I came across an interesting article recently on The LA Times blog, that gives White Oleander author Janet Fitchs’ ten rules for writers. And, don’t worry, it’s not as pushy as some rules articles go (I don’t think writers are great rule-followers to begin with.)
I thought number seven was interesting:
7. Smarten up your protagonist.
Your protagonist is your reader’s portal into the story. The more observant he or she can be, the more vivid will be the world you’re creating. They don’t have to be super-educated, they just have to be mentally active. Keep them looking, thinking, wondering, remembering.
My protagonists are always pretty smart—just because, as a reader, I get frustrated with characters who don’t have original ideas or can’t (or at least try) to think their way out of a bad situation.
I’m never a fan of the female protagonist who knows there’s a weird sound coming from her basement…while there’s a serial killer who just happens to be on the loose…and goes right down into the basement at three a.m.
But I’m also not a fan of writers who come right out and tell me that the protagonist is smart. That’s one of those things I need to be shown, not told about. I’m always very suspicious that they’re not as smart as they seem…and look for ways for them to mess up.
I thought Agatha Christie handled Hercule Poirot’s brilliance really well—he would always brag about his “little gray cells,” which would invite other characters to laugh at him a little (and maybe the readers would laugh at him, too)—then he’d solve the case with such genius and explain his deductions with such eloquence, that all faith was restored in the little man.
I’ve noticed that smart characters share these characteristics
A sense of humor
The ability to learn from their mistakes
They usually make sound decisions (or at least not dumb ones) in some area of their life. Some characters have a lower emotional intelligence (they have failed relationships, etc.), but still make good decisions within other aspects of their life.
They’re actively engaged in problem-solving, even if their solutions don’t always work out.
People do have many different gifts. Finding out what specifically our character is good at and then showing them excelling at it is another way to showcase our character’s intelligence.
How smart are your characters? How do you demonstrate it?
Readers, how smart do you like protagonists to be?
Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin as Riley Adams. The latest is Delicious and Suspicious. She also writes the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink (under her own name), and blogs daily at Mystery Writing Is Murder You can also find her at Mystery Lovers Kitchen. or at Twitter: @elizabethscraig