Being a Better Writer: How Smart Do They Have to Be, Anyway?

Hello, readers! I hope you’ve all had a pretty good weekend and are back and ready to talk about writing, because we’ve got an interesting topic here today. Which is a request topic, but in a broader sense than the original seeker intended.

There’s not much in the way of news, so lets just dive in! The originator of this question wanted to know: How could one write a story with a smart protagonist but an unintelligent antagonist? Was it even possible?

To which I’d respond “Of course it is!” Pretty much every kid-focused comedy ever made seems to angle in this direction, whether it’s the original Little Rascals (I mean the original black-and-white shorts) or something like Home Alone. You have a reasonably smart child protagonist, and the fairly unintelligent adult antagonist(s). More adult-oriented (age, people) also move in this direction. How many films are there, after all, about a well-meaning, intelligent individual being worked over by a less-than-intelligent boss working up the nerve to strike out in revenge? Plenty. I can think of a few off the top of my head. Books too (I feel I should swing that in since, you know, writing).

Now, here’s the kicker. Are any of those stories less-than-serviceable for having an antagonist who isn’t as bright? No. Of course not. In fact, just because those antagonists aren’t as intelligent as the protagonist doesn’t mean that they can’t prove a ruthless and effective force.

How? Well, that’s what we’re going to dive into today. So buckle up, because here we go.

Right, so you have a smart protagonist going up against an unintelligent protagonist. Is that the end-all? Is the ending predetermined by the character’s relative intelligence level?

No. I’ll say it again, with the same emphasis, in different words. Absolutely not. Why?

Because intelligence is merely one attribute of a character.

Before on this blog, I’ve talked about overpowered and underpowered characters, and in those comments, I’ve always reached the same conclusion: It’s not how powerful a character is, but rather what they do with the skills they have. Intelligence, in a way, is just another one of those skills.

Going back to the initial question then, with an intelligent protagonist and an unintelligent antagonist. While often played for comedy, there’s still something worth acknowledging about this match-up: The antagonist is still a threat to the protagonist, even with their relative lack of intelligence.

Why? Well, it has to do with two things. The first is that intelligence is not the only area in which a character can be defined. A character can have other attributes that make up for it. And the second is that “intelligence” is a relative quality.

Okay, let’s give an example of both of those. For the first, let’s look again at films like Home Alone or The Little Rascals. In Home Alone, the protagonist-child Kevin is quite clearly a few ticks smarter than either of his bandit antagonists. Not to the degree of knowing he should call the cops, but smarter nonetheless.

And yet, he’s constantly on the run from the pair, using his smarts to set-up elaborate traps and snares. Why? Because he’s physically the inferior of the pair. While he may be a bit brighter than the two dim-bulbs he’s up against, if either of them gets a hand on him, he’s in serious trouble, because they outweigh him physically. Which makes the pair a constant threat. Sure, he might burn a hand or catch them in tar, but that only slows the pair down; the tension comes from whether or not he’ll be able to slow them down enough with all his tricks and traps.

What about The Little Rascals? Same thing: Often the antagonists the rascals faced (when not themselves) was an adult who had 1930s level power over the gang. Most of them didn’t even come up to their waist, and in addition, they had the power to automatically be believed over any of the protagonists. Which meant that even if they were smarter than the antagonist and knew what was up, the antagonists fellow adults always believed the antagonist’s side of the story, and the antagonist could simply order the protagonists away. The protagonist thus had to be sneaky and use their smarts to maneuver around said restrictions … usually with comedic results.

Right, those are examples with children as protagonists, but I can hear a few of you chaffing from here. What about adult protagonists?

Same still applies. There are plenty of stories out there where the antagonist is someone not that bright who happens to have other elements in their favor. Back to the Future, for example, has the classic Biff Tannen, who makes up for a severe lack of brains with a classic bit of brawn. Or any number of films like Fun with Dick and Jane, which pit employees against their former boss. Said boss is always less intelligent than the employees, but either versed enough in what matters to stay ahead, or powerful by virtue of the resources and underlings beneath him.

Again, all of these are examples of antagonists that make up for their shortcomings with other strengths, and this can cover a wide spectrum, from having great physical prowess to knowing the right people.

Crud, this especially applies if the character in question is smart enough to know they aren’t that intelligent. Because then they’re certain they have to capitalize on their other strengths, whether it be a smooth tongue, a clever wit, connections with folks that are smarter than they or have resources, etc. Sure, they may not be able to outwit the protagonist … but if they’re smart enough to keep from battling wits as much as possible, that might not matter!

Now, with that said, let’s talk about that second thing, from above, with the fact that “intelligence” is relative. In the above paragraph, I mention a hypothetical antagonist that isn’t that “intelligent” but makes use of skills like a smooth tongue or a clever wit. Well, those are actually forms of intelligence. Or can be.

A classic example is “street smarts” versus “book learning.” We see these on both sides of the antagonist/protagonist relationship, depending on the story, but it’s a classic trope. While both characters are “intelligent,” each is from a different kind of intelligence. One is from books, and has a repository of knowledge like chemistry or politics, while the other is from the “school of hard knocks,” or reality-learning, and knows things like how to watch for suspicious, undercover cops, how to tell if someone is tailing you, or what precincts of a city are okay to travel through at various times of the day. Both are intelligence … but both are different kinds of intelligence.

