How do I depict “stupid” characters credibly and respectfully? I found Oren’s 2015 article Four Questions to Ask When a Character Is Clever enlightening and would be interested in a similar exploration into the opposite side of the spectrum. Angela Ackerman’s article on how fear warps decision making was another valuable insight. Along the way, it would be nice to know what ableist pitfalls to avoid.



Thanks for your question! This is an important topic.

The first thing to know is that the concept of “stupidity” or “low intelligence” is inaccurate, stigmatizing, ableist, and connected to a history of ableist and racist violence. It is a bunch of stereotypes about people with cognitive disabilities mashed together into a generic concept that has no actual grounding in disability or the things that cause non-disabled people to make bad choices. A starting point for more information on this is belenen’s article on slurs used against people with cognitive disabilities and the violent history and stigma connected to them.  

While the generic concept of “stupidity” isn’t actually a real thing, disabilities are real. There are many different cognitive disabilities and a wide range of other disabilities that affect mental functioning. For example, many chronic illnesses can cause brain fog, which is an experience of unclear thinking and mental confusion that affects memory, focus, learning, and decision-making. It is called brain fog because “it can feel like this cloud on your head that reduces your ability to think clearly.”

Because each disability affects people differently, it is important to choose a specific disability (or disabilities) for each disabled character. Once a disability is chosen, keep getting more specific. Choose the specific symptoms that the character has and the way that this disability presents itself. Research the disability, learn about myths and stereotypes to avoid, and consult with someone who has lived experience. Real disability is specific, so respectful depictions need to be specific too.

One of the keys for respectfully depicting any disability that affects mental functioning is letting go of the idea that there is a single mental ability called “intelligence.” Instead, there is a wide range of different cognitive abilities that people can be strong in or struggle with, such as memory, communicating thoughts, understanding social cues, spatial reasoning, mental flexibility, imagination, focus, planning, logical reasoning, mathematical aptitude, and creative problem-solving. When researching the details of a character’s disability, think about the specific mental capacities it affects and how it affects them.

It is also possible to depict non-disabled characters who have frustrating behaviors or make bad decisions. The key here is that the frustrating things are behaviors and choices, not the lack of a certain type of mental capability. If a character significantly struggles with one or more cognitive abilities, that is a disability and it should be handled as such.

When showing the frustrating behaviors and choices of non-disabled characters, getting specific also helps. Anything generic will lean toward stigmatizing stereotypes. To avoid this, decide what specific behavior the character is doing that is causing problems. For example, are they willfully ignorant about something, being hypocritical, not taking safety protocols seriously, being overconfident, not thinking about the needs of others, or avoiding taking responsibility for their actions? Distance this frustrating behavior from disability by making it clear that the character is choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to do it.

Another option is to show how intense emotion, such as fear, or extreme circumstances can warp decision-making in non-disabled characters. It sounds like you have already found some good information on this, and there is plenty more out there. For this, it is important to make clear the cause and effect of how the intense emotion or circumstances alter decision-making. Although there is some gray area here, keep this focused on the character’s behavior, choices, and how the situation affects them, not the character’s cognitive abilities.

Finally, I want to emphasize that regardless of whether a character is disabled or not, being specific is key. Specificity makes it clear what is happening for the character and how they are making decisions. It also makes the character more relatable, either as someone the audience can identify with or someone with behaviors many audience members have personal experience being frustrated with.

I hope that this helps. Good luck with your storytelling project!

–Fay Onyx from Writing Alchemy

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