


In this scene, Salem refuses to consider evidence that redeems Cordero, even the account of an eye witness. MC-smartness flips off because the reader can see what Salem can’t—that Salem’s got a blind spot. A prejudice. When it comes to Cordero, she’ll see what she emotionally needs to see.

MC’s all need to make mistakes like this occasionally. It makes them human, provides foreshadowing, and allows for personal development. In the final example above, it provides suspense as well. Salem trusts the wrong people. She’s the girl metaphorically walking down the lonely, dark alley and the music’s getting scarier the more the reader is able to see what she can’t. Bonus: it also provides a way to end the story. Will Salem figure out her blind spot before it’s too late? Yes, and we have a happy ending. No, and it’s a tragedy.

This question about the MC figuring something out about his- or herself is so important it overshadows every other question—even the mystery of who killed Carrie. Attention, authors: no one cares who killed your characters. No one cares about saving a dying world. No one cares if there’s poison in the wells. At least not until readers love or hate those potential suspects, that world, or the drinkers of those wells. Which takes time. You can’t always check that kind of stuff off in chapter one. But ten or fifteen pages is plenty of space to give us readers something we can love: a character.

We love smart characters. Dumb characters. We love them when we know them, when we see their potential for good, when we ache for them, when we put ourselves in their shoes and are desperate to answer the question, “What would it be like to go through what they’re going through?” We love when they make us laugh and hate them when they ruin everything. Like they’ve really hurt us. Like they’re dearer than family. Give us that character, and we’ll stick with the story to the final page, begging for more.

Final Note: I said I would address all of the exceptions to my rules nixing clichés as a shortcut to establishing intelligence. There is only one exception: Use clichés (the dumb blond, the fact-spouting wearer-of-glasses) to quickly introduce side characters who do nothing but advance plot. There. Now I’ve addressed it.


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