Author Archives: benschwensch

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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Tuesday’s Tutor: Who’s Story Is This?

EASY AS A, B, C . . . from BB

A reader asked “My story is in third person. For the most part I’d like the story to be from my main character’s perspective, but is it ever OK to hear someone else’s thoughts or get their POV in the story? Or does it interrupt the flow?”

Point of View (POV) can be very confusing.  Clint Johnson, who often speaks to Utah’s writers groups, says that when your story begins, you set up expectations in the reader.  He or she begins to know—usually—your Main Character (MC) or protagonist.  If you suddenly switch, a chapter later, or several paragraphs later, the reader may or may not like the character as well, and you may lose his/her interest.  And yet, we have various ways of telling the story: first person, second person (though I don’t normally recommend this one), third person, omniscient, etc.)

Whatever you first set up becomes the reader’s touchstone or expectation.  No matter what or who that is, you must be very clear when you introduce changes.  In first person, it would be very difficult to follow the thought process of a second, third, or fourth person.

In third person, it is much easier, but could still be confusing.  The issue here is one more of clarity than of “rules”.  I’ve seen many writers use third person and alternate who that person is from chapter to chapter, or section to section.  Being aware of Clint’s suggested problem above, you should think of the reader: how can you make it clear whose “head” you are in?  If you are clear enough in the switches, and the reader has some hint as to how to anticipate those switches, you are probably fine.  Look for books and stories which use multiple POVs and see how the author pulled that off . . . or didn’t.

In other words, just like everything else, if it works it doesn’t matter what the “rules” say.

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


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Sunday’s Snippets: Have you seen LINCOLN, the movie? by BB

I was touched, entertained and taught by this film yesterday afternoon, directed by Spielberg and acted to perfection by Daniel Day-Lewis.  I admired Lincoln before, and it was with an increased respect for the man and the president, as well as both horror and sadness, that I witnessed this film’s version of the last moments before he went to that final theatrical presentation.  How much our country lost on that fated evening!  I highly recommend the film to any and all.  It will reveal subtle little sides of one of our great presidents we may not have recognized before.  The rest of the cast was very good as well, but none could so inhabit the skin of their namesake in the way Day-Lewis managed to inhabit Lincoln.

A few reminders of his wonderful way with words:

“If the good people, in their wisdom, shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined.”

“This is a world of compensation; and he who would be no slave must consent to have no slave.  Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

“While the people retain their virtue and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government in the short space of four years.”  (So appropriate for today.)

See you day-after-tomorrow for Tuesday’s Tutor


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Friday Friends: What Are Friends For? By BB

I love my friend, Carol Lynch Williams.  I love her writing.  And her smarts.  And her sense of humor.  And, of course, her dancing!  And I love the blog she co-writes with Ann Dee and Kyra ( (both of whom I wish I knew better.)  And they all have friends they love too.

So, I’m borrowing here: in Ann Dee’s post of December 4, 2012, she linked to an article in by Ginny Wiehardt, who had borrowed and adapted a writing exercise by Linnea Johnson from “her excellent book,” The Practice of Poetry (lo-o-ong chain of “friends”). Loved the exercise too—and especially the admonition not to worry about making the writing “good,” just WRITE!  I’d add to that, HAVE FUN WRITING, or why write at all?

So from Linnea, to Ginny, to Ann Dee (and Carol and Kyra), to me, to you— have fun finishing these metaphors/similes:

  1.  Blue paint spilled on the road like . . .
  2.  Cancelled checks in the abandoned subway car seemed . . .
  3.  A spider under the rug is like . . .
  4.  Graffiti on the abandoned building like . . .
  5.  Nothing was the same, now that it was . . .
  6.  The dice rolled out of the cup toward Veronica like . . .
  7.  A child in . . . is like a . . .
  8.  . . . is like muscles stretched taut over bone.
  9.  The fog plumed through gun shot holes in the car windows like . . .
10.  She held her life in her hands as if it were . . .
11.  Lacey poured coffee down her throat as if it were . . .
12.  If I should wake before I die, . . .
13.  The security guard walks the lobby as if . . .
14.  The library books left in the rain . . .
15.  Music in the hallway like . . . 

