IT'S A TRAP: Your Protagonist Knows Everything Ever

| Monday, December 6, 2010

Today's Tune: Snoopy vs. The Red Baron

It's been a while since I've done an IT'S A TRAP! post, hasn't it? Why don't I post one? Sounds like a Monday plan!

IT'S A TRAP!: Your Child/Teenage Protagonist KNOWS EVERYTHING!

You have a middle-grade or teenage protagonist, and they're smart. Totally smart. You want to show your readers just how very smart they are. So, of course, you make sure they already know everything ever. They're bored in class because they've already studied all the topics. They've already read all the classics because, well, they're SMART and they read them for fun. Duh.

I've seen this trope quite a bit, mostly in YA lit. The protagonist has just moved to a new town, and they're going to their new school. They attend their first class and oh, gosh, it's Chemistry. What a bummer. They already TOOK Chemistry at their old school, so all these labs are old news. Next is English! Aw, what? The assignment is to read Beowulf? But Protagonist read that already! How droll. Cue being bored and contemplating own superior intelligence.

Smart protagonists are awesome. I write smart protagonists. But no one knows everything, and when we write main characters that have nothing new to learn, it comes across as irritatingly false. It's especially grating and cliche when the method for revealing their intelligence is to show that they're already So Much Smarter/Well-Read/More Advanced Than Their Classmates. Also, why the heck would a student repeat a course they've already had at a previous school? Of course they already know everything in Algebra if they've already taken the course. This isn't a good way to show that your protagonist is intelligent.

Don't cheat your story and your readers by ensuring your brilliant shining star is clearly at the college level in everything ever. Even geniuses aren't geniuses at everything. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. If your protagonist excels in certain areas, let them suck at something BESIDES Phys Ed. Why do bright characters always seem to suck at Phys Ed?

Characters who know everything and blab about how they know everything aren't generally very likable. They have a tendency to develop an attitude that implies the majority of their peers are beneath them, and that's not a trait you want your MC to have. Unless you've purposely written them that way, that is.

There are ways to show off your protagonist's smartypants without resorting to the cheap parlor trick of "Well, this class is a WASTE OF MY TIME because I already know more than what the teacher can teach me." Let them show their scholarly chops without being a stuck-up brat about it.

Note: this tactic could actually work for a character that you DO want to appear as a know-it-all jerkface. Just sayin'.


10 comments:

{ LTM } at: December 6, 2010 at 8:05 AM said...

good one! At the same time, teenagers *think* they know everything, so it can be very real to have protag thinking they're the smartest guy/gal in the room and then discover otherwise~ :o) <3

{ E.J. Wesley } at: December 6, 2010 at 8:50 AM said...

"There's no way a reader could repel a post of this magnitude!"

Robot Chicken Star Wars? Anyone? Anyone?

Totally agree with what you said, btw. Know-it-alls suck in real life AND in fiction.

{ Simon C. Larter } at: December 6, 2010 at 9:09 AM said...

I was smart, and I did just fine in Phys. Ed., thanks. :)

(Yes, I *was* smart. The jury's still out on whether I continue to be.)

And I wonder what book you were thinking about when you wrote this.... O.o

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 6, 2010 at 10:16 AM said...

LTM - Very true ;) It's more the tactic of trying to prove someone is smart by making sure they're more book-educated than everyone around them that I object to, lol.

E.J. - Sorry, I don't watch much Robot Chicken! But it was still funny :D

Simon - I'm saying! Really, being smart means you can't be good at physical activity? Come oooonnn.

{ Old Kitty } at: December 6, 2010 at 10:32 AM said...

I think characters are at their best when they are smart and vulnerable! Like wossername in Glee - the main singer (sorry my brian is frazzled!!)! She's a sort of know-it-all but she's also bullied and sensitive and vulnerable and so in love!

Take care
x

{ Magan } at: December 6, 2010 at 12:08 PM said...

You always point out these great traps that I don't even think of! I think that's why I like the character of Nora in HUSH, HUSH and Crescendo...since she actually seems a little clueless when it comes to school. Pretentious characters and people really irk me and it's something I've been trying to avoid, so this post actually helps me out. Thanks Steph!

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: December 6, 2010 at 5:07 PM said...

Kitty - Rachel! :D Good example. She IS a know-it-all, and when she's being that way, she's extremely unlikeable and annoying.

Magan - Glad to help, dude!

{ aspiring_x } at: December 7, 2010 at 6:18 AM said...

man! this post really made me appreciate how skillfully written the characters from the big bang theory are written (i mean appreciate even more!) :)
very, very good point!
thanks! :)

{ Lisa Potts } at: December 7, 2010 at 10:13 AM said...

Nice post and I totally agree with you. When I read that the MC has already taken Calculus in high school, I roll my eyes.

P.S. My verification word was hatin.
As in "Don't be hatin' me as the MC 'cause I take classes twice and nobody cares, especially my parents who are stuuuuupid or dead."

{ Sherri Hunt Smith } at: July 13, 2011 at 12:58 PM said...

Thank you. You have just shown the difference between Bella Swan and Hermione Granger!

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