How to Write a Stupid Character

How to Write a Stupid Character

Every writer dreams of writing a stupid character. What could be better? Readers always respond with such a delightful mix of kind patronage (in response to the character’s adorable befuddlement) and smug condescension (as they rejoice that they, at least, could never be as dumb as that). Stupid characters just make those books go flying off the shelves!

How can you tap into this surprising secret for success? How can you write a character whose lack of intelligence, instinct, and intuition are his defining characteristics? There are many ways to accomplish this. Classic models such as Gilligan, Colonel Klink, and Barney Fife are worth studying, but they lack definitive worth in our discussion, since their stupidity was created to actively serve the story (how ridiculous!). No, what we’re after is a character who is deliciously stupid in ways that make your work as an author easier. Who among us wouldn’t want to:

1. Create a character who needs important story facts explained to him several times (just to make sure the reader gets what’s going on).

2. Engineer a story situation that would make any sane character change his ways overnight, instead of wallowing in the dark part of his character arc for three-quarters of the book.

3. Plant plot-twist clues in plain sight, but pretend them away because the character is too dumb to notice them.

Readers love it when they figure out the mystery in the first quarter of the book, but the characters perpetuate their own miseries by staring at the clues, tapping their fingers against their chins, and wondering aloud, over and over, “Hmm, what is it about this scenario that just doesn’t make sense?”

Readers love it even more when the author creates these wonderfully ignorant characters and then pretends they’re smart. Genius. Pure genius. This is the kind of writing success you and I and every author in the world craves. With all my heart, I encourage you: please check your latest novel. Have you included at least one character who doesn’t have enough brains to figure out what’s going on around him? If not, create one immediately! In fact, two would be better!

Tell me your opinion: Who is the smartest character in your book?

How to Write a Stupid Character

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. You silly silly person you. How fun was that tidbit to write?

    As for your question: who is my smartest character? Umm, at the moment Albert is I think. He’s fiftyish, a P.I., and likes old buildings. Or, maybe it’s Kate who has enough sense to know that her peace of mind is more important than her career.

    • Stefan Fouché says:

      Your arguments persuaded me try this sort of thing. Lets go drop some IQ points
      Your question about my smartest character. A man called Tanner Gray… My pro… You thought I was going to say protagonist… No he is my problem solving genius and antagonist.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Yay! A convert! Go out there and knock that problem-solving genius of an antagonist down a few notches.

    • Albert sounds like the smart one. Kate sounds like the wise one.

  2. This is hysterical. I once edited a book that included a talented police detective insisting that a potential suspect could not be guilty because a rich person would have no reason to commit murder. This happened because the author had a particular concept for who solves the case and how, and sacrificed character and logic to make it happen. A lot of stupid characters emerge from the writer forcing the story in the direction they want rather than allowing it to develop naturally.

    • I would argue this is the cause for stupid characters in the vast majority of cases. The plot needs to go a certain way, so the author has to try to stuff the character motivations into boxes that fit the plot.

  3. First impression from reading title… (and answer to your question, “How can you write a character whose lack of intelligence, instinct, and intuition are…”) Norman Rockwell’s self-portrait (“Triple Self Portrait”)

    Then in the closing paragraph or so, Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau came to mind.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Love Normal Rockwell!

      • They say ‘timing is everything’ and… well, 2:19 pm… had yours been a minute or so later, my clarification would’ve made me not look like an insensitive clod.

        (Although, by saying it’s your fault for being early… )

        *he is a great artist!

    • Allow me to rephrase, when I think about the question how I’d write a character as described, the Normal Rockwell self-portrait comes to mind… but with words… instead of paint… (or both, in the case of a graphic novel)

      And Inspector Clouseau came to mind as well… Then again, I may print it out, re-read it and find out I missed the nuance and he doesn’t fit at all.

      😉

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        Words are our paint. 🙂

        • Oooh! I like that!!

          And I’m stopping before I dig in any deeper ! And give a great illustration for your post (on how people make a bigger mess trying to clean up a small one)!

