Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB
In today’s final-of-a-series post, Nikki Trionfo will discuss how to make a smart character do all sorts of dumb things. (Parts I and II were published here on 10/15 and 10/25, or see her unabridged version at http://www.realwriterswrite.com/ 2013/08/is-your-mc-smarter-than-fifth-grader.html
Did I just label a character as smart? Sorry, to reiterate from Part II: 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 partially depends on viewpoint. Don’t believe me? Start with a basic Western view of intelligence using the following basic “smart” building blocks:
2. Abstract thought
5. Emotional knowledge
Endow your character with all of them. When this character bumps into a reader who values something else, you’ll find the character’s smart-factor starts to dip.
A. Polynesians might mock the character’s lack of spatial awareness.
B. Eastern thinkers might demand problem-solving using spirituality, meditation, mysticism, or tradition.
C. 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:
PRIDE: 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.
PERFECTIONISM: Anne Shirley defined romance too narrowly and almost missed out on Gilbert Blithe.
PHYSICAL WEAKNESS: 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 catch my drift.
LOW SELF-ESTEEM: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things features “larger-than-average” Virginia, who has a “plus-sized” inferiority complex. Virginia doesn’t under-stand 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.
PASSION: 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-22, One 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.
THE FATAL BLIND SPOT: 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: an upside down V inked onto his cheekbone.
Expressionless, dark eyes stare at me . . .
Terrified, I whirl around to face forward.
A gang member.
And he knows my name.
Up to this point, Salem has narrated faithfully; the reader trusts her. She says the gang member Cordero is ominous—we believe. When we see evidence, later, we hate Cordero as much as Salem does. But 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.”
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—even from an eye witness —which redeems Cordero. MC-smartness flips off because the reader can see what Salem can’t: She’s got a blind spot. 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 example, 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. Will Salem figure out her blind spot before it’s too late? Yes: happy ending. No: 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, saved a dying world, whether there’s poison in the wells. Not until readers love or hate potential suspects, that world, or the drinkers at the wells. Which takes time—it can’t all be checked off in chapter one. But ten or fifteen pages is enough space to give us something we can love: a character. We love smart ones, dumb ones. Characters we know, see their potential, ache for them, put ourselves in their shoes. We love them when they make us laugh, hate them when they ruin everything. Like they’ve really hurt us. Like they’re dearer than family. Give us those characters, and we’ll stick with the story to the final page and beg for more.
Final Note: I said I’d address all the “exceptions” to my rules nixing clichés as a shortcut to establishing intelligence. There’s only one: Use clichés (dumb blond, fact-spouting nerd) to quickly introduce side characters who do nothing but advance plot.
Now I’ve addressed it.
Thanks again, Nikki! You’ve presented us with some great ideas on creating characters who are smart, and not-so-smart, but three dimensional.
See you day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s 13!