Charming Stupidities

So I was thinking today about good stupid characters, and it struck me that y’know…there’s just not that many.

Now, I don’t mean characters who do really stupid things, when they are supposed to be perfectly intelligent human beings but they insist on doing Every Single Ill-Advised Thing Ever and you really want to hit them with a brick. If you get the impression that the author thinks their character is smart and they’re just sending them off on a plot that is Fueled By Idiocy, then no, not what I mean.

And I don’t mean stupid villains, because those are a dime a dozen. Why is he evil? ‘Cos he’s dumb. Why is he doing this awful thing? Ignorant malice, no need to look any farther. Why is she awful? Because she’s airheaded and shallow, no need to look any farther.

And again, I don’t mean characters with actual learning disabilities or mental impairments, ala Rain Man—that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.

I mean characters who are…well…dumb. But you like them anyway, or if you hate them, it’s not necessarily because they are Dumb Villains.

(Think Bertie Wooster.)

And y’know…this is a rare, rare thing in a hero. You get Dumb Well-Meaning Sidekicks relatively often, mostly for comic relief, but how often do you get a main character like that?

I’m thinking…err…Freddy from Cotillion. And Bertie. Maybe Number Ten Ox, although he is not so much stupid as ignorant of the wider world and he’s quite aware of it. And, in the book version, Buttercup from Princess Bride.

Buttercup is actually what kicked the whole thought off—-a friend remarked on Twitter that you could pretty much replace Buttercup with the rug from The Big Lebowski, since all she does is tie the room together. There is a certain justice to this, much as I love Princess Bride—Buttercup, in the movie at least, is a woman-shaped MacGuffin.

In the book, however, I’d argue that she’s a viewpoint character for large chunks and she arguably displays the most emotional growth of any of the characters, except maybe Inigo. We get to spend more time with her inner life than we do with Westley’s, for sure. She moves from MacGuffin to character. And this all occurs with the book being pretty clear on the fact that yeah, Buttercup is dumb as a post, but she’s working with what she’s got here.

(I am being sympathetic to make a point, mind you, and there are certainly alternate interpretations that are equally valid.)

So I was thinking about this, and about why we have so few genuinely acknowledged-as-dumb-by-the-author-and-that’s-okay characters.

I think part of it is the audience. We all like to think we’re smart. It can be hard to get people to sympathize with a dumb character. We could wallpaper a battleship with novels where the hero is The Bookish Girl Shunned By Peers. (This is not me slamming the genre—my first novel was about her, there’s two on my hard drive right now, and one of those is already sold. She works because she works and because we never really abandon those chunks of our childhoods.)

How many fantasy novels have a heroine who is mysteriously literate, despite the rarity of the skill, and who has obsessively read every book available to her?

Don’t bother to tally them up past a point—we’re burning daylight here.

Now, how many fantasy novels have a hero or heroine who’s not smart, but who manages through stubbornness, charm, and/or unexpected but plausible flashes of brilliance, to plow through anyway? And you don’t hate them for not being smart?

Hell, forget fantasy novels, novels at all? Media in general?

Think hard. I’ll wait. *grin*

I got as far as Bertie Wooster, Freddy, Number Ten Ox, and a couple of the incarnations of Blackadder where he is Not As Smart As He Thinks He Is. And even Blackadder is a stretch, because often he IS the smartest person in the room. And Invader Zim, which is reaching, and the knights in Monty Python, which is British and Monty Python and so is in a genre kind of by itself.

And the Tick. Oh lord, so very much the Tick.

Luthe, the mysterious wizard in Robin Mckinley’s Damar books, says at one point that he was never the brightest of pupils, he was just stubborn enough to stick it out when everybody else became sheep farmers because being a wizard is a hard and thankless task. He’s still very serious and much more knowledgeable than anyone else, so it’s kind of a wash, though. Radagast? Sure, I can go Radagast.

