You Think You’re So Smart: Blood from a Turnip

And now it’s time for another exciting installment of LEONARD GIVES ADVICE TO WRITERS EVEN THOUGH HE IS TERRIBLE!


One of the biggest problems in writing fiction is giving a character attributes that you, as a writer, do not possess.  “Write what you know”, they say, and if, for example, you don’t know how to have a vagina, you’re probably going to struggle writing female characters.  (Counter-example:  Patricia Highsmith.)  White authors frequently embarrass themselves when trying to write black characters; writers from privileged backgrounds are often unable to capture the perspective of the working class; heterosexuals often craft gay characters that are pure stereotypes.

All these, however, are largely problems of perspective and exposure.  They can be cured, or at least alleviated, by research, exposure, and immersion in the works of more ‘genuine’ voices, or a combination of the three.  Much more problematic — and, sadly, much more common — is when writers try to give their characters qualities that they, the writers, do not have, and are completely unable to emulate.  The foremost of these are intelligence, a sense of humor, and the quality of being a good writer.

The first of these is the most common, but it is also, happily, the easiest to correct.  An actor who is is smart can play dumb, but ask an actor who is dumb to play smart, and see what you get.   I’ll tell you what:  you get Keanu Reeves.  By the same token, a smart writer can create a convincing dumb character (see Flowers for Algernon), but a dumb writer cannot fake being smart, and his smart characters will end up sounding as dumb as he is (see The Genius Club).  Since most fiction in which it seems necessary to emphasize a character’s superior intelligence is genre fiction, though, there’s an easy way around this.  Keep the character quiet most of the time, have other people establish her genius by referring to some vaguely defined brilliant plan or world-changing invention, and don’t make her the main character — in other words, choke off as many opportunities as possible for her to say things that make it clear that she is not, in fact, very smart at all.

The second is the most deadly, and the hardest to correct.  (For a shiver-inducing example, refer to Lisa Pliscou’s 1989 novel Higher Education, in which we are constantly told how clever and funny the main character, Miranda, is, despite the complete lack of evidence for this in the text*.)  Nobody likes to think they’re not funny, but being funny is one of God’s rarest of gifts, and if you aren’t packing the goods, it’s going to become painfully clear soon enough.  Even more so than a dumb person can’t write a believable depiction of a smart person, a dull person can’t write a believable depiction of a funny person.  It’s simply not in them.  They end up sounding even worse than when Father Andrew Greeley tries to write a sex scene.  And the real fucker of it all is that you can’t fake it, but you also can’t avoid it; the only way not to betray the fact that you, the creator of a reputedly ‘funny’ character, are not capable of being funny is to have that character never say anything or do anything funny.  But that doesn’t work either, because then the reader will just get frustrated and angry, wondering why the hell everyone says how hilarious this guy is so where’s the goddamn jokes?  It’s truly a no-win situation.

The most depressing, though, is the case of the fictional “great writer”.  Writers, for various and insalubrious reasons, are absolutely addicted to making characters who are also writers.  Even Stephen King, who has sold more books than God and Og Mandino put together, is like a helpless junkie when it comes to populating his books with brilliant best-selling writer characters.  That this is every bit as trite and silly as an ex-NFL player writing a cheeseball mystery novel where the main character is a former superstar running back should go without saying, but weak as it is, it need not be fatal.  Just for Christ’s sake don’t give any examples of the character’s work.  If you’re a shitty writer, you’ll never convince the reader that you’re not; but you can get away with making your Mary Sue the greatest thing since sliced Kafka as long as you just have the other characters talk about what a towering genius he is, and never succumb to the temptation to prove it.  This is an instance where it is of powerful importance to go against conventional wisdom:  tell, don’t show.

*:  Another convenient rule of thumb in fiction is this.  At least half the time, when a character from a working-class background is referred to — usually by a girlfriend, a mother, or a mother figure — as smart and talented and great, and is told that they are “too good for this place”, the character is in fact a pretentious, ungrateful, patronizing shit, and deserves to die slowly in whatever rat hole all the poor dumb schnooks he has to hang around with are forever praying he is able to escape.

6 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. RJ White
    08/06/2011 at 3:05 PM

    Another good example? Aaron Sorkin trying to write the world’s greatest sketch comedy show in Studio 60. 30 Rock and The Larry Sanders Show got around that problem brilliantly by making their fake shows mediocre-to-awful, when the folks behind them were capable of doing great ones.

  2. LP
    08/06/2011 at 5:16 PM

    Definitely. “Studio 60” is a great example of overreaching by trying to show instead of tell us that such-and-such is brilliant and hilarious. You also see this in any movie or TV show about fictional rock bands: we’re constantly told that they’re (a) the greatest, most popular band in the world or (b) a hot group of up-and-comers that every label is warring to sign. Then when you actually hear them, and their crappy middle-of-the-road music written by a screenwriter instead of a rock star, you’re all “This? Really?”

  3. Nullstellensatz
    08/06/2011 at 5:56 PM

    In Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem” there are all these characters who are supposed to be these brilliant mathematicians who come up with this theory about how the Platonic ideal is really a parallel universe. But rather than explain this obviously nonsensical idea away with technobabble, they articulate in great detail the causal relations between the different universes and the “cnöons” or “truth particles” that go from the pure universe to the impure universe to give people knowledge as part of this causal relationship. Then they have a spaceship go in the opposite direction, violating the made-up causal laws that the made-up theory about the made-up universe was based on. Anybody with an undergraduate math degree can easily see where it falls apart.

    What’s worse is that the “brilliant mathematician” characters are supposed to be the good guys, but they spend the whole time arrogantly dismissing and insulting people who are bad at math for being too stupid to realize how brilliant their theory is. So the only readers who could possibly sympathize with the heroes of the novel are precisely the sort of people who should realize that the heroes are full of shit.

  4. Jon Morris
    08/06/2011 at 6:38 PM

    I’m plunging into the vaults of the unread somewhere in the benighted country of comic books here, but Steven T.Seagle’s mainstream memoir “It’s A Bird” – documenting his crisis of conscience and identity upon being asked to handle a writing run on a Superman title, of all the dark midnights of the soul – is one of my favorite examples of the writer overreaching his protagonist’s capabilities.

    It’s all the better because, of course, Seagle himself is the main character and narrator. It’s very much framed in the format of a one-man show, though, so it’s all very tell-don’t-show…

    Following the lengthy cloth-rending wherein Seagle protests “Me, write a superhero comic? Why, I’m not a superhero writer” despite having written several superhero comics prior AND being a co-creator of Ben 10 – a cartoon character as familiar to the short-pants set as Batman and Robin – he expends some balloon-juice explaining that his value to his long-term lover lies entirely in his excellent sense of humor … which is nowhere on fucking display in this somber shoe-gazer. He is literally pictured saying this with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slouched. It is TERRIFIC.

  5. Jon Morris
    08/06/2011 at 6:38 PM

    Shorter example: Wyld Stallyns.

  6. Professor Coldheart
    08/06/2011 at 8:23 PM

    See also: Finding Forrester.


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