Smart Characters, Stupid Characters

One of my biggest challenges in revising this book is that I seem to be making my characters too smart. They figure things out easily, and when they guess at something, they come to the proper conclusion. This is deadly in a mystery, where the path toward uncovering the culprit can’t be straightforward. You don’t have much of a story if your sleuth comes up with a theory, then finds the clues that verify that theory. I’m having to do a lot of revision to insert some red herrings or to make the sleuth go down the wrong path for a little while.

At the same time, one of my pet peeves as a reader is stupid characters or, worse, what I call Plot Stupidity, where the plot doesn’t work if the characters show an ounce of sense. The plot needs them to go alone into that dark basement when they hear a strange noise there and know a serial killer is on the loose because there’s no story if they’re smart enough to leave the house and get help, but the author doesn’t give the character any reason to go alone into the dark basement that makes their decision at least a little rational.

The old-school fantasy series I’m currently reading (and I’m almost done! Then I’ll be free and will have cleared a big chunk of shelf space because I know I won’t be keeping this one to re-read) is driving me nuts because there’s so much Plot Stupidity. A lot of it is in character, as the characters have been established as headstrong and impulsive, but it’s annoying to read about people who keep bumbling into danger because they refuse to listen to anyone else or practice even a bit of common sense—and then they don’t learn from their mistakes and do the same thing again. I really want to throttle a character who keeps charging off on their own because they think they can resolve everything, in spite of being warned that others have already tried that and it didn’t work, and they’re just heading into danger. And then they get into terrible danger, barely make it out alive, don’t accomplish what they set out to do, end up back where they started—and then do it all over again because they think it will work this time.

Or there’s a character who’s clearly shady. They’ve repeatedly shown that they’re not trustworthy. People who have reason to know have warned that this person can’t be trusted. But the other characters keep trusting them. And then, guess what? It turns out that character has been selling the others out to the villain all along.

It’s incredibly frustrating to read. (I’m using the singular “they” in an attempt to make it harder to identify the series I’m talking about so you don’t know the gender of the characters.)

As a writer, I’m trying to find a middle ground between a character who’s always right and a character who’s an utter idiot. Sometimes a character can make the wrong guess or assumption based on incomplete information. Sometimes the obvious, logical thing turns out to be wrong. There are times when emotions come into play, as even intelligent people have emotional biases. We all tend to side with people we identify with. You don’t want to think that a person who’s a lot like you would commit a crime. I think there’s also a difference between being given information or advice and refusing to listen and taking action based on faulty assumptions or information. I can tolerate someone doing something dumb because they’re misinformed and turn out to be wrong, but it’s more annoying when a character is specifically warned about something and completely disregards the warning.

A lot of my revision in this book has involved sending my sleuth down some wrong paths, sometimes because she jumps to an incorrect conclusion based on incomplete information and sometimes because her emotions get in the way and she doesn’t want to suspect someone she feels sorry for. I hope that’ll be enough to make the story work. And then I need to work to build that into the first draft so I don’t have to spend months rewriting the book.

3 Responses to “Smart Characters, Stupid Characters”

  1. Misti, a.k.a. Carradee

    Have you considered that it’s possible to come to the wrong conclusion with 100% right information, not just misinformation? Like, just having the info in the wrong order or prioritizing or connecting the wrong thing?

    I think part of the difficulty with the smart vs. stupid balance in characters is that the average reader—or at least the average reader in the general population—wants to feel smart, which means they want to figure out the secret no later than when the narrator does.

    And different folks “catch” different details, so to make something noticeable by the average person, you’ve got to make it blatantly obvious to the point of perceived redundancy, for some.

    And no matter how explicit you are, some folks still won’t get it. My guess it’s because some folks read to relax, to avoid thinking much.

    Like, in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, Kate’s biological father is a secret at first. I noticed a potential hint in book 1, but it was one of those things that could’ve easily been coincidence. After Book 2, I was pretty sure the hints were intentional. It was altogether spelled out in book 3, and some folks were still who her dad was after book 4.

    So let’s say you go in the other direction and make characters smart. Then you’re limiting your readership to folks able to keep up or willing to be confused and trust things will work out. Wen Spencer’s Elfhome series has a fair bit of this; some scenes hinge on specific knowledge of physics or chemistry, where unless you happen to know what happens when a bag of X hits a bag of Y, you’re likely to be blinking and wondering “Wait, what just happened?” There were a few scenes I read something like 5 times before I finally figured out which details threaded together to explain the action in the scene.

    Another route to take would be setting things up so there’s more than one possible answer, but then you have the problem of having to carry that possibility through the series until it’s resolved, and the longer it’s held in limbo, the more entrenched a reader will get in their perception, so if they guessed wrong and didn’t notice that there were two options (which seems likely, judging from my conversations with fellow readers of Karen Chance), there’s significant risk of them thinking the book is self-contradictory when it was just their assumptions.

    • Misti, a.k.a. Carradee

      P.S. All those authors I mentioned write fantasy that’s darker, spicier, and more violent than yours. I meant to mention that before posting. I mentioned them as examples that came to mind, not intending them as recommendations, since they’re all a rather different type of urban fantasy from what you write.

    • Shanna Swendson

      I think there’s a big difference between being wrong and being dumb. I think readers will forgive a character for making a mistake as long as it doesn’t disregard all common sense and as long as that mistake doesn’t hurt others.

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