Now, let’s be clear—this is a seriously fraught issue when you get to heroines, because of the simple reason that women get treated as dumb all the damn time in genre, and it’s not always easy to separate a character who is getting the short end of the misogyny stick from one who took INT as a dump stat. And I expect a lot of us don’t want to write a stupid female character because she is always, always an object of contempt, or we figure people won’t get it, or we have a hard time figuring out how to be dumb and still have agency (which Buttercup, god love her, utterly lacks.) And we’re bristly and prickly about it, and damn it, we have every right to be, because Bertie Wooster is a charmingly useless fellow and a female version would be near universally loathed. Because we have to be twice as competent to be considered half as good, and in some circles, we could be Dr-goddamn-Manhattan and all people would talk about, as New York burned, would be how slutty we were for not wearing pants.

Because everybody hates Sansa Stark. (Maybe she’s more awful in the shows, haven’t watched them. I hated Sansa Stark. Then I just felt sorry for her, and then I stopped reading the books because I get tired of seeing people die.)

Because I am wracking my brain for a female character who isn’t bright (and not because Teh Wimmenz R Dumb) and who still does proper heroic stuff and is still loved, and all I’m getting is Dory the fish. (I’d swear for emphasis here, but I don’t want it to look like I’m slamming Dory, because she’s awesome.)

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s dead easy with a male character either. Georgette Heyer wrote enough Regency novels to fill a Suburban with the seats taken out, and there’s one genuinely delightful stupid hero (plus a couple who merely act dumb occasionally and I want to kick them in the head.) And I will give her credit for a few not terribly bright heroines who are nevertheless not loathsome, but there aren’t many and they tend to be caught up in madcap capers and whatnot.

I begin to suspect that dumb but interesting/loveable/relatable is hard—at least if you’re doing it deliberately.

Maybe it’s next to impossible. It’s a pretty short list up there.

But damnit, now that I have pretty much laid out all the reasons why I can’t write this character, I sort of want to. And I sort of want other people to, but I think you might have to be very very good at it. Because doing it wrong would leave that character flat at best and horribly embarrassing at worst.

(Now, I play a paladin in D&D, and he’s supposed to be dumb and charismatic, but let’s face it, it’s me playing it, so there’s only so much I can do. I suspect he’s not nearly as dumb as he pretends to be. I suspect our druid would disagree strongly with this sentiment.)

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten down this train of thought. But this is the sort of thing I think about while I am eating an enormous breakfast after getting blood drawn.




29 thoughts on “Charming Stupidities

  1. maarken says:

    Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files books qualifies I think. As I told someone the other day, he fails upward. Most of the other characters remark or lament this at one or more points. The smart one is actually his sidekick. Its part why I enjoy the series I think.

  2. Laura K says:

    Hmm. An interesting topic to think about.

    How about Arthur Dent?

    I had an easier time when looking at some of my old children’s books (sorry 😉 and looked at Charlotte’s Web and my old copies of the Beatrix Potter books and Winnie-the-Pooh.

    Roald Dahl characters are often more sincere than they are brilliant, although not necessarily as-dumb-as-a-brick stupid.

    Oh! Tristan Thorn in Stardust.

  3. Louna says:

    There are definitely some dumb-but-lovable characters in Discworld, but I’m terrible with names, and concentrating on other stuff right now and don’t have time to look things up because I should be writing about Emerson’s theory of poetry and that break has already lasted way too long. I believe one witch, the one who could sing in harmony with herself, was not exactly bright, but I might be remembering it wrong. And that police officer who is from that other species (see what I mean with memory) and made of stone and has a brain that has trouble with the heat.
    Yeah, don’t know if that was really helpful. I should read Discworld again.

  4. Emily says:

    The nearest I could come to a female Wooster is Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and its sequel by Anita Loos.