(If you do manage to write a “good” one or two (or hilarious one or two, or so-bad-it’s-good one or two, send them along in a comment.  Would love to read them, Friend!)

See you day-after-tomorrow for Sunday’s Snippets.


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Wednesday’s WIPs: I have WIPs—and I AM NOT afraid to use ‘em! HA

Around 13 years ago, the thought “I first saw her in 1692” popped into my head. I was driving on an empty stretch of country road in Texas. I had no idea where it came from. Didn’t then; don’t now.

A few months later, I thought about the date. Why 1692? What was significant? How about the Salem Witch Trials? Yep. Hmmm… a story about a witch? No, too many witch stories. How about a poor innocent guy that gets pulled into a witch’s life? Hmmm… with a twist here and there, maybe so. Thus was born A Hint of Forever.

Thirteen years later, it’s 138 pages long, 70+ of those pages having been written in this past NaNoWriMo. It was a work left fallow for a dozen years and is now a WIP.

The story has changed considerably in the last several years; no—that’s not right—the story has changed considerably in the last several months. The first 30 pages were introduced to the first critique group in May of this year. During that same week, those 30 pages were read by a couple of published authors and an editor.

The critique group and authors had some helpful suggestions, and, overall, loved the story. The editor wants to see it when it’s done.

I thought the editor let me down gently with her “when it’s done” comment. Carol Lynch Williams, well known Utah author and head of Writers and Illustrators for Young Readers (WIFYR told me, very sternly, that editors “…looked for reasons to say NO. If she wants it when it’s finished, then finish it and get it to her!”

Heady stuff at the least. The story has grown and changed, taken on a life of its own at times. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

See you day-after-tomorrow for Friday with Friends


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Monday Moans: What’s with all the vitriol on the heels of the elections?

EASY AS A, B, C . . . from BB

Still ???  And “states” want to secede?  To what purpose?  How would secessionists work that out, creating new government entities, etc.?  And now we’re faced with the “Fiscal Cliff,” and arguing about whether to “let” the economy go off in the ditch?  It brings to mind the Rodney King quote about “Can’t we all just get along?”  The elections are over; the President is who he is.  Ditto the Senators, Representatives, Mayors, School Board members, Dog Catchers, etc., both nationally and state-by- state.  Can’t they just do their jobs?

If we could all extend common courtesy to our fellow beings, don’t you think we have sense enough to figure out a way to take care of our neighbors?  Extend a helping hand within each of the cities in which we live?  Think Big, by helping to solve problems which may affect our individual but united states?  Let our leaders know what we need from them, what we want, and how we intend to help our nation climb out from under financial and social problems which plague us all?

Let’s remember, this is the UNITED States of America, and we’ve been that sovereign nation for more years than you, I or anyone else I know has lived on this earth, so CAN’T we all just . . . get along?

See you day-after-tomorrow for Wednesday’s WIPS


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Saturday’s Softcover: Book reviews—what we’re reading, old or new

My turn at reviewing… HA
Red Cell by Mark Henshaw

A quick note about the author: he’s a graduate of Brigham Young University and a decorated CIA analyst who, in 2007, was awarded the Director of National Intelligence Galileo Award for innovation in intelligence analysis. He took the cash award, bought a new computer (at his wife’s urging) and used it to write Red Cell.

From the description of the novel: After her first assignment in Venezuela goes disastrously awry, rookie case officer Kyra Stryker is brought back to Langley to work in the Red Cell, the CIA’s out-of-the-box think tank. There she’s paired with Jonathan Burke, a straitlaced analyst who has alienated his colleagues with his unorthodox methods and a knack for always being right, political consequences be damned.

As first novel’s go, this is a superb example of how to do it. The combination of spies, politicians, analyses of both worlds, deceit from all corners, all woven together in crisp detail, makes this a novel worth reading. Henshaw has brought his years of knowledge of the inner workings of the CIA and other government agencies into this novel. It’s totally believable from every angle.

I’m tempted to use every literary cliché’ in describing this book: page-turner, can’t-put-it-down, must-read, and any others that would, hopefully, entice the reader to grab a copy. Let me just say that I enjoyed the book and hope to see more from this author. He knows what he’s writing about and he has a way of showing the reader into his world.

Available at bookstores everywhere.

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