I recently read Grisham’s The Firm, which was fine, though I didn’t love it (see review, below). Still, one of the strong points for me, was that Mitch, the main protag, behaved intelligently. He didn’t make the kind of stupid mistakes that drive me crazy in some books. He wasn’t blind beyond the point of reasonableness to another character’s flaws, or to the obvious disaster lurking around the corner.
This, in turn, raised an interesting question for me: namely, what’s a writer to do, when working with a protagonist, or even a secondary character, who is smarter than she is?
For me the best answer is to plot out the character’s actions–sketch out appropriate next steps, figure out flaws in your planning, and then think your way out of those flaws. That goes for other plot holes as well. There’s little that annoys me more, as a reader, than feeling that a writer hasn’t done this. It feels like the writer has taken shortcuts or gotten lazy in not looking for obvious flaws in the narrative and addressing them. It makes for far more difficult writing, but the results are exponentially better, and far more satisfying.
For instance–and this isn’t a matter of intelligence, but rather just of a plot issue that’s really going to screw up my self-imposed deadline, but needs to be addressed. In my current WIP, I was hurtling towards the final showdown, when suddenly it came to a screeching halt. I kept staring at the screen and getting annoyed with myself. Why wasn’t I busting through? Why wasn’t I getting these final scenes written? The end was so close I could taste it.
It was actually a discussion with friends–a Facebook thread (thanks, James and Andrew!)–that brought the “aha” moment I’d been missing. One of my friends remarked upon the archetypal quest paradigm and the importance of the journey, not just the destination. I responded:
“It’s true, re the journey itself. That’s where the insights are learned and gained, and the hero’s transformation takes place. But the finale is the test of those insights–where we see whether they actually stuck or not. There’s always the concern that the destination, in that sense, be worthy of the journey taken.”
And there it was. I had it. I sat down and wrote down each of the main characters’ story arcs. And voila! All my characters, EXCEPT my two main characters had great story arcs. All my secondary characters had cool, believable changes and developments in their emotional arcs. But somehow, in the middle of all those comings and goings, I had lost track of plotting those changes for the TWO MAIN characters! Embarassing, but it would have been more so, if I hadn’t spotted it. I don’t know that this sort of flaw is that obvious–it would more likely be a subtle sense of dissatisfaction, upon finishing the book. A sense of emptiness, like something was missing. And the thing that was missing is that my main female protagonist did not change or develop or do much of anything other than walk around, during the entire narrative (an exaggeration, but that’s almost how it feels to me, thinking back on it, without that emotional underpinning and transformation). And that’s why the ending wasn’t coming–because she had nothing to test in herself. Nothing had changed, so she was just going through the motions, in survival mode–acting rather than developing.
So, no showdown. I don’t think it’s worth writing at this point. I need to go back and rework the scenes between my main female and male protags. The male protag’s story arc is better–he does change, but it’s not strongly enough drawn as it is, so that also needs to be brought out more clearly. I suspect once I fix that, the finale will write itself. Wish me luck.
As as for the question of writing about characters who are more intelligent than I am. It’s a conundrum all right–but again, just working through the steps, methodically and critically, at least enhances the character’s intelligence. After all, that character must figure out those solutions in a high-stress situation, and often has to think on his or her feet and make snap decisions, where I will have spent time, and many sheets of paper, working it out, and trying to eliminate the issues. In that sense, it reminds me a little of the LSAT. They say that most people, given enough time, can get high marks on an LSAT–it’s getting high marks in each section, with tight time constraints, and under the stress of a high-stakes exam situation, that’s the tricky part.