  5. Escher says:

    >now that I have pretty much laid out all the reasons why I can’t write this character, I sort of want to

    Do you mean a specifically female version? ’cause Danny Dragonbreath popped to mind right away… for what it’s worth…

    Classical examples of idiot heroes include Thor, Samson, or Percival, who all tend to charge in as a first response. In anime, I immediately think of Osaka and Tomo from Azumanga Daioh, Kamina from Gurren Lagann, or — hey, for the female side, Usagi (Sailor Moon) is pretty much an idiot for a lot of the series, but especially in the first season. Finn from Adventure Time is “all about the stupid”, by his own admission. There’s Kung Fu Panda, Coop from Megas XLR… I’m skipping past examples like Inspector Gadget or Homer Simpson ’cause they aren’t likable and I want to hit them with a brick.

    Going on to books, well… I know a lot of people think Harry Potter is a dumbass on a regular enough basis to qualify for this. Ned from 20,000 Leagues is practically the sailing ship version of Kamina (which is why he never gets sucked into Nemo’s cult of personality). I can’t think of any others off the top of my head that you didn’t mention yourself.

    Honestly I’d just point you towards and say go from there.

  6. Wolf Lahti says:

    FYI, Finding Dory is in production, scheduled for release November 2015. Normally, I’d be really leery of this kind of sequel, but, hey, it’s Pixar.

    And it’s Dory.

  7. funder says:

    Mr. Impossible, by Loretta Chase – a Regency with a truly, epically stupid hero. He’s adorable, but a very dim bulb.

    I can’t quite bring myself to read the books, but Sookie Stackhouse in True Blood is really, really not bright. Of course, I don’t know anyone who actually likes or cares about her character – it’s the supporting characters that make the show so train-wreck watchable.

    What an interesting question!

  8. Steve Simmons says:

    A couple of male ones spring to mind, both from Gene Wolfe – Serverian from ‘Book of the New Sun,’ and Mr. Green from ‘There Are Doors.’ Neither is blindingly stupid, Green is at least likable. Both come through in the end.

    Emma Wodehouse might match your description, but any muddling through occurs in spite of her bulling ahead.

    Hmm . . . you know, Emma and Bertie actually have a lot in common . . . hmmm . . .

  9. Misha says:

    I just love reading your thoughts. I don’t think that I could write that character well, but I definitely would like to see more of it.

  10. Mean Waffle says:

    <> Louna

    Louna, that would be Agnes Nit (aka Perdita X) and Detritus the troll. Agnes isn’t dumb, she’s just young and inexperienced. She’s also not very sure of herself, being new to witching.

    Detritus has trouble when he overheats because he has a silicon brain. Once his buddy fixed him up with a helmet that had, esentially, computer fans, he was . . . well . . . better off.

  11. boutet says:

    I was debating with myself if Harry Potter qualifies. He’s basically the wizard equivalent of a jock. He’s mediocre in school work and gets by with extra help from his smarter friend, mostly cruising on his fame and the goodwill of some of his teachers. He’s charisma and physicality, and a really strong talent for delegation.
    Can’t think of any female examples though.

  12. Ysen says:

    I’m not sure this is actually that uncommon. There are a quite a few fantasy stories which follow the “good-hearted, manly fighter / insufferable, arrogant wizard” trope, for instance.

    A good example of this is the Majere twins in the Dragonlance books, who are opposites in pretty much every way – Caramon is a big, dumb, and good-natured fighter whom everyone likes; his brother Raistlin is an intelligent, frail and acerbic wizard who eventually turns to evil.

  13. ravenfeathers says:

    terry pratchett is the master at this, i think. i can think of half a dozen male and female characters that fit the bill, most notably, juliet in “unseen academicals”. she is completely charming, even while parroting racist cant, and dumber than *dirt*. it’s not every author who can take a character who is essential a barbie doll and make her so lovable.

    nobby nobbs and fred colon are two of my favourite comic dummies, but even commander sam vimes cops (pun!) to being a dim bulb much of the time. he runs on instict, cigars, and the care of his amazing wife and rogueish butler, and of course the adoration of his coppers.

    magrat garlick is another she-dummy who is quite sympathetic along with nanny ogg, who isn’t *stupid* per se, but has made an art form out of blundering around with absolute conviction that she’s right and so she is.

    and then there’s nearly all of the faculty at unseen university, who are all so smart that they’re incredibly stupid, much to poor ponder stibbons’ constant dismay.

