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Charming Stupidities

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.




Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.


Hmm... I think there are some Jane Austin characters who qualify. Emma, maybe? And I think an argument could be made for Fanny from Mansfield Park, although it's hard to tell if she's actually kind of stupid or if she's just so humble that she would never show how smart she can be. She's got a sort of obstinate morality that marries well to the former, though, and while she's observant, stupid doesn't have to be the same as blind, and the other characters kind of treat her like a pet anyway.

Emma's not as clever as she thinks, but I think she's more unobservant than stupid.

I think Fanny gets bashed unfairly, personally.

There is a book by Allen Steele which I treasure because the protagonist is so vividly written in 1st person that I did not realize, until he himself realized, that said character had been a complete and utter idiot on a fundamental level. The sad part is that I do not feel I can pass on the name of this novel because I would steal that moment of dawning realization from the next reader.

Recommend to us a list of three first-person novels and we'll be able to take a sort of Russian roulette approach to it :D

(and hey, then I get THREE new titles to read!)

Terry Pratchett's characters may be good examples of what you're looking for here. Several of them are very smart and very clever, but prove to be not as clever as they think they are. Some of them are just doing what they can with what they've got. Almost all of them who make it do so because of sheer cussed stubbornness. Characters like Nanny Ogg or Granny Weatherwax are wise and ignorant. Rincewind is cowardly and flawed. The platoon from _Monstrous_Regiment_ certainly fits the bill, even if the main character can read.

Sassinak from the book of the same name by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Moon is not a very smart character but she works hard to excel in her field and many of her challenges are based in learning experiences because she doesn't think things through perfectly in the moment.

Thank you for digging up this topic. I find myself digging through my memories of adventures with my old friends and thinking of them fondly. A good way to spend a morning.

Rincewind popped into my mind, too.

Tsukino Usagi, "Sailor Moon." She's not terribly bright, she's often clumsy, but she (usually) means well and she (usually) does her best for those she cares about, and she tries her best to have fun in the midst of being attacked by the monster of the week and dealing with great interplanetary drama.

The timing on this is funny because I just got to the "big reveal" part of the first anime series this week. (Yes, I'm on a (re)watch. Someone told me the whole thing's up on YouTube and I realized, hey, I've never actually watched the subtitled series all the way through before...)

Edited at 2013-08-07 03:06 pm (UTC)

Dude. Every time I've looked for the series of Youtube I get flooded with shitty fan vids. What should I look for to find the real thing?

Also, have you seen the live action series? I love it far more than I really should, and compared to the dubs it's amazingly good.

Hmm, Catherine Moreland? Henry Tilney thinks she's naive but charming, and I suppose she is, but she's still kind of dumb, too.

Also Ron Weasley, except that he's good at chess.

There's Tazendra in the Khaavren books by Steven Brust - while she isn't The Protagonist, she is certainly one of the group of protagonists. She manages to be very good at a presumably somewhat-academic subject (sorcery), occasionally subject to flashes of cunning (tracking one character by the boots which she'd noted a while back), but frequently decidedly thick. But a wonderfully bright personality. One of my favourite characters.

Oh, yes. I need to re-read the Paarfi books....

Does Rincewind count?

Rincewind is a coward and has to be smart, otherwise he'd get killed. You can contrast his savviness with Twoflower's naiveté in the first book, and Interesting Times shows that Rincewind can hatch a very good plan when he has to. (Twoflower's not exactly stupid either, but he appears to be to most people around him.)

- InfamousSnake

From Game of Thrones I'd argue it's not just Sansa, but the whole Stark clan that isn't all that big in the smarts department, but we root for them anyway. One of my favorite characters that would fit that would be Arthur Dent from Hitchhiker's. Others? Maybe Shadow from American Gods. Women like this are definitely rarer, perhaps Sookie from True Blood?

I dunno, I recall Shadow being pretty smart. He figures out what Wednesday's game is, and he figures out the whole missing-children subplot.

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Everyone but Trillian and Marvin are helpless morons. :-)

Forrest Gump?

Ford's arguably relatively sharp, too. But Arthur is... not bright, and Zaphod is actively self-sabotagingly stupid. :)

Aubrey and Maturin. Dear God Aubrey and Maturin.

The levels at which they have complementary areas of smart and dumb are absolute genius.

Dumb--or at least very naive-- characters show up a lot in satire (Candide, Tom Jones, Bubba Gump, Chance in "Being There," all the characters in "Raising Hope," etc).

A character like Penny in "Big Bang" is hard to classify--the whole premise is that the guys think of her as dumb and themselves as smart, but we see that their view is true only in physics, and she's actually much smarter about everything else.

None of these are really fantasy, of course. Maybe it's hard to combine fantasy and satire.

Yeah, your remark about "hard to classify" reminds me of Sheriff Carter in Eureka -- he's supposedly our Everyman point-of-view character, compared with the gifted people who surround him, yet his regular flashes of insight show that he's actually extremely talented too.

There's Groo the Wanderer. There aren't many literary figures more stupid. But there are different rules for comics, I think. There are certainly more examples of stupid main protagonists in the genre.

Yes, I was trying to remember this one!

The only dumb but still likeable (albeit secondary) character I can think of offhand that you haven't named is Miss Ivy Hisselpenny from Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate books.

I was going to name her! And her husband is not much brighter, but equally likeable :)

I would also put forth Ward from Patricia Briggs Dragon Bones and Dragon Blood. While he may not be as stupid as he first appears, he is still fundamentally a guy with a brain injury and a stutter, who saves the country through sheer grit.

I adore those books!

I wish to encourage you to find a way to write this character. I have no brilliant suggestions. I just want to read Bertie Wooster by Ursula Vernon[1].
That said, Bertie is a send up of a whole generation and era. He is the appealing distillation of very horrible behaviour and attitudes. Is that why we like him? Is that part of his appeal? He is also the harking back to an era utterly destroyed by war, so golden age and all that. I think Buttercup is also a distillation of the Princess in the Fairytale - not the agent, but the reason for others' agency. So, is that what a charmingly dumb character needs to be? Someone who sums up a recognized group and struggles with the narrativium?

[1] - I completely know that you would not plagiarize or do any other creative-sloven act. But, you know what I mean: think of the characters that you have created, and then think what you could do with a Bertie Wooster, and ... stand well back. :)

Some of the early Bertie and Jeeves stories are in the public domain. I presume Ursula could write the characters as long as she branched the timeline appropriately.

Or maybe we just need a Bertie Rooster painting.