Hello! How are you? How do I write a character that is very smart bookwise and has good ideas, but doesn’t have common sense/acts very silly?Atlas
That’s a wonderful question. The key is to identify exactly what areas are a weakness for your character.
A common and useful distinction is to have a character that is well-read but low on experience. They may have a great understanding of how everything works in theory, but they aren’t great at coming up with practical solutions or adjusting their ideas to fit the current situation.
- Your character might recognize a sickness can be cured by a specific herb, but that’s not useful because no one has the herb. Later, the character might realize many people actually do have the herb, but naturally they don’t call it by the scientific name, they have a local name for it.
- They might tell people to put structures on stilts to keep them above the water during floods, but the local ground is too soft for structures using stilts to stay upright.
- Perhaps some instruction they read sounds easy to do, but when they try it, it takes a full day of hard labor. At that rate, it might not work at a big scale.
Another option is to have a character that knows a lot but doesn’t have much in the way of social skills. Maybe they’ve been cloistered away while they were learning, and were never taught any etiquette or given exposure to other groups.
They might not know:
- What clothes to wear to formal events or how to address nobility.
- That they’re supposed to haggle when they go to the market instead of accepting the named price, much less what prices are reasonable.
- That many people in the city don’t know how to read like they do, causing them to make privileged and rude assumptions.
Ultimately, this approach comes down to uneven knowledge. If you focus on knowledge, you can get the effect you want without worrying about ableism.
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Comments on How Do I Write a Character That’s Smart but Lacks Common Sense?
It’s great that you’ve asked this question as it can be a sensitive area. Neurodiverse people are often told that they lack common sense, and it’s just one more way in which they can be perceived and portrayed in a negative light. However, common sense, as the cliche goes, isn’t all that common, and what seems blindingly obvious to one person or group can be completely alien to another.
This is the basis for the standard fish out of water trope, which is well worn but with good reason. If your character is in an unfamiliar setting, they will struggle to adjust at first, and their existing skills will be of little use. This will be true of anyone adapting to a new situation, and allows your character to be out of step with their surroundings without being inept.
If you’re writing a character who struggles to navigate more mundane situations, there’s a danger of falling into tired stereotypes about neurodiverse people. Intelligent people on TV are nearly always socially awkward, clumsy or disorganised and they’re frequently coded as autistic by people who don’t understand autism.
For anyone who has knowledge or experience of neurodiversity, or is willing to do the research, I say go for it – the world needs more nuanced neurodiverse characters. However, if you simply want to write a neurotypical character who lacks some practical skills, then there are a few things you can try.
Your character might be too focused on detail to see the big picture, or vice versa, so they might burn the breakfast because they’re obsessed with making the perfect scrambled eggs. Or campaign on national issues when they’re on the local council and everyone just wants the potholes fixed.
Perhaps they’re not very good with money; spending out on an expensive hobby, then having none left when their boiler breaks down. Or they could be too careful with it; sitting in a freezing house when they have plenty of money in the bank.
Everyone has some gaps in their skill and knowledge base, so you might have an ace computer programmer who doesn’t know how to change a flat tyre, or a master builder who can’t get into their online bank account.
We can all be left floundering when we’re out of our comfort zones and I’m sure you can find an engaging and respectful way for your character to be shaken out of theirs. Good luck.
I love this! Thanks!
Thank you. I’m glad you appreciated it.
Editor’s Note: I’ve removed a comment over references to men with “low testosterone” being “structurally weak.” Hopefully it was unintentional, but that idea is a far right scaremongering tactic that ties into multiple conspiracy theories which are both misogynist and queerphobic.
The comment also had some very questionable advice about writing mentally ill and neurodiverse characters, particularly an admonishment against the term “neurodiverse” itself. For the record, while there are times it won’t fit or you’ll want to be more specific, neurodiverse is a perfectly serviceable term.
Perspiring Writer wrote a very good reply which we unfortunately had to delete as well. Perspiring, if you’d like to rewrite that reply as a general comment, let me know and I’ll send you the text.
Thanks; I’d like that!
I actually just remembered that I took a screenshot of that comment before it got deleted, so I already have it.
Ah, no worries then. I already sent you the text over email, so that might be easier to edit than re-copying it from an image.
Thanks, I just noticed that.
Aaaand I’d also copied the text into a word counter, and it was still saved on there.
As someone who is neurodiverse…
I’m perfectly fine w/ that term
It also pairs up nicely w/ “neurotypical”, which is a good way to describe a person is not neurodiverse w/o being an offhand insult to the neurodiverse, like many terms are, intentionally or otherwise
Of course, English is constantly changing and evolving. Don’t be surprised if in a few years “neurodiverse” does become a crude slur
You can make him cocky too. People that knows a lot tend to think that everyone else knows as much, and look down upon people that never heard of any given obscure fact that the character knows (i’m looking at you Sherlock Holmes). That make them prone to depend too much on what they learned instead of the facts.
This isn’t a bad idea, though for my money I wish this character type weren’t so common, particularly on tv. I’m sure my experiences are not universal, so take this with a grain of salt, but often I find that people who truly know a lot about a subject tend also to be the most humble. As the phrase goes, they, “Know enough to know how much they *don’t* know.”