  14. Emily says:

    I would argue for Eragon, but I’m afraid he probably falls under the Every Single Ill-Advised Thing Ever. And I *do* want to hit him with a brick.

  15. Escher says:

    The only problem, Raven, is that Juliet, Nobby, Fred, and the side characters at the Uni are essentially sidekicks, who are commonly rather adorably dim. They aren’t the focus characters of the stories they’re in.

    Sam Vimes isn’t nearly as dumb as he seems (that’s the mistake the guys he’s up against always make), and to paraphrase Jingo, a man must be very complicated indeed to be as simple as Carrot Ironfoundersson.

    Nanny Ogg operates on the same basis — she’s just as sharp as Granny Weatherwax; she just hides her cunning behind a front of bull-headed amiability where Esme waves it like a banner.

    Magrat probably does count, though only in Lords & Ladies; in the other books she really comes off as a sidekick or foil for the other two rather than a heroine in her own right.

  16. Hazel says:

    In regards to Terry Pratchett, I’m re-reading Small Gods right now and think Brutha is definitely this type. He does learn to think a bit, however, because of the influence of his god.

  17. Emily says:

    I thought of another–Carrie of “Sister Carrie” by Theodore Dreiser.

    Caroline, or Sister Carrie as she had been half affectionately termed by the family, was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was nevertheless her guiding characteristic….Books were beyond her interest—knowledge a sealed book.

  18. RhianimatorLGP says:

    Talima, a member of my household, once wrote the most brilliantly perfect dumb male hero character for some RPGs we were playing. He utterly confounded most game masters who didn’t know what to do with him. Sam Winston could get lost in a one room cabin, and did once in game. Sam found a bunch of alien artifacts and had carefully washed most of them to get rid of the “bugs” that electronics were said to have.

    The one he didn’t wash, that he thought was a fancy “ice scraper” he accidentally activated and blew a hole in his roof. At which point he looked up through the hole and said “hold it rite there, I think i found ma leak.”

    Sam lived next to a game farm, and made the acquaintance of the owner of it by killing one of his eland. Sam just thought it was a funny lookin deer.

    Naturally, since my character had the flaw “Academic Elitist” Sam horrified her no end, even when he was trying to be properly hospitable to the Lady.

    Kind, chivalrous and patient, our Sam, but dumber than a Beagle. I hope that one day you get to be in a game with us so you can experience the wonder that is Sam Winston.

  19. Maranda says:

    Todd from The Knife of Never Letting Go (which I’m about 30% into) I think counts. He’s a 12-year-old boy, full of hormonal rage and swearing and confusion. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, how to read, or what’s right and wrong anymore. He might qualify. At one point, instead of punching someone he’s angry with, he decks himself in the face several times instead.

  20. Jeanette says:

    Tsukino Usagi, the titular heroine of Sailor Moon, certainly qualifies. She’s not very intelligent and normally very lazy, and boy does everyone know it. She also a very good, caring person with phenomenal cosmic power and awesome hair, so she’s a very popular heroine.

  21. Hawk says:

    Tristan Thorn in Stardust…oh someone said him already 🙂

    The ogre in Ogre, Ogre – though he’s partially in the “not as dumb as he looks” category, I think he counts as good hearted but dim.

    Does Buffy count (the vampire slayer, of course)? I mean, she’s not all that smart, at least for seasons upon seasons.

    I think the trouble with dumb female characters beyond misogyny is that an idiot female who’s adorable is…well…a baby. A cute, helpless child-figure. And we expect that she won’t be a heroine of any sort, because she’s just going to get victimized by the nearest monster smarter than her.

