So I was thinking today about good stupid characters, and it struck me that y’know…there’s just not that many.
Now, I don’t mean characters who do really stupid things, when they are supposed to be perfectly intelligent human beings but they insist on doing Every Single Ill-Advised Thing Ever and you really want to hit them with a brick. If you get the impression that the author thinks their character is smart and they’re just sending them off on a plot that is Fueled By Idiocy, then no, not what I mean.
And I don’t mean stupid villains, because those are a dime a dozen. Why is he evil? ‘Cos he’s dumb. Why is he doing this awful thing? Ignorant malice, no need to look any farther. Why is she awful? Because she’s airheaded and shallow, no need to look any farther.
And again, I don’t mean characters with actual learning disabilities or mental impairments, ala Rain Man—that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
I mean characters who are…well…dumb. But you like them anyway, or if you hate them, it’s not necessarily because they are Dumb Villains.
(Think Bertie Wooster.)
And y’know…this is a rare, rare thing in a hero. You get Dumb Well-Meaning Sidekicks relatively often, mostly for comic relief, but how often do you get a main character like that?
I’m thinking…err…Freddy from Cotillion. And Bertie. Maybe Number Ten Ox, although he is not so much stupid as ignorant of the wider world and he’s quite aware of it. And, in the book version, Buttercup from Princess Bride.
Buttercup is actually what kicked the whole thought off—-a friend remarked on Twitter that you could pretty much replace Buttercup with the rug from The Big Lebowski, since all she does is tie the room together. There is a certain justice to this, much as I love Princess Bride—Buttercup, in the movie at least, is a woman-shaped MacGuffin.
In the book, however, I’d argue that she’s a viewpoint character for large chunks and she arguably displays the most emotional growth of any of the characters, except maybe Inigo. We get to spend more time with her inner life than we do with Westley’s, for sure. She moves from MacGuffin to character. And this all occurs with the book being pretty clear on the fact that yeah, Buttercup is dumb as a post, but she’s working with what she’s got here.
(I am being sympathetic to make a point, mind you, and there are certainly alternate interpretations that are equally valid.)
So I was thinking about this, and about why we have so few genuinely acknowledged-as-dumb-by-the-author-and-that’s-okay characters.
I think part of it is the audience. We all like to think we’re smart. It can be hard to get people to sympathize with a dumb character. We could wallpaper a battleship with novels where the hero is The Bookish Girl Shunned By Peers. (This is not me slamming the genre—my first novel was about her, there’s two on my hard drive right now, and one of those is already sold. She works because she works and because we never really abandon those chunks of our childhoods.)
How many fantasy novels have a heroine who is mysteriously literate, despite the rarity of the skill, and who has obsessively read every book available to her?
Don’t bother to tally them up past a point—we’re burning daylight here.
Now, how many fantasy novels have a hero or heroine who’s not smart, but who manages through stubbornness, charm, and/or unexpected but plausible flashes of brilliance, to plow through anyway? And you don’t hate them for not being smart?
Hell, forget fantasy novels, novels at all? Media in general?
Think hard. I’ll wait. *grin*
I got as far as Bertie Wooster, Freddy, Number Ten Ox, and a couple of the incarnations of Blackadder where he is Not As Smart As He Thinks He Is. And even Blackadder is a stretch, because often he IS the smartest person in the room. And Invader Zim, which is reaching, and the knights in Monty Python, which is British and Monty Python and so is in a genre kind of by itself.
And the Tick. Oh lord, so very much the Tick.
Luthe, the mysterious wizard in Robin Mckinley’s Damar books, says at one point that he was never the brightest of pupils, he was just stubborn enough to stick it out when everybody else became sheep farmers because being a wizard is a hard and thankless task. He’s still very serious and much more knowledgeable than anyone else, so it’s kind of a wash, though. Radagast? Sure, I can go Radagast.
Now, let’s be clear—this is a seriously fraught issue when you get to heroines, because of the simple reason that women get treated as dumb all the damn time in genre, and it’s not always easy to separate a character who is getting the short end of the misogyny stick from one who took INT as a dump stat. And I expect a lot of us don’t want to write a stupid female character because she is always, always an object of contempt, or we figure people won’t get it, or we have a hard time figuring out how to be dumb and still have agency (which Buttercup, god love her, utterly lacks.) And we’re bristly and prickly about it, and damn it, we have every right to be, because Bertie Wooster is a charmingly useless fellow and a female version would be near universally loathed. Because we have to be twice as competent to be considered half as good, and in some circles, we could be Dr-goddamn-Manhattan and all people would talk about, as New York burned, would be how slutty we were for not wearing pants.
Because everybody hates Sansa Stark. (Maybe she’s more awful in the shows, haven’t watched them. I hated Sansa Stark. Then I just felt sorry for her, and then I stopped reading the books because I get tired of seeing people die.)
Because I am wracking my brain for a female character who isn’t bright (and not because Teh Wimmenz R Dumb) and who still does proper heroic stuff and is still loved, and all I’m getting is Dory the fish. (I’d swear for emphasis here, but I don’t want it to look like I’m slamming Dory, because she’s awesome.)
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s dead easy with a male character either. Georgette Heyer wrote enough Regency novels to fill a Suburban with the seats taken out, and there’s one genuinely delightful stupid hero (plus a couple who merely act dumb occasionally and I want to kick them in the head.) And I will give her credit for a few not terribly bright heroines who are nevertheless not loathsome, but there aren’t many and they tend to be caught up in madcap capers and whatnot.
I begin to suspect that dumb but interesting/loveable/relatable is hard—at least if you’re doing it deliberately.
Maybe it’s next to impossible. It’s a pretty short list up there.
But damnit, now that I have pretty much laid out all the reasons why I can’t write this character, I sort of want to. And I sort of want other people to, but I think you might have to be very very good at it. Because doing it wrong would leave that character flat at best and horribly embarrassing at worst.
(Now, I play a paladin in D&D, and he’s supposed to be dumb and charismatic, but let’s face it, it’s me playing it, so there’s only so much I can do. I suspect he’s not nearly as dumb as he pretends to be. I suspect our druid would disagree strongly with this sentiment.)
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten down this train of thought. But this is the sort of thing I think about while I am eating an enormous breakfast after getting blood drawn.