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Do protagonists have to be smart? - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Do protagonists have to be smart?
Nalo Hopkinson asked this question on Twitter, and theferrett picked it up on LJ with a discussion about dumb protagonists.

There's a range of parameters here, including but not limited to:
* protagonists who are developmentally disabled.
* protagonists who come from weird backgrounds that make them exceptionally innocent or ignorant.
* protagonists who are not human and thus may be dumb about things "everybody knows" or who just have different intelligence.
* protagonists who are very young, so haven't developed either smarts or education much yet.
* protagonists who are uneducated, but possess a great deal of native intelligence.
* protagonists who are educated, but have no common sense and/or are just not very smart.
* protagonists who have a honking big blind spot or prejudice that makes them do dumb things.
* protagonists who are gullible, or so optimistic, that they're easy to fool.
* protagonists for whom IQ is not a primary job skill, whose charm or greatness lies elsewhere.
* protagonists who just seem to be dumbasses for no explicit reason.

In my own writing, I tend to favor smart characters, because I like smart people in general.  (Also, I often have the same effect on average characters that I do on average people in this world: they feel awkward, can't keep up with me, and leave.)  However, I'm also fascinated by diversity, so sometimes I go looking for characters who are <i>not</i> brilliant -- sometimes ordinary characters who do interesting things without benefit of extraordinary talents, other times characters with an actual handicap or other limitation.

In Torn World, for instance, I have Fala, who is possessed of much innate intelligence -- but as a Northerner, she doesn't have access to advanced education.  That will provide interesting plot conflict later.  There's Marai, a character I designed as a raiser, whose greatest asset is emotional intelligence rather than pure mental accuity.  Then there's Ularki, another Northerner, who is developmentally disabled.  I've already written one story showing how she fits into the community; I'm hoping that eventually someone will adopt her (the character sheet is in progress).

In other contexts ...

"The Cub Who Went Hungry" is a nature myth about a young wolf cub learning to hunt, who keeps making the same mistake and never catches anything.  That's an example of a protagonist being dumb through inexperience, exuberance, and cockiness.

"Breakthrough Combination" is a science fiction story with two lead characters representing opposed political stances, the Separatists and the Cooperatives.  The Separatist negotiator has more hard-world, practical experience; the Cooperative negotiator has more political acumen and higher IQ.  Each of them can be blindsided by different things -- and they need to work together.

I've seen many versions of "dumb" characters in other people's writing.  Sometimes they are handled plausibly and respectfully, other times not.

So what do you think about "dumb" characters, as a writer or a reader?

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valarltd From: valarltd Date: April 9th, 2010 02:49 am (UTC) (Link)
I know where my prejudices lie and would not write a developmentally disabled character because of them. (it's complicated, stemming back to a retarded pedophile uncle who tried to kill me)

On the other hand, undereducated characters are great fun. Part of the fun is watching them develop into the greatness they can achieve.

I have a couple of low-average intelligence characters in my books. (I got to role-play one in a LARP) They know they aren't as smart as those around them, but they also know they have their own role in the group. And they usually end up with my David muse, who likes them big and dumb across all universes.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2010 05:21 am (UTC) (Link)

O_O

>> (it's complicated, stemming back to a retarded pedophile uncle who tried to kill me) <<

Yee.

>> On the other hand, undereducated characters are great fun. Part of the fun is watching them develop into the greatness they can achieve. <<

Agreed. Sometimes they are experts in their own right, though, on a nonacademic topic.

>>And they usually end up with my David muse, who likes them big and dumb across all universes.<<

*laugh* That sounds like fun.
From: dsgood Date: April 9th, 2010 04:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Add: People with ADD/ADHD. People with learning disabilities -- which can go together with high intelligence. Mental illness.

And: people whose memory is abstract; no sensory memory at all, at least consciously.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2010 05:18 am (UTC) (Link)

Hmm...

That reminds me of another favorite, characters with amnesia, who have lost most or all of their data-and-processes set.
moonvoice From: moonvoice Date: April 9th, 2010 05:01 am (UTC) (Link)
One of my favourite books in the world, 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time,' is written from the first person perspective of a character with Asperger's, and he is an excellent and likeable character. He's clearly disabled by 'normative' standards, but it is through his narrative that quite a simple story takes on a life of its own.

I actually have a few books which include memory and disability or intellectually impaired characters. I tend to write characters that aren't necessarily very intellectual, but are often emotionally intelligent.