This can stretch in a number of different ways. Some characters have social intelligence, a knowledge of social cues and hierarchies that allow them to float to the top of any conversation and social situation (odds are you’ve known someone like this before). Others may be quite skilled at a particular job or field, like Sweets in Colony with his hacking and computer knowledge, but lacking in other areas of “intelligence” that also end up being vital. Again, Sweets: Great with computers and data systems, not the person you want to organize a firefight in hostile territory.

Now, the thing here to realize is that these are all different balancing acts, and any one of them is viable. It’s all down to the character, and what they (you) do with them. You can have a character that’s utterly incompetent in almost all regard, but still in a position of authority and command—just look at some of history’s kings! You can have characters who lack smarts in one area but are strong in others, and have them be aware of it or not. All these different angles bring different opportunity for story and character.

All right, we’ve talked about this long enough. What about the inverse? As in, what about a protagonist who’s not that bright (and knows it or not) and an antagonist who is? What then? Can you still do that?

Sure! And all the same rules still apply. A protagonist who’s not that bright can still be an effective protagonist, even if they know they’re not that smart. They may have other skills to compensate. They may just be really, really determined and tenacious. They might be good at ferreting out allies that can make up for their shortcomings.

Any number of possibilities exist! Everything we spoke of above? You can flip the roles and still make it work. All the same considerations still apply. If the main character isn’t as smart as the antagonist, then what makes them a threat to the antagonist? Is it brute force? A way with words? Allies?

Any of these, or even all of these, is a viable option. Just the same way it is when the balance is reversed.

For that matter, you can have both characters be not quite as intelligent. Again, same thing applies: What makes them successful then? Are they “street smart?” Are they skilled in other areas? What keeps the reader invested? Again, these are familiar rules and thoughts you should be having with characters anyway. Intelligence is just one aspect to examine.

Okay, one last thing to discuss: Knowledge. This is me beating a familiar drum, so if you’re a long-time reader, you can probably guess what’s coming. Say you want to write a character that’s really intelligent about a field or a particular thing. Well, guess what that means you need to do?

Research. Lots and lots of it. Those who guessed that answer, help yourself to a cookie.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you need to develop the same level of knowledge as your character shows. Not at all! Because you have something they don’t (and won’t) have as you write: sources!

For example, let’s look at the character of Sweets from Colony. He’s a hacker. A good one. Me? I am not a hacker. I’ve got some decent. ground-level knowledge of how computers work, what DLL files are, how to get command prompt to do things, etc. But I’m not some virtuoso able to swipe files remotely or find ways around firewalls.

Which meant when it came time to write Sweets parts, I had to do a lot of research. I learned the basics of hacking. I watched Youtube tutorials and read howto guides dedicated to educating someone on how to be a hacker. And then?

No, I didn’t go hacking myself. I left those tabs open while writing Sweets’ stuff (and had them saved in a folder otherwise) so that I could constantly check to make sure I (or rather, Sweets) was doing things right. And if I didn’t know the answer to something? I could pause whatever I was writing at the moment and go look up the answer. Sweets story would be “on pause” until I came back. At the same time, in the story, Sweets would just have gone “Okay, so I need to do this, this, and this” without any pause, showing his intelligence and knowledge of his skillset.

The result? I’ve had IT folks that have contacted me and thanked me for keeping the hacking accurate to the real world, as opposed to straight Hollywood hacking that just kind of makes things up as it goes along (you know, aside from the Lockpick). Even a review or two, IIRC, mentioned how glad they were that the book actually bothered to get hacking right.

But I’m still not a hacker. I just did my research, and kept my research on hand so that I could double-check things.

You can do the same. If you’ve got a character that’s really intelligent and knowledgeable about something, learn about it! Pull up that research so that they can act accurately. Don’t bury your reader in it, but give them what they need to follow along and check for accuracy. Because nothing can pull a reader out of a book more quickly than coming across a character who is supposed to be be knowledgeable of something the reader is that isn’t.

Okay, one last thing. For real this time. A character being smart doesn’t mean that they don’t make mistakes. And not just “the token mistake.” Crud, it doesn’t mean that they don’t overlook solutions in their own field just because of what they do know. Crud, in Colony, Sweets’ discovers what the Lockpick is mostly by accident: he leaves a cable plugged in when swapping devices and discovers that two pieces of hardware he thought were unrelated are meant to work together.

Your characters, even if they’re experts in a field, don’t have to solve everything instantly. They can take time, or make mistakes. They’re human, remember? Or at least, sapient beings with flaws and shortcomings just as they have strengths.

Got it? Good. Let’s recap: You can have stories with unintelligent antagonists that are still threatening through use of other strengths. And you can do likewise with your protagonist. There are many other skills characters can have. But there are also other things to consider, such as “type” of intelligence (book-smarts and street-smarts, for example), or what they know versus what they don’t know.

Lastly, just because they’re smart doesn’t mean they won’t make dumb mistakes. Flaws are part of who we are, as are mistakes. Even smart characters make them.

At the end of the day, intelligence is another trait you can make use of with your characters. There are successful folks that wouldn’t count themselves as intelligent that are still successful because of their other traits or humble recognition of their own shortcomings. Like anything else, intelligence is a facet of your characters that you can work with to their and the story’s growth.

Good luck. Now get writing.


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