Friday Friend: Is Your MC Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Part II

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

 With positive responses to Nikki Trionfo’s Part I on 10/15’s “Tuesday’s Tutor,” I thought I’d publish Part II now [10/25/13] as a “Friday Friend.” Part III will be on “Tuesday’s Tutor,” 10/29/13. Nikki, my former student and member of WMFW critique group, published this 3-part series on Main Character’s Smarts, giving permission to abridge her full manuscript which is at 2013/08/is-your-mc-smarter-than-fifth-grader.html

Welcome back to “MC-smartness=off.” You’re here now to craft a main character [MC] 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. (See Jane Austin’s Emma, Inspector Gadget, Forrest Gump)

2. Characters need complexity. Intelligence has layers: tug one layer all the way toward brilliance and let another be far from sharp, lending awesome paradox. (Captain Jack Sparrow, Columbo)

3. Dumb characters do all sorts of interesting things.

4. Isn’t it prejudiced to only write about smart people?

I referred to a “dumb” characters. In reality, no characters (or humans) are “dumb”; none are “smart.” Characters/humans simply do things which are dumb or smart: an important distinction. It reminds us to see beyond the label so we can capture, appreciate and enhance the wholeness of our characters.

Consider various types of intelligence: musical, logical, interpersonal, linguistic, spatial, etc. A flaw in one doesn’t mean a flaw in all. Now: think of a stupid character other than those listed above.

Did you think of a comedy role? 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: we can laugh at him, and not feel guilty, only if we love him. Deep down, we’d cry at his demise. Disobey this rule, and the quick laugh turns hollow; readers won’t return.

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

We do not love inconsistent characters: clever one moment and dumb the next: the author then has no control of the information dispensed. The previous post surmised MC-smartness is a function of who wins at solving the puzzle first: the reader or the MC. Thus the author controls who wins.

Think how complicated it is for your reader to know something (on purpose) your narrator does not know. More than just switching POV’s, this tells the reader something directly, like the villain is hiding behind the car: 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 mistake makes readers lose faith in the author.

For MC-smarts to dip authentically, you have to use the MC’s thoughts and the MC’s awareness of the scene (dialogue, visuals, 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. The MC could catch the bearded man doing something evil without realizing it’s evil. This suggests 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.

Examples of turning off MC-smartness:

1. The MC states a theory and watches it be proven wrong.

2. Craft a character who’s slow at processing.

a. After the MC speaks, she realizes she looks dumb, but can’t figure out what she did wrong, or

b. She doesn’t understand how dumb she looks, leaving the reader fearful or embarrassed on her behalf

Forrest Gump is a great example: strong, sympathetic, with low intelligence. He failed to understand inference, sarcasm. Used maxims often and incorrectly. Only saw what was right in front of him, not what they meant. When someone wanted him to “figure something out,” he would nervously guess quickly. And wrong.

Layer after layer of the MC failing to understand what other characters and the readers do understand equals an intelligence flaw. I have great respect for an author who can portray the complexity of humans while avoiding the clichés; the author who makes characters earn intelligence and overcome intelligence failures—yet feel real in the process.

See you day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s 13!


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