Tag Archives: smart characters

On Writing Dumb Characters Who Aren’t Actually Dumb

(The title is weird, work with me here.)

So one of the “flaws” I’ve given my main character is that she’s a C student. She’s not in any honors classes, so I knew right away that half of the problem is effort since I didn’t give her a learning disability. Considering her defensively prickly personality, I knew it was a matter of whether she cared about who she was with or not. Most of the time, she doesn’t, so her grades are just enough to keep her out of trouble and then the rest of her time she can do what she wants. But I also knew even if she did try… That would get her to B with the occasional A territory, not Honors or AP courses. Just because she likes Shakespeare doesn’t mean she likes analyzing it or higher sciences/mathematics.

As a writer, I like this. Things like having your protagonist be a Dumb Jock (TM) so their Smart Friend (TM) can do their homework and you don’t have to think about it DRIVES ME NUTS. It also means you have to keep the action moving because those aren’t characters that sit and think about what to do, usually. Ginny loves action movies and their plots. I find them good brain relaxers, but they aren’t what I want to write. I want to write about characters who are balanced and like real people we see in reality, which means while some tropes are welcome, some aren’t. So even though I have a core trio (or two, depending on how how you count Moonshine), they all have to pull their thinking weight in different ways.

So for me this is a lot of balancing with my writing. If I make something pretty darn obvious, like it might be with one of my plot points for Page, I have to show that Caley is distracted is all to hell by something else because she has enough intelligence to add two and two and get four. She’s aware of human nature–she knows when someone feels wrong, and she’s good at figuring out what sort of awful things people will do to meet their goals because she’s seen a lot (she calls it having a doctorate in life). So sometimes, she’s more than smart enough to figure something out…she’s just distracted by someone being up to something that threatens her own choices in some way.

When I was building my trio (because YA series having a trio is a staple that I can respect and I’m not tossing out), I decided each character was going to have a different type of intelligence. All three have a heavy dose of common sense, though each can be distracted from it. One character is more emotionally intelligence, one is more book smart, and the other has social smarts. That isn’t to say the others don’t have the other types of intelligence, it just isn’t as strong with them or it’s in specific areas. Quiz Caley on types of dance and famous ballets, you’ll get a wildly different set of answers than you would out of the other two.

What I’m saying I guess is that I don’t like writing a character who is a smarty pants who has all the answers, because then it makes it hard to surprise them, but I don’t want to write the dumb jock who just punches his way through the plot. I think there should be balance, and sometimes that gets tricky to write. It’s hard, but I find it rewarding because I’m not just sticking to tropes or continuing to produce the same story that someone else has already done. (No shade meant.)

This probably comes from my own teen years. While I was in Honors classes, I didn’t always feel like I should be outside of the English or History classes. And while I have writer brain and know how a lot of things are going to end when I watch them, that only applies to genres I’ve analyzed. So when I’d go to a movie with friends and I’d get “caught,” by the ending…I’d feel really dumb when they’d tell me it was super obvious so they didn’t like the whole movie. Because they were used to consuming those types of movies, and they wanted the tropes they were highly familiar with to be subverted or changed. As someone who didn’t, the tropes played straight got me.

All of us were smart, my intelligence and consumption of media just shaped me differently. I shouldn’t have been made to feel stupid because I didn’t always follow the math or science that was math pretending to not be math, or because I didn’t track a twist to the story because it wasn’t my type of media. And I didn’t see this being portrayed in many YA books. So many just lump all the intelligence types together, so either your character is a genius and you’re beating emotional sense into them (which gets old fast), or while some characters do try and deal with the fact they aren’t considered bright, they don’t address a character who is smart in some ways and isn’t in others.

So even though it makes writing an absolute chore because I know I can only distract/drag out mysteries so long before getting Caley wise to them but I also have to give the right kind of clues or she won’t figure it out…I think it’s important to remember no character is truly dumb. Even the Dumb Jock (TM) knows things and skills that the Smart Friend (TM) doesn’t, and should be given the chance to show that instead of being spoon fed the answers.