  22. OmegaMom says:

    Taran Wanderer of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain kinda fits the bill, at least at the beginning. Mostly, he’s ignorant and full of Grand Ideas and goes blundering off into the greatest of messes because…well…because he wants to be a Hero, but doesn’t realize it’s much more difficult than he thinks.

  23. Don Hilliard says:

    On the female fantasy side, there’s Maureen “Muffy” Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson (created by George Alec Effinger.) Thoroughly clueless Valley Girl who can somehow hop between dimensions and worlds – and being thoroughly clueless AND a cheerleader/gym rat she A) doesn’t grasp the deadly seriousness of the shit she lands in, and B) can still thoroughly kick the asses of any monsters/wizards/enemy barbarians she encounters.

  24. Ethan S says:

    Tazendra, from Steven Brust’s Phoenix Guards books. She is the Porthos in this Three-Musketeers-with-elfs pastiche (yes, the bon vivant brawler with the least elegance is a lady). And she is commonly shown as not very bright — she is bad with plans other than “let’s get ’em,” she has trouble following complicated conversations, she’s the last in the room to pick up on nuance, and she doesn’t concern herself with too much outside the here and now.

    She is also unquestionably heroic, brave as anything, loyal, a bon vivant, and very talented at simple repetitive tasks like minor sorcery — Tazendra will never innovate a new ritual, but she’ll perform a familiar one with great facility. She’s arguably the most entertaining character in the whole series, and certainly my favorite.

  25. David Frohman says:

    Sir Samuel Vimes, from the disk world series, isn’t exactly the sharpest potato in the sack. He’s not stupid, but intelligence is not one of his defining characteristics. Nor is Rincewind. Esme Weatherwax is intelligent but doesn’t really have time for book learning… These are only POV/main characters, not sidekicks…

    Arthur Dent is duller than an empty bowling ally…

    Usagi from Sailor moon is a ditz but we love her for it. Sun Wukong is uh… uh… a special type of idiot who always makes things worse for himself with so called clever plans.

    Buffy the vampire slayer is not the sharpest needle in the pincushion, but she is a needle. Picard is smart, but Kirk is dumber than a choral group made of deaf-mutes… no offense to deaf-mutes intended.

    Honestly the idiot hero used to be a huge thing in popular culture, and a lot of heroes never had time for serious learning or thinking. (anyone played by Clint Eastwood or Arhnold.) The rise of the actually super smart hero is a fairly recent thing. Heck, superman has a lot of powers, but smarts is not normally one of them.

    So I guess I really like the current big increase in intelligent heroes vs dumb ones….

  26. siadea says:

    WONDERELLA!!!! Oh my god, Wonderella. Brash, lazy, doesn’t think ahead, mostly interested in booze and TV, can sometimes be prodded out to go defeat giant space monsters or whatever.

    Also she can jump hella high.

  27. Don Hilliard says:

    @siadea: The character whose name that was ripped from – Barbarella – also fits the bill, come to think of it (at least in her movie version – I’ve never read any of the comics.)

    Simultaneously competent, butt-kicking, well-meaning…and in many ways dumber than a bag of hammers.

    (And yeah, some of her dumbness or at least naivete is on a par with Dave Lister’s “Ooh, tell me more of this Earth thing called kissing!” – but Fonda’s so damn endearing about it that I can’t honestly complain.)

  28. girlwithsixarms says:

    I realize that this is an exceptionally old post, but it’s one I keep thinking about and I can’t help but add my favorite to the hypothetical list. Vi, from League of Legends – I don’t even play League, but I could listen to her catchphrases as shouted from my partner’s computer all day long. She’s a policewoman who specializes in smashing stuff with her fists and is one of the most endearingly dumb characters that I have ever encountered. All the credit in the world to the voice actress Cia Court, who is a large part of Vi’s appeal.

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