  4. That was the funniest satire post I’ve seen in quite a long time. XD

  5. And here I was thinking this writing thing was difficult. All I needed was a cast of stupid characters! You should name this revolutionary technique. The term “Moron-orama” has a nice ring to it.
    In all seriousness, this is something that really bugs me about a lot of stories, including my own. It usually comes when I have a large gaping plot hole due to lack of planning, and instead of filling it in, I just infuse my character with enough asininity to float him or her right over the top of it. Brilliance.

  6. Katie–
    I think the key to creating a stupid character is to avoid any trace in the narrator’s voice that he or she thinks the character is stupid. The best stupid characters I’ve come across were created by Elmore Leonard. Some of his criminals are remarkably dumb, but have to idea they are. In one scene–I think in Rum Punch–two criminals, trapped by police in a storage garage full of weapons have decided to shoot their way out using a hand-held rocket launcher. This is doomed to failure and they have no chance, but they go ahead with this “plan.” That is, until they start to read the directions on the weapon, and can’t understand them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I can agree with that. It’s also important to keep readers and characters on the same page. If we hint at the truth too broadly, while keeping the character mired in darkness, readers will get too far ahead of the character–and wonder why they can see the truth, but he can’t.

  7. Oh man. Would you believe it took me reading the comments to realize this was a satire post? In fact, I was seriously confused for the duration of the post, wondering why you wouldn’t want a character’s stupidness to serve the plot and why on earth every story should have one (or two!) stupid characters! Ugh. I’m afraid if I were a character, I’d be the stupid one! 🙂

    Well, now that I’ve fished my brain out of the sewer . . . 🙂

    I was actually just thinking about this the other day. I know this is kind of vague, but there’s a question in my WIP regarding whether a character can be trusted, and the answer (yes) becomes clear to the reader long before the protagonist. Because of this I was worried about the protagonist sounding stupid or “slow”. But I think what matters is how I present the situation. My protagonist is distrustful by nature, so I need to bring that out in the story as an inherent part of her personality. Also, though readers will probably figure it out before the protagonist, I don’t want to make it TOO obvious. The character in question isn’t an enemy, but there is still an air of mysteriousness about him. As long as I keep him somewhat in the dark . . . and stay true to the protagonist throughout the story, not just in this one situation . . . it should come off sounding natural enough. I hope. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah! That actually just kind of made my day. 😉 Unless there’s a reason to reveal the truth about the trustworthy characters to readers before you to reveal it to the protagonist, I would avoid doing so. If readers are kept in the same boat with the protagonist as much as possible, they’ll be much more likely not to make judgments about his IQ.

  8. Josiah DeGraaf says:

    This is some of the greatest satire I’ve read in a while… The tragic thing is that it’s so true in so many books! =P

  9. Allyson says:

    I like characters who would be considered genius in one area and then completely oblivious in another but I’ve never really been able to stand completely stupid characters. I, like most readers, love figuring it out before the character but if I figure it out way before the character it drives me nuts and those are usually the books I would say I don’t like. I figure I’m probably just different and weird but stupid characters aren’t something I like for the main character. I’ve always found them annoying.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sherlock Holmes is a great example of this. He’s a certified genius, and Watson notes that his knowledge is surprisingly lacking in certain areas.

  10. In my novel, the main character isn’t stupid but because of his Asperger’s Syndrome, he is perceived as such and bullied on account of it. It is pointed out that he misses the main point of things but acknowledges little details that even teachers don’t see.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I definitely wouldn’t count a character like this as a “stupid” character. Whatever mental challenges he’s facing are ones you’ve created purposefully to enhance the story–not unconsciously or in a hoping-readers-won’t-notice-the-plot-hole way.

  11. “Readers love it even more when the author creates these wonderfully ignorant characters and then pretends they’re smart,” – How true is that! Great post! I love creating stupid characters. I think they’re just as fun to write as to read about.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Oh, yes, nothing like giving readers something to point their fingers and laugh at. 😉

  12. Whew… this scared me. I usually hang on your every word; but this made me think that I you had completely lost your grip on reality. I read the post and then stared at the screen, jaw dangling; thinking, “No. She’s wrong. I hate when I read things like th… Ohhhhhhhhhh.”

