I had dreams of being a backstage dance. For Britney Spears. I expressed this desire and the reply was, “You know the purpose of backstage dancers, right?”

Me: “Uh… to dance?”

I then learned that backstage dancers are there to make the pop star look good. If Britney Spears sucks at dancing, the backstage dancers are supposed to suck more. If you have eight people who really suck at dancing, and one Britney who sucks less at dancing, then Britney will look like the better dancer compared to the other eight. Britney is the star of the show, so of course she has to look the best. Similar to how you pick ugly bridesmaids to stand next to you at your wedding. Can’t have pretty bridesmaids stealing the show, now.

I never became Britney’s backstage dancer, but I became a published author and I see the same backstage dancer concept in writing. And what that looks like is the writer creates the Star of their book and throws in side characters (backstage dancers) to hover around the Star. These side characters act dumb which makes the Star look smart in comparison, even though the Star has done nothing specific to prove they really are smart. Essentially, the Star is just the smartest of the dumbest. This is the backstage dancer trap.

Because I learn by examples, here are a few:

EXAMPLE #1: The Star of the book is a 12 year old boy who’s apparently super smart. To prove he’s smart, a side character is introduced. This side character is 25 years old and in college. Both are given the same math problem: 5+6(8x9)7–2+5+7–6. The 12 year old gets the right answer. The college kid does not.

THE BACKSTAGE DANCER TRAP: The college kid is the backstage dancer for the 12 year old. The college guy is dumbed down (can’t answer the math problem though in all likelihood he should) to make the 12 year old look smart.

EXAMPLE #2: The Star of the book is a princess. One of six princesses. The other five princesses act childish and complain a lot. And because no one is impressed with a childish and always-complaining-woman, the prince falls in love with the Star because she’s mature and resilient.

THE BACKSTAGE DANCER TRAP: The Star has done nothing to prove she’s mature or resilient, but compared to the other five princesses, she appears to be that way. If you take away these backstage dancers, the Star appears completely normal.

WHY WRITERS WILLINGLY PUT THEMSELVES INTO THE BACKSTAGE DANCER TRAP

I’m not a book-smart person. You throw a math problem at me and I’ll find a corner and play with my dragon legos. But let’s say I create a book-smart character. He’s a 12 year old boy and he IS smarter than a college kid. Now I have to do research, I have to talk to college professors and ask them to give me a math problem that a college kid would not know the answer to, and then have him give me the answer. Writers often put themselves into the backstage dancer trap because it’s EASY. It’s so much easier to dumb down than to smart up. If I dumb down that 25 year old college kid then I don’t have to research an actual question that a college kid can’t answer. Hard. Writing is hard.

Remember this mantra: SMART UP. DON’T DUMB DOWN. Every time you’re tempted to dumb down, remember this song:

J.M. Robison, Historian of Fantasy Worlds