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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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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