If one includes mental dysfunction in the list of impairments, I frequently write characters with severe mental disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative identity disorder, touch phobias and so on. I pull from real life in this, but it works for me.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2010 05:14 am (UTC) (Link)

Cool!

That reminds me of This Alien Shore which was full of characters with differently structured personalities. That actually worked. I was only disappointed that we didn't get to see more of the social techniques that caused it to work, because those were damn handy.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: April 9th, 2010 11:46 am (UTC) (Link)

Ooo! A chance to quote myself!

Aaron stood watching Mister Leland walk away. Satisfied, at last, that he'd gone too far to turn back, Aaron suddenly sat down beside Ruth.

"Miz Rufe," he said frantically, "you gots tuh rot me a pass. You just gots tuh."

"Why?" she asked.

"I'se gwine tuh cut sticks," he chattered. "Ah gots tuh. We all does."

"What you talkin' bout, boy?" Dorrie asked rather caustically.

"Y'all knows ah got a gal at Doc Latenser's place?"

"Mhm," Lizzie nodded, "an she muss be some powerful good piece a ass foe you to walk dat far."

"She show tuh be bedduh dan a watt man's ass, dat's foe show," Adolphe added.

Aaron had fallen silent and sullen.

"Go on," Ruth encouraged him.

"Wall, dat's ma point, zackly, dat I walks so far. When I'se walkin, ah hood de padder rollers comin, so ah hods, and day don't know I'se dare, an den ah hood em talkin' what day is gwine tuh do."

The others waited, intrigued, yet torn apart by dread, realizing that no conversation among patrollers could ever bode well for slaves.

"What's day gwine tuh do?" Lizzie huffed.

"Day." Aaron hesitated, glancing quickly and repeatedly at each of them. "Is gwine tuh kill Mistuh Leland."

"Nigga," Adolphe said, "day caint kill no watt man."

Lizzie laughed. "Oh," she said, "you had me believin' yo story."

"It's de trufe," Aaron insisted.

"How is day gwine tuh kill 'im?" Adolphe asked.

"He de onliest watt man hair," Aaron reminded them. "Day is gwine tuh kill him, and den day is gwine tuh say we done it. Day is gwine tuh say it was a uprisin."

"Lawd!" Lizzie fell back in her chair.

Adolphe said nothing, but slumped forward, his arm on the table and his forehead on his arm.

"Shit." Ruth said it very softly.

"Ah gots tuh cut sticks," Aaron repeated. "We all does. Befoe it happen."

"They'll come after us," Ruth said.

"Wall ah'd radduh day have tuh look foe me befoe day hangs me," Aaron replied. "an ah knows you kin rot me a pass."

"I can't do that," Ruth told him.

"Ah node you'd tink you is watt." The contempt in his voice burned like lye.

Ruth wanted to grab a chair and bust it over Aaron's head for what he'd just said. It cut deeply, and hurt her profoundly, not because it was true, nor because it wasn't, but simply because it could be said, and had been. Ruth felt like an empty bottle with a label on either side. Neither label truly applied, because the bottle was empty.

"Alright," she said, "you'll have a pass. Give me a few days to make sure I don't get caught."

"Why is day gwine tuh kill im?" Lizzie asked suddenly, as if it had taken her this long to collect herself and phrase the question.

"He quair," Adolphe said, speaking into the crook of his elbow.

"It aint juss dat," Aaron said. "Day hates de way he spile us."

"But all de plantuz 'priciates how much moe money day gots now cause a him," Lizzie objected.

"It aint de plantuz wants to kill im," Aaron explained, "it's de padder rollers. He aint makin dem no moe money, an he gots no rispeck foe em, an now nobody else do, needer."

"Dat's de trufe," Lizzie said.

"Wall, day juss watt niggas wif guns an hosses," Adolphe added, sitting upright again.

"Zackly," Aaron agreed.

"An killin' a quair aint no kind a sin," Dorrie observed, glancing at Ruth.

"Nah," Aaron said, "it show aint."

"Not eebin in Canada," Orpah sighed. It was the first thing she'd said all morning.

Ruth stood, walking around to the southern edge of the map. She pointed out their location on it.

"Here we are," she said. The others were silent. When she looked up, she saw in their eyes a reverence, as if God himself had put the book of life in her hands. None of them had any idea how to read a map.

