The Value of the Stupid Character

I’m in the middle of my first novel re-writes, I’m reading a novel series, and I’ve been watching a lot of TV–more than I care to admit. So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about story. While fiction writers may get stories from truth, how we craft story is almost a different matter. Sometimes, we need that stupid person to help the story reach its full potential.

You see it everywhere: the person that just doesn’t understand why we need to go in that tunnel, or why that loved one isn’t calling him or her, or what happens when we add one and one. As writers, having a stupid character is one of the most un-stupid things you can do. (un-stupid?) Here’s why:

  1. Stupid characters make everyone feel good about themselves. Even as readers, if we know (or think we know) what’s going to happen, and the stupid character doesn’t, we feel superior, which makes us feel good. In writing, It creates a dynamic which makes other characters stand out, but also, helps link other characters together. How? Well, a stupid character needs a smarter character to be “the voice of reason” or to be “the cool one” or to be “the complicated but secretly cool nerdy smart one.”
  2. Stupid characters ask the (not-so) obvious questions. Sometimes in stories, we need backstory. When a stupid character asks “Why are you doing that?” This can give us an organic opening to create backstory. And the character doesn’t have to be stupid to do this: they just have to be ignorant (that’s not the same thing). Conversely, it can also advance story. Say we want the reader to discover something at the same time that the main character does. Giving the main character  a Q&A dialogue with other (more knowledgeable) characters can help move the story along without interruption. It also pulls the reader into that discovery, keeping your reader engaged.
  3. Stupid characters do stupid things (the comedy quotient). Need to lighten the mood? Have a stupid character do something stupid. We all know (some of us are/were) a class clown. Class clowns take the pressure off the rest of your characters’ intense plot lines, they provide diversions, and they can make an uncomfortable situation easier for a reader: we have to laugh to really live.
  4. Stupid characters do stupid things (the adventure quotient). “Let’s see what’s over this hill.” “Come on, in here!” (on a door marked “Authorized Personnel Only”) “Jump!” These are some well-used phrases and tactics that writers use to create adventure in a story. We know we shouldn’t do something, a friend tells us to do it anyway, and what ensues is a great story you tell your grand kids.
  5. Stupid characters say stupid things–most of the time to the wrong people. When someone says something stupid, or says something to the wrong person  at the wrong time, you open up all kinds of avenues in story. Some episodes of Frasier (most) would be five minutes long if not for misdirected sayings or gossip. Sometimes all you need is for a character to say something stupid in order to create story.  In addition, the “stupid saying” could be used to define a character or create change. Maybe something is translated incorrectly, or said because the character has no tact. These writing tricks help not only to define the character who says them, but other characters by how they react.

Think about almost every story you’ve ever read. Most of them have used the stupid character in some way.  Knowing how to create and use a stupid character can make for some enjoyable, smartly done writing.