Tuesday’s Tutor: Is Your MC Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Part I

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

This series on Main Character’s Smarts is written by Nikki Trionfo, a former writing student of mine; and, happily, now a member of our Wasatch Mountain Fiction Writers critique group.  She has kindly given permission to make some cuts, but you will find her full manuscript at http://www.realwriterswrite.com/2013/08/is-your-mc-smarter-than-fifth-grader.html

All of us have read the scene where the young, female, Main Character (MC) walks down the lonely, ghostly, melancholy, dark alley. We shake our heads: “Hello, how dumb can this girl be?” Or we slam the book down in disgust. We may even hang on tight, turning pages frantically.

Today, Nikki Trionfo is kicking off a three-part blog series on MC-smarts: Part I will look at when/how to make your character seem intelligent.

In Part II, she’ll hit when/how to achieve dumbness (an essential author skill).

Part III will show when/how to make a smart character believably do very un-smart things.

Start with a basic assumption: authors should be crafting clever MC’s —excep-tions will be saved for Part II. That said, how do you write a clever MC?

Don’t tell readers the MC’s IQ, grades, or academic awards.
Don’t rely on the simplistic: “Hi. I’m Ted. E=mc2.”
Don’t let parents/teachers testify to MC smartness.
Don’t dress the MC in “smart people” styles.
Don’t put your MC in a prep school.
Don’t, don’t, don’t force high-brow grammar on your poor, innocent MC.

So glad I got those off my chest. (There’s an exception for each of the rules. Save protests for Part III)

Intelligence in an MC is about situational awareness. World-savvy. Making mistakes early in the story. Learning from them. Making mistakes late in the story and being such a whole person, digging so deep that redemption is earned in quick, dramatic, reader-satisfying fashion. It’s about moral confidence, knowing who you are, cleverness, solving problems, decoding human behavior, using gut-intuition.  And being right.

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 that simple. Take Meg, from A Wrinkle in Time. Meg is confronted by many situations and reacts to them. But she’s quick to tell you how terrible her reactions were—so quick, she’s quicker than the reader at figuring out how poorly she reacted. Therefore, she’s smart (figuring out the puzzle before the reader), even though she tells you how dumb she is. Smart characters often tell you how dumb they are—especially if the plot calls for them to learn, grow. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes can have a bit of smugness-smarts: he lives in plots which don’t call for the MC to journey through character development.

The next building block of character intelligence is pacing. Control pacing, you control smarts. In scene A, your MC’s best friend is trying to break into a school office. In scene B, your MC is in a chemistry class and notices her teacher hasn’t got the usual set of keys dangling from his neck. Now, pace the scene 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. At the end of the scene, the MC walks up to her friend, demands the keys she stole from the teacher. This makes the MC look smart. Despite all the possible distractions, the MC was not distracted: she figured out who had the keys and why. And she used the information wisely.  MC smartness=on.

Rewrite scene B and change the pacing. The MC is in the classroom and notices her teacher is not wearing his keys. She chooses to think about something else in narration so the moment is drawn out. Maybe when she “comes to” from her thoughts, she’s still looking at her teacher and noticing his missing keys. By this time, the reader figured out the who/why of the situation. MC smartness=off.

MC smartness is already off, but take it a step farther: MC blurts her findings to the entire class when she realizes 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 she makes?

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

May smarts be with you as you craft the clever MC. May you return to our blog in two weeks 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, melancholy alley.

Thanks, Nikki!  See you readers day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s Thirteen!

AND two weeks from today for Part II of Nikki’s Smarter than a 5th Grader!



Filed under Teacher

2 responses to “Tuesday’s Tutor: Is Your MC Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Part I

  1. Thanks for posting this, Brenda. You taught me everything I know. 🙂

  2. benschwensch

    WOW! Thanks for the kudos, but I suspect you know a LOT more than the bits and pieces I’ve shared. At any rate, you’ve certainly been one of my more apt students! So, thank YOU!

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