She remembered how, when she was a child in Kentucky, old women spent years assembling a quilt. They would scavenge and hoard every scrap of rag they could find, and each bit of thread. Ruth had never quite understood the intricate designs, had never been able to read a quilt, so she was now unable to translate the abstraction of paper and ink into the abstraction of cloth and thread. For the first time in her life, Ruth felt truly ignorant.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: April 9th, 2010 11:49 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Ooo! A chance to quote myself!

Ruth is a mulatto, raised as a house slave in Kentucky and purchased at auction.
The others were born as field slaves in Alabama, and brought into the house
by their owner, a homosexual banker from New York,
who acquired the plantation and its slaves when the previous owner went bankrupt.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: April 9th, 2010 12:09 pm (UTC) (Link)

as long as I'm quoting myself...

"The fool hath said in his heart," Reverend Davidson was soon reading from his Bible, "There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good." Ruth wondered when King David had visited Alabama. "The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one... Oh, that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the Lord bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad."

Ruth understood what this meant. Things would remain as they were until kingdom come. She wondered if she would swoon in the pent-up heat and stuffiness of the balcony. Because of the windows being closed, it was more stifling than in the summer.

Outside, the chill of winter revived her, and she squinted, noticing that the sun had pushed aside enough of the cloud cover to wet the trees with melted hoarfrost. As they rode home, a gray overcast consumed the sky, replacing the piercing shafts of sunlight with a smooth dull sheen that suggested a possibility of snow, a cumbersome wet snow that would coat the earth with a dazzling purity for a moment, then turn everything to mud once the sky cleared again. Ruth had seen this in Kentucky, and knew it would be the same in Alabama. She huddled against Mister Leland, glad that they were in the partially sheltered lower seat.

Lizzie, huddled against Adolphe on the higher, totally open driving seat, shivered and glanced back over her shoulder at them, and smiled, but her smile was gone a second later as she looked up at something that caught her eye. She shivered again as she turned forward, putting her lips to Adolphe's ear. In another moment, he turned his head back, then quickly turned it forward again. Ruth could see the tension in his arms as he gripped the reins nervously. She could hear him thinking, considering what action he ought to take while action could still be taken. Mister Leland, who had been looking down, hadn't yet noticed any of this. Ruth, as frightened at the thought of not knowing what was behind them as by any guess what it might be, turned her head to see a single horse with a single rider, not pursuing them, but simply trailing them. The man on the horse was looking directly at her, and obviously recognized that he had been noticed, yet betrayed no concern about this, as if it were one of several items on a list of things that would happen today. Ruth wondered, as she turned her head forward again, what else was on that list.

Lizzie turned her head sideways, as if murmuring in Adolphe's ear, as if she weren't taking in a meaningful view with the corner of her eye and reporting it to a man holding four lives in his careful hands. Ruth leaned a bit closer to Mister Leland, as if what she'd just seen were nothing unusual. She hoped that the patrollers would make a clean job of her hanging, and not leave her to writhe and gasp, guttering like a wick fallen over in a last puddle of the wax it had melted. The thought of herself brought to such a miserable end riled her, and stirred her spirit. She had seized authority before, wielding it at will, and decided she would again, somehow. Mister Leland, still gazing pensively at his boots, had no idea they might soon be dangling above the ground, no idea that all hell might break loose and consume him within the hour.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: April 9th, 2010 12:13 pm (UTC) (Link)

again, it won't all fit...

Ruth noticed Lizzie's eye turn down on her. Ruth nodded very slightly, and Lizzie's eye rested on her. Lizzie's lips moved rapidly, and Ruth could see what was being said.

"Miz Rufe know dat padder roller behin' us. She gwine tuh tink a sumpin'." She looked back once more, then turned her head forward again just as the first few flakes of snow began swirling around the carriage and settling gradually on them. Mister Leland saw the snow, and looked up, then glanced around, smiling.

As the carriage turned into the yard, Ruth noticed that everything was as it should be. Aaron approached them as casually as ever. When the carriage stopped, Ruth stood, putting her head between Adolphe's and Lizzie's.

"Bring as many of the men together in the carriage house as you can, ready to fight for their lives. If these patrollers want an uprising, by God, we'll give them an uprising they won't soon put down."

Mister Leland was already out of the carriage, and helped Ruth to get down. At last, he noticed the rider, who now dismounted and led his horse to the rail.

"Good day, sirruh," the rider called out, spinning the reins around the rail, so that they looped, and caught themselves securely.

"Good day," Mister Leland replied.

"Beautiful December day, isn't it?" the rider asked, brushing the narrow trace of snow from the top of the rail where it had collected.

"Indeed," Mister Leland agreed. "Reminds me of home, in fact."

