How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You
Graham Moore

How To Write About Characters Who Are Dumber Than You

Or, “The Purpose of Reality Television Discovered At Last.”

My name is Marc, and I have a problem. I’m going to describe it for you because it provides a key insight into the title question. Here it is:

I shout advice at fictional characters.

Now, I don’t do this in theaters, or even in groups of people watching television. (Though if the only other person in the room is my wife, the rule may be suspended.) But it makes me so mad when characters do something which is obviously idiotic — and more importantly, should be obviously idiotic to a person of the character’s imputed intelligence — that I will shout at them. So to be fair it’s not really advice, it’s sarcastic observation. For instance, I will often advise people who have the bad guy at their mercy that they should shoot them. Right now, in the head. I have a nearly 100% accuracy rating on this, in that when I do it, and they fail to follow my advice, something objectively worse than a dead bad guy happens.*

The best way, the absolute best way, to get me to stop reading a book once I start is to have your characters consistently act inconsistently with their imputed intelligence. (Either way, although smart people doing dumb things offends me more than dumb people doing smart things.)

But here’s the problem: I dabble in writing myself. I am highly educated and reasonably intelligent. All my characters end up acting like versions of me when it comes to evaluating and implementing courses of action. I can easily imagine what a character would do if they were me, only evil (or more good.) I can’t easily imagine what a character would do if they were me, only stupider. I have no problem, e.g., writing sympathetic and believable women. I have a serious problem writing sympathetic and believable neurotypical people.

This means my stories often end up as long strings of “and then, and then, and then,” because it limits the opportunities for narrative strife. If your characters always take the most logical course of action, things will, in a non-melodrama, usually proceed as well as can be expected. Of course, the antagonist can always be a) somebody smarter (but see the post that inspired this one) or b) some impersonal force which the protagonists must overcome with their cleverness. But that gets old.

In other words, it turns out there’s a reason fictional characters do dumb things. Fiction is a lot less interesting if they don’t. But I have a hard time making characters do dumb things. So my fiction isn’t interesting.** They can’t do dumb things all the time, or I will smash my keyboard with a large rock. But they have to do dumb things sometimes, or they are boring Mary Sues.

What to do?

Well, the way you learn about something is to go and study it, or read about what people who have studied it learned when they did it. Enter reality television.

Now, “reality television” is a pretty broad term. “COPS,” “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” and “ America’s Next Top Model” are all allegedly reality television, but they range from “mostly accurate depictions of actual events***” to “outcomes entirely decided in advance and participants actively encouraged to act in ways which will engage the audience.” But most of it except the most highly scripted stuff will work for this purpose.

Here’s how:

Psychologists and economists are fond of telling us that people are basically rational, it’s just that often they either don’t have good logic skills or they operate on the basis of incomplete information. But it’s one thing to know that intellectually, it’s another thing to emotionally accept that people will do things which to you are obviously monumentally dumb because to them, it’s not apparent. The way you fix this is to watch reality television. Because in no other medium will you so frequently see people doing one or two dumb things and then reacting to them reasonably consistently and logically.

No, seriously. It works.

Even Juneboo or whatever Honey Boo Boo’s mother’s name is isn’t dumb all the time. (Yes, I admit it, I’ve watched that show. I stopped after a few episodes because it was too gross, not for reasons of superior morality.) In fact, she seems to be quite prudent in many ways. But the hallmark of both she and every other member of her family is poor impulse control which inevitably leads to, for want of a better phrase, hilarity ensuing. At least, if you’re not the person the hilarity is happening to.

If you want a less poverty-porn type of example, consider the many shows in which people are chasing Bigfoot or aliens or whatever. Many of them are reasonably intelligent, if not well educated. They can work their ghost detectors and Bigfoot traps, no problem. Most of the things they do are not inherently illogical. But their basic premise is so messed up that they can’t help but do really, really dumb things (including accepting data and advice from people who are obviously crazy) on a regular basis. Fictionally, they’d probably be interesting characters.

I have been watching COPS for many years. This is mostly because I find it therapeutic — no matter how badly I think of myself, I watch COPS for an hour and I think, “At least I’m not that stupid.” But it and other shows like it have also given me the insight, mostly by overwhelming anecdotal evidence, that people who aren’t actively evil sometimes do really stupid things because they just don’t know any better, or if they do, they rationalize doing them using logic which makes perfect sense to them.

Or, alternatively, there is the opinion I have formed after my many years of COPS-watching as to what the single most common element of negative citizen-police interaction is: poor impulse control. Now, nobody has perfect impulse control. We all have our particular weaknesses and I do not exclude myself. But there is a difference between being unable to resist French Crullers and being unable to resist shoving a police officer because he “disrespected” you.

And that, I think, is how you open your mind to creating characters who aren’t as smart as you are. (If you got this far, agree with me or not you’re probably smarter than average.) You think about how a person with poor impulse control would respond to a situation. Or how Honey Boo Boo’s mother would respond to it, or whatever. Just be consistent in modeling how a real person you’ve had the objective experience of observing in the “real world” would respond if they were in your character’s situation, and you can make your character at least as believable as a real person. Reality television can provide you the background information you need.

After all, it has to be good for something.


*Yes, including the hypothetical costs of cleaning up bloody brains spattered all over the place. I once worked in a meat locker: I know exactly what a pain it is cleaning up such things. I am applying the FULL discount here. SHOOT HIM NOW.

**In before “And neither is this essay!” *ba-bum-tisch*

***The producers of COPS, for instance, are on the record as saying they pick and choose which clips to use both to make the program interesting and to avoid offending certain constituencies. But they don’t encourage people to break the law, or use CGI to make criminals look more threatening or car chases more dramatic. Whereas the outcomes of ANTM are statistically improbable to the point of more or less having to be manipulated.

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