Character Brains

In both plotting and revising, one of the issues I keep coming up against is the difficulty of setting up major conflicts in my stories. Difficult, but fun. Maybe it gets easier? Gulp. Sometimes I’ll step back from writing a section and scratch my head, wondering if I’ve made a character too smart or too oblivious. There’s a dread that we’ll let a major character be Too Stupid To Live (TSTL). Heroines are the ones typically labelled that way, but it can apply to heroes as well. (I’d argue that any hero who can’t see that his feelings are just feelings and not the end of the world, could be in the TSTL camp. But that’s just me.)

How could a character be too smart? Well, maybe I don’t quite mean smart, but there has to be a balance between what the reader knows is going on and what the character figures out. Sometimes I’ll get to a scene and realize that one of my characters showed up and figured out what was happening. Not a terrible thing, really. But it’s not that interesting either, which, I’d argue, is the greater problem. So, in editing I’ll make notes to myself–or get notes from my CPs–to go back and show a character reacting or thinking about something going on.

For example, I’m revising a scene where my heroine realizes that the hero has magical powers. He’s been using them around her with varying degrees of subtlety. Without enough set-up–those earlier scenes where she can tell something is kind of off–it doesn’t make sense that she’d be able to figure it out. They live in a world where magic is feared and hidden. It’s not the first or second conclusion one would draw. But this is also the place in the story where I realized I’ve given my hero WAY TOO MANY powers. He’s powerful and, perhaps getting more so, but too many gifts and there’s no challenge. (Writing about magic is a post for another day…)

So my dilemma, since readers will have known about his powers since page one, is: does it work? Does my heroine come across as smart (generally a desired character trait) or will readers have lost patience with her since it took her so long to figure it out? My hope is the former. My job is to find that balance–to drop enough crumbs–and keep the story moving forward in the meantime.

What about the TSTL issue? This is an area where as a writer I have renewed appreciation for how difficult this can be. I’ve wondered if I can let my character be a little TSTL here? Just a smidge? Sigh. Sometimes you need your characters to do things that they know they shouldn’t do. And in that case, I’m hoping I’ve set up the dilemma, given them few options, so that in order to reach their goal, they have to take the “stupid” option. Or, rather, that I’ve upped their motivation–another place where I revere what I learned in Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict–to the point that they’ll do whatever it takes, “stupid” or otherwise. Easy enough? Er, no. It’s easier thinking of why it wouldn’t work. But, hey, that’s why this is a challenge. I’ve spent many hours with a notebook and a pen considering the ins and outs of a scene, scouting for plot holes or other options my characters could take. It’s thrilling and terrifying when it takes a while to come together.

On top of all of this is the desire to make the story surprising and interesting. Nobody wants to read the same thing they’ve read before. I’ve DNF’d stories I’ve found to be too predictable. Scene after scene, you want to stay ahead and add something different, both to keep readers interested and to add something else, something fresh. Gah! So much to do! 🙂

Apologies if I’m whining here. This is a window into my process, which has many moments of “Argh! Come on, brain. Thinky!” From plotting to revision, all I can do–and enjoy doing too–is push myself to come up with ideas, try them out, and then later see if they work. This is, for me, the fun stuff. My characters’ brains are only as clever as I can make them. But, I’m trying.

Any tips for how to gauge whether the set-up works? Has anyone ever found a character to be too smart, where it’s not clear how they figured something out?

With NaNoWriMo less than I week away, I’ll be plotting like mad, talking to myself, and my husband, making notes on scraps of paper and my phone, all in an attempt to tell a great story.

Happy Writing & Reading!

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