"It does the same fur me, sirruh, it does. Good day, ma'am," he said to Ruth, removing his hat. She now recognized the boy she'd fucked in August. He looked toward Mister Leland again. "Ah'm from Pennsylvania, sirruh, but ma fambly come hair wan ah war a chile."

"I see," Mister Leland replied.

"Yore negress--yore mulatto gal--hair, she cuts a fan figger of a woman," he said.

"It's kind of you to notice," Mister Leland replied, now smiling proudly.

"An it's she what brung me hair, in a manner a speakin'."

"I'm afraid I don't understand."

"Would yeh be of a mind to sell her, sirruh?"

Mister Leland stepped back, to glance at the young man, sweeping his eyes up and down his full length, and then to glance at Ruth in the same fashion before looking at the young man again.

"Have you any idea what she's worth?" Mister Leland asked him, rather coldly.

"Ah do, sirruh." The young man shifted on his feet and lowered his eyes. "Ah haven't much cash, but ah do have forty acres a good bottom land ah'd be willin' tuh give yeh fer her."

"That's quite an offer, young man," Mister Leland remarked. "Perhaps you'd better come inside."

"Yes, sirruh," he replied. "Ah shall be glad tuh."

"Ruth," Mister Leland continued, "please get some coffee for us."

"Yes, sir," she said, turning to look out over the quarter. She detected a quiet flurry of activity behind the scrim of falling snow. Men were discreetly gathering and making their way to the carriage house, and just as discreetly gathering every conceivable weapon, as well as a few weapons Ruth herself could not conceive of.
msstacy13 From: msstacy13 Date: April 9th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ring Lardner's "Haircut"
http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/haircut.html
is an attempt at something of the kind, I guess...
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 9th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

Good handling of dialect in that one! Minds me of Mark Twain.
fayanora From: fayanora Date: April 11th, 2010 02:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I tend to have intelligent characters, too, (because I am intelligent and like other intelligent people) and use gaps in each person's education to explain things to the readers. Like in my Nokwahl novels, some of them take place on Nokwahl's home planet. Obviously, she knows a lot about her own world, so her human partner Alex (and other human friends) I use to get her to explain things the reader won't know, by asking questions when Nokwahl herself would be unfazed by something (and thus leaving the readers going, "Wait, what?" without the human characters). Likewise, when the stories take Nokwahl to Earth and Earth-controlled areas, she becomes the ignorant one, so I use her to make my own comments on the oddities of humanity.

I can't think of any stupid characters offhand. All my characters are smart, even when ignorant. The only thing I can think of that comes close are some of the demons, but the "stupid" demons are really just animals.

Oh wait, I remember now! My Lo stories have a bully named Valerie, who isn't terribly bright. But even my villains tend to be at least moderately intelligent.

Oh, and I have some characters that are children.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 11th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>>Like in my Nokwahl novels, some of them take place on Nokwahl's home planet. Obviously, she knows a lot about her own world, so her human partner Alex (and other human friends) I use to get her to explain things the reader won't know, by asking questions when Nokwahl herself would be unfazed by something (and thus leaving the readers going, "Wait, what?" without the human characters). Likewise, when the stories take Nokwahl to Earth and Earth-controlled areas, she becomes the ignorant one, so I use her to make my own comments on the oddities of humanity.<<

I love fish-out-of-water stories, especially when there's a turnaround like this.
cissa From: cissa Date: April 12th, 2010 02:30 am (UTC) (Link)
A well-written character who makes poor decisions because of youth and/or innocence and/or ignorance and/or idealism can break my heart.

My person peeve is characters who the author assures us are "geniuses" and yet who act like idiots in all possible areas of action. Grr.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 12th, 2010 03:11 am (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>>A well-written character who makes poor decisions because of youth and/or innocence and/or ignorance and/or idealism can break my heart.<<

That has potential for much drama.

>>My person peeve is characters who the author assures us are "geniuses" and yet who act like idiots in all possible areas of action. <<

Yes, that's annoying. On the other hoof, some genius characters are boneheads outside their specialty.

*chuckle* We have one in Torn World right now who is a technical genius with time crystals and some other aspects of science, but sloppy in his work and socially speaking a total jerk. But he's fun to play with, and different authors are setting him up in different ways. I trotted him through "It's Not Magic, It's Science!" where his latest discovery was considered implausible because people were so used to him screwing around. If Oranaan has a jot of common sense in his pretty head, he hasn't shown it yet.
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