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
The lead in my current WiP might be smarter than I am! At least about mechanical things, so I'm finding I have to do a lot of research to keep up with the things she wants to do.
It's definitely a smart I have to "show", not tell, though, so it keeps me honest! Great post.
I like a clever protaganist who isn't always sure of herself. I find that results in a little tension in the story.
I agree with your lists. Even writing fantasy, mine is character driven, your characters can't just be about defeating some evil, they have lives, interest and failures to contend with and blending all those components with a sense of humor lightens what might other wise be too dark or stale.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author
Give me a protagonist with a brain every time. Not that she doesn't mess up --don't we all -- but that she learns, communicates and cares.
Tere--And that's the danger of writing super-smart protagonists--research! Mine are just garden-variety smart, I think.
Karen--I like that, too. :) I think some of my favorite books have protagonists who are smart but uncertain and learn to trust their instincts.
N. R. Williams--And the personal side of the protagonist is always so interesting! You're right--it's not all about how they relate to the conflict, but what's going on in their personal lives, too...and how they develop.
Mary--Absolutely! I like protagonists with flaws--and dumb mistakes are fine some of the time (I make plenty of them), but the ability to learn from mistakes is really important, I think.
I don't aim for super-smart, but my characters are always observant (they have to be, since I portray the world through their eyes), and they're usually pretty fast learners or great deducers or both. I don't do much with the great depth of knowledge, but in those areas where they are supposed to be proficient they are. One of my running gags was that my hero Tarkas (I write fantasy) was constantly quoting the Songs he knew, and his companion was constantly saying, "I know the Song, Tarkas."
Marc Vun Kannon
It's important to remember that characters can be mentally active, even if not geniuses. Sometimes the less-educated have original, un-filtered ways of seeing things, and therefore pass that on to readers, giving us a grand "AHA!" moment. :)
Author Guy--I like that--so you've worked in some humor as well as making a point about the character's great memory.
zaelyna--So that could be a way that a lack of formal education could give a character an edge! Good point.
I think you're dead on. I'm going to go check out that writer's other rules...thanks for highlighting them!
Robin--I think you'll enjoy the article--I thought her insights were really interesting.
Great post. I was going to suggest that a character-driven novel need not require a 'smart' protagonist to be compelling/successful, but I thought of Pride and Prejudice, certainly character-driven, and Elizabeth Bennett is clearly intelligent.
I'm thinking too, though, of the opening protagonist in The Sound and the Fury? Not smart at all, that guy, but he is compelling.
I think it's fun to turn expectations upside down.
Only my thoughts. :-)
Corra--No, I think you're right--and compelling goes a long way...particularly if the character has other admirable qualities besides intelligence (courage, etc.) Good point!
I think, like Corra says, the MC does not have to be smart but I thin, more importantly, he has to act smart. Take for example Forest Gump, not exactly Einstein but he stood out as different and often the way he acted was smart in a humble way.
Clarissa--And he was very *good*. He was just a really moral person who tried to do the right thing.
I'm one of those movie viewers who yell at stupid characters going down the dark stairs into the basement when there's a killer on the loose.
My protagonist is street smart, as well as intelligent, but she doesn't see herself as smart. She knows she hasn't had the formal education that others have had, but she comes to realize that what she does know is invaluable.
I love smart characters and smart books. There's no reason to tell the reader a character is smart if you follow the old "show don't tell" rule. A well-developed character should be obviously smart--but not annoyingly so.
I think this is one reason I don't like children as protagonists or other characters in mystery novels. If they are smart enough to appear in an adult book, they must be annoyingly mature. That is too much!
Writers Jailed today on SouthernCityMysteries
That is a great article, Elizabeth-so thank you for sharing it! I certainly think it is easier to do a smart protag well, though I can think of examples where the writer brilliantly portrays the MCs misunderstanding where things are humourous (think Tom Sawyer) or tragic (Lolita) but that takes such amazing skill--I'm not sure regular writers could pull it off.
My MCs are smart, but I also try to give them a rationale for blind spots (like moms--where their kids are concerned) or else a REASON to be so observant (my cozy heroine is a PR manager and is 'nosy' because it makes her job easier to know everything that's going on--she hears about problems ahead of time and can head them off)
I honestly think normally, it is best to shoot for about the intelligence of your readers.--the smart end of normal, but not TOO smart--think about Harry Potter--no slouch, but high-average. Had the book been from Hermione's PoV, they would have been annoying. Had they been from Ron's, nothing at all would have been observed.
Helen--And that makes for a character with some depth. So she's developed survival skills and has street smarts that give her an edge over other characters--but she's a little insecure about her own abilities. Sounds like a great combo!
Michele--I totally agree with you on the mature-beyond-their-years children in mysteries. If they're super serious, it really does bother me.
Hart--I like the idea of the blind spots--you're absolutely right, there are things we're NOT smart about that fall in different categories. So you can have a smart character who makes mistakes.
And you're so right about the intelligence of the Harry Potter characters. I loved Hermione--in small doses! Having an Everyman in the protagonist role means the ability to reach out to more readers.
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