On the other hand, arrogance is usually the domain of those people who know a little about a topic, but believe their limited knowledge to be more complete than it actually is, and lord their imagined expertise over the average person who doesn’t. As I’ve learned it, this is one of the several possible readings of the phrase, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” – a warning about the dangers of somebody who arrogantly believes they know more than they actually do.
It’s still not a bad character archetype, I just wish the same character flaw didn’t stereotype -so many- tv geniuses, or at least that it might be presented with the above nuance intact.
If you’re familiar with the show Brisco County Junior, I’ve always thought that the character of Pete Hutter demonstrated this well. On the one hand he’s highly educated, able to spout off on subjects like Impressionism, Leonardo da Vinci, and similar stuff. On the other, behavior-wise, he’s a complete idiot.
Oh boy, you’re writing a novel about me!
You can also have your character being the type that comes up with “smart” (actually complicated) ways of solving a problem, when there is a much simpler solution they could have used. I’m talking about me in this one.
I’m a scientist. I once had an irritation in one eye, but my eyedrops were expired. If I used the eyedrops and the irritation became worse, I wouldn’t know whether that was because of the original problem or because of the expired eyedrops. Therefore I decided to use my healthy eye as control, and put eyedrops in it as well. Perfect experiment, right? It NEVER occurred to me I could have simply bought new, non-expired eyedrops.
But then you’d have to get more eyedrops at the store! Ug, I’d experiment on my healthy eye instead.
Ha, great example! I’ve done that sort of thing before, too!
This is priceless, and exactly the kind of thing I might have done. Obvious solutions aren’t always obvious.
I am autistic and am one of those people who is smart and lacks common sense. I can write a long essay analyzing classic literature and infodump for hours about rats, but when it comes to knowing how to put a meal together it is impossible.
I find I am very good at fact-based, intellectual pursuits, so classically booksmart. But basic life skills are a puzzle to me; I always misplace my things, have issues with cognitive empathy, and can’t schedule and study at all
“Common sense” is hard to define and could maybe be considered to be what people in a local area know. So the “smart but lacks common sense” could be someone new to the area who doesn’t know how things work. Like they plan a day-trip of shopping but don’t check the hours of all the stores or know they shouldn’t go on certain days because the week’s deliveries haven’t been made yet. They may accidentally offend someone by wearing a t-shirt with the wrong sport team logo. Or maybe they want to talk about Bruno.
Boy oh boy, do you experience this contradiction if you are in a professional or academic engineering setting. You can have all the theoretical knowledge in the world but have trouble implementing it practically. For example, you can produce a brilliant engine design but also accidentally design it so that the engine’s parts cannot be manufactured or put together.
There was a comment here about writing neurodivergent or mentally ill characters, and it was… interesting, to say the least (namely, it seemed to imply (or outright state) that neurotypical authors just shouldn’t bother). I made a response to that comment, but it got deleted when the comment did.
Fortunately, Oren said I could rewrite it as a general comment, and after making some light edits so it would still make sense without the original context, here it is:
It is ABSOLUTELY ok to write someone who’s neurodivergent or mentally ill (or both), even if you yourself aren’t! Obviously, there’s some potential pitfalls there, and I can’t speak for everyone with those traits, but even just talking about the traits I do have, you can absolutely write about someone who’s autistic or has anxiety (or both). You’d definitely need to get sensitivity readers to go over your work, just to make sure you aren’t falling into any harmful tropes, but that goes for neurodiverse or mentally ill authors too (internalized ableism is a thing, after all). In fact, Mythcreants has plenty of articles on how to depict neurodivergence or mental illness (mostly by Fay Onyx, but plenty of other authors have contributed excellent articles themselves).
That comment also had a really weird bit that equated wanting to depict neurodivergence or mental illness as being the same as wanting novelty in your story, which is absolutely not true; while some authors certainly do this, plenty of others (Brandon Sanderson, for instance, who’s also a really good example of writing about neurodivergence or mental illness while not being neurodivergent or mentally ill yourself (at least in his later work; Elantris has some harmful elements in it), and has also been open about consulting sensitivity readers (particularly for his book Rhythm of War)) want to represent these traits in their writing.
There’s one last bit that I wanted to bring up; the comment said that it was okay to depict ‘madness’ in your writing as long as it was magically induced, with the implication that this would somehow be distinct from ‘real-life mental health issues’. It is not, in fact, distinct; it’s actually an example of a harmful trope that gets repeated way too often in writing. (Quite a few of Fay Onyx’s articles for this site discuss how ‘madness’ or ‘insanity’ get overused in stories as shorthand for ‘bad’, ‘wrong’, or ‘evil’. (Ze’s also written lots of great articles on hir own site Writing with Alchemy (please tell me if those pronouns were used correctly)) “What’s a Non-Ableist Alternative to “Losing Sanity” in Stories?” is a good example, as is “Ridding Your Monsters of Ableism”, and there’s plenty more great examples on the Mythcreants tag ‘Disability & Neurodiversity.)
So, in conclusion, it is perfectly ok for a neurotypical author to depict neurodivergence or mental illness in their work, so long as they take certain steps to avoid harmful stereotypes or tropes (of which hiring sensitivity readers is one).
P.S. If anything in this comment doesn’t quite sound right to someone more knowledgable than me, please tell me; I’m always trying to learn more about subjects I’m not fully familiar with, and your help would be much appreciated.