Monday, June 3, 2013

Don’t Dumb Down Your Characters

Don’t Dumb down Your Characters to Make Your Plot Work

We’ve all read these types of books. The ones where the plot is startlingly obvious, yet the main character is hopelessly oblivious. There are few things more frustrating than this when reading a book, and few things that can do more harm to your novel when writing it.

Why Does This Happen in the First Place?
As a writer, a novel begins as an idea. Then, as that idea takes shape, certain key scenes are created, and these initial scenes can, to the writer, quickly appear to be fundamental. Usually these beginning stages are where writers sabotage themselves by creating a plot that’s too simple. To keep an intelligent group of readers interested, your story needs quite a bit of complexity. If the plot is too simple, then it needs to be manipulated so it ends up more complicated.

When writers don’t add more complexity to their plot, their characters can suffer, and this is how and why dumb characters are created.

Where Does this Happen?
This happens most often somewhere in the middle of the book up until right before the climax.

Why is This Harmful?
If your main character fails to figure out something they should, the reader will know. Worse, the reader will become jaded. After all, once this happens, everything that follows will only exacerbate this flaw. Books build on themselves, so one flaw can have an enormous ripple effect depending on where it’s located. And every time a writer stumbles onto one of these ripples, it reminds them of that flaw and brings them out of the story. Even your most understanding readers will eventually tire of this, and you do not want that—annoyed readers are some of the scariest, most vindictive reviewers on Goodreads and online booksellers.

How Can I Know Whether I’m Doing This?
Ask yourself whether you’d be able to figure out the plot, not as a reader, but as the main character. Given your character’s experiences, would they be able to piece together your story’s plot? And if so, when? Can you track down which vital piece(s) of information connects the dots? It’s that piece (or those pieces) of information that you’ll want to edit.

If this is too difficult to do yourself, ask someone who’s read the book. However, remember that they’ll likely approach it from the stance of the reader, not the main character.

How Dumb is too Dumb?
I can’t believe I just used that line as a subheading, but it is a valid question. After all, as a writer you also have to focus on clarity, which often means simplifying the world of fiction. You can see how simplicity might conflict with character intelligence—it’s all a part of the juggling act that writers take on when writing a book.

In addition, readers are programmed to pick up certain formulaic key clues, clues that a character, living in what he or she considers the “real” world, would not pick up on. As a result, the reader might scream at your character not to leave the phone in the car, or yell at them when they enter the haunted house, but there is no way your characters could know that they are about to get attacked.

Essentially, there is a critical difference between the readers being angry at characters for making dumb choices, and the readers being angry at the authors for making dumb characters. That difference depends on whether or not the reader believes the character should have put two and two together.

How Do I Fix This?
Once you’ve identified if and when you’re doing this, then you have one of two ways to fix this. Either you remove or alter the clue that should solve the riddle, or you change your character’s reaction to it. This latter suggestion will usually be more intensive, since from there on out you’ll need to isolate and edit those areas that are affected later in the book, or you’ll need to change the entire plot arc.

Either way, if this edit applies to you, then I’d suggest inserting a subplot or a plot twist into your novel, since unintelligent characters are usually a symptom of the bigger issue: over-simplified plots.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. I know for me, in my soon-to-be-queried manuscript, I had an issue with a character who wasn't too dumb, but turned out too mean. I needed this character to develop in a certain way, but the result was she was waaaay 'overtuned.' I kind of new it, but it took some sharp words from a good beta reader to really bring it home. I think the root cause is the same as the 'dumbed down' character. I wonder if it's more common with 'discovery writers' as opposed to plotters.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      You know, I didn’t even think about all the other ways a character can be too extreme when I wrote this, but that’s a great point. Weak characters and excessively aggressive characters can also do a lot of damage to the credibility and the excitement of the novel. Thanks for dropping a line!


  2. Ugh, I just read a book where the characters carried the idiot ball for about the first half of the book. In every case, it was to make them ask dumb questions so the author could info dump. It slowed the story to a crawl. It was horrible.

    Now, my favorite in my own writing is for the characters to figure things out, but get one thing wrong because of their limited knowledge. Or jump to a wrong conclusion because it's logical. That's way more fun and suspenseful than passing around the idiot ball.