  13. PetLoverSpy says:

    (A little late to the party, but all the same) I came in here looking for a serious answer but still laughed all throughout the article. Very good advice on how not to do this!
    I was wondering if you did have some tips for writing stupid characters. I’ve got a pretty high IQ and it’s an actual problem: all my characters end up being the embodiments of logic and rationality with genius-level intellects, even though their environment in no way requires them to be intelligent. The only way I can combat this is by making them keep their mouth shut for most of the time. I have one ‘token idiot’ character on which — to put it bluntly — I’m practicing stupidity, but so far all I’ve achieved with him is ignorance. This is probably a very odd question, but if you do have tips for dealing with this problem, that would be amazing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re right: that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that. :p Honestly, stupid is easy – just have them always come up with the wrong answers, always make the wrong choice when the right choice is obvious, and just generally do things that would drive *you* nuts.

      • PetLoverSpy says:

        You have to change it up sometimes, don’t you? 😛 But that sounds doable! Thank you for taking my question seriously!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Actually, I just finished reading a book with a protagonist who was so stupid she drove me crazy. The author didn’t intend for her to be stupid, but she ended up that way simply because she couldn’t draw obvious conclusions about the motives and actions of the other characters–even though they were entirely plain to the reader. So that’s a good method right there!

  14. This was fun to read! My protagonist in one of my WIPs is…. well, I wouldn’t define her as “stupid” or “clueless”, maybe….. naive. She is so focused on herself (not in a selfish way, more of a “the entire world wants me dead” way) that she misses relationships with others and in turn makes the other characters look stupid next to her. It’s sort of complicated, but basically, several other characters are, according to canon, very intelligent, but her misery and self-consciousness leaks into how she views the world and ends up making the other characters look sort of annoying. Which means I get to do some fun character development and make her see their true colors, and her own. 🙂 Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My first reaction is that “annoying” is never a word you want applied to your protagonist. You definitely want to show her faults in the beginning, so that you can show her change over the course of the story. But she always needs to be relatable to the audience. If her motives are relatable than the audience is likely to forgive any bad behavior.

  15. Danielle says:

    So basically Harry Potter? Gee, Slytherin’s symbol is a snake, Slytherin could talk to snakes, gosh, I wonder what his monster is, maybe it’s a spider, could be a puppy, who could possibly work out this enigma!
    Oh my, I think my godfather is in danger! I received an item earlier that would let me contact him to find out, but nah, lets raid the minestry!!!

  16. Hilarious read (although it took me a moment). But I was wondering if you had any actual advice for this? I want to write a character who’s rather smart compared to most people, but is an absolute dunce compared to the other main characters and I’m having some problems working it out right.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So a normal guy amongst geniuses? I’d just keep him really relatable. How would most people react in the situations he’s put into?

  17. I was just wondering–what about the post in which you said that stupid characters make for stupid stories? Is it only good to write a stupid character in a farcical comedy, like a PG Wodehouse novel? I’m trying to write a dark comedy and I have three major characters each with his own flavor of stupidity because I think it makes them more human, but I’m a little bit terrified of being sneered at.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If the author acknowledges the character’s stupidity (i.e., the character is *supposed* to be stupid), that’s a totally different matter. This post is really only a satire on characters who are stupid but aren’t supposed to be.

  18. Wait wait wait… I thought you were being sarcastic? I hate it when writers do this. Who wants to read about an insanely slow character that all of the other characters say is smart? I’m just left screaming at them to hurry up and figure it out because I knew who done it from page 2. As a reader, this seems extremely lazy to me. As a reader, I want to go on the journey with the characters, feel like I AM them. It disconnects the reader from the narrative if you let them in on the mystery while you’re characters are still pathetically in the dark. It makes us remember that we’re just an observer, not there with the characters.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a couple of not so bright characters, yet there needs to be a balance. Just because they’re not good at puzzling together all of the clues doesn’t mean said character isn’t good at partical physics. Balance is how you write a dim character, not all this drivel you said. Honestly, this is one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve ever seen.

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