Why are people so dumb?
We have dumb criminals, dumb politicians, and dumb kids. Our bosses are dumb, and so are our coworkers (at least in our opinions). Other drivers are dumb. There are ridiculous books, dumb movies and idiotic TV shows, which dumb people purchase and watch.
How many times have you seen a news story detailing someone’s ill-thought-out mishap and said to yourself, “What a dummy!”? How many times have you heard the same story and said “What could I do with a character like that?”
A very enjoyable film, Idiocracy, came out in 2006 that showed the protagonist, a time-traveler of normal intelligence, transported 500 years into a future where everyone was hopelessly stupid and he was the smartest man in the world. It was an attempt at lampooning the dumbing-down of American society and the corporate intrusion into every aspect of daily life. People are using it as an example of where we’re headed. The writer/s got a lot of mileage out of the concept and created some memorable stupid characters, including Frito Pendejo (Spanish for dumbass), the protagonist’s reluctant sidekick, and the hilariously over-the-top U.S. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
Not everyone in life can be a rocket scientist. A mix of characters adds variety to your story and can even be the catalyst that drives your plot forward. Here are some ways stupid characters can be played in your fiction:
- For laughs. Take Idiocracy. We laugh at stupid people or situations because it makes us feel superior. The humor in the film tempers the warning that our society is allowing our brainpower to diminish by letting dumb things take over completely. Because we’re laughing, we keep watching and the message sinks in. Without the silliness of Frito and the President and the exaggerated Costco store the size of a city, a book with the same message would be heavy-handed and unpalatable. In this case, it’s sort of a double entendre. The dumb characters are stand-ins for our future selves but since they are funny, it doesn’t sting.
- Dramatic effect or pathos. [WARNING! SPOILER!] John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men is probably the best-known literary example. George and Lennie are traveling companions, migrant workmen who go where the jobs are. Lennie is “simple,” and George worries over him constantly. When Lennie does something horrific, George must deal with it harshly and decides to kill Lennie both to save him from vengeance and to divest himself of the responsibility. Because we have grown to like Lennie and his terrible deed is truly an accident, George’s solution is heartwrenching. We feel as bad for him as we do for the hapless Lennie.
- Contrast. A really dumb character makes everyone else look smarter. A sidekick who always gets in trouble gives the hero a chance to preen as he saves his buddy. A stupid assistant will blindly help his evil scientist master and never realize what he is about to do. In books and films involving child protagonists, adults are often seen as useless, lumbering fools, blind to their children’s predicaments, or absent entirely. Stephen King’s IT is a good example of this, although the adults are as much victims of the Pennywise character as the kids. As the child protagonists grow older, they forget much of what happened the summer they battled Derry’s evil sewer-dwelling clown. Although this can be attributed to blocking out traumatic events, King implies that adulthood comes with a lessening of the purity and power they possessed as kids, which helped them defeat the monster.
- To advance the plot. The old guy who pokes the meteor with a stick and inadvertently becomes the Blob’s first victim is a classic dumb character. He’s the one you love to yell at in the movie theater: “Get away from there!” Of course he never does, and the beast is loose in the innocent small town.
It’s fun to write a MacGyver-like character who can get himself out of any spot with an encyclopedic brain and a Mythbuster’s inventiveness. What a great hero that is. A less likely hero would be someone whose knowledge is limited, but whose spirit is unconquerable. Experiment with the dumb character, who might not be so dumb once he’s become your own.
If you have any examples of enjoyably silly, annoyingly hilarious or heartwarmingly triumphant dumb characters, please share them in the comments.