Part III in my series about character traits that bug me as a reader (and how a writer can twist them to his/her advantage) involves a lack of common sense. (See part I, about self-pity, and part II, about fearfulness.)
One thing I’ve learned about myself through the years is that I’m quite talented in the book smarts department, but I don’t have much common sense. Sometimes, an obvious, simple solution to a problem will escape me, leaving me to come up with a more complicated plan of attack. Then someone will suggest, “Why don’t you do this instead?” and I feel like a complete idiot. Oddly for a writer, I’m not observant, which doesn’t help this problem; because, being a writer, I get lost in my own thoughts and contemplations and miss what’s going on around me. Spanish speakers could describe me as “ensimismada,” or “wrapped up in oneself.” I’m just a deep thinker.
I guess in a novel, I would be one of those characters who is well-intentioned but doesn’t see the truth staring her straight in the face: an Emma Woodhouse-type, if you will. (I wrote about Emma once before, in “Characters You Want to Strangle?“) I suppose this kind of character bugs me because I see what I don’t like about myself in that person. I realize I probably annoy the people in my life the same way this character gets on my nerves, because the truth is SO DANG OBVIOUS….
The fact is, dramatic irony–when a reader knows something a character doesn’t–can be fun, and doesn’t have to rely upon characters who lack common sense to function well. Some thoughts about writing characters who, like me, aren’t especially gifted in the common sense department:
- REMEMBER THIS CAN BE AN ADVANTAGE FOR YOU, IF YOU WRITE IT WELL. This kind of flaw–a failing that isn’t immoral or unethical–will make your character one to remember and one who feels real, without making your reader loathe or judge the character too harshly.
- DON’T MAKE YOUR CHARACTER A CARICATURE. There is a line of believability. There is a point where a lack of common sense is just ridiculous, because no one would be so foolish as not to see that aspect of things. Who wouldn’t realize action A will lead to consequence B? That’s when your story get bad. If you can avoid crossing that line…. you’re good to go. Make sure when your character overlooks something, it’s conceivable that could occur, and that your character has strengths to balance out this display of weakness.
- A SENSE OF HUMOR GOES A LONG WAY. This flaw can be annoying to both your reader and other characters. A sense of humor about oneself goes a long way toward redemption and leaving a favorable overall impression. That’s important if this is a character you want your readers to like.
- HOW MAJOR IS THIS CHARACTER? Interestingly enough, in Emma, the poor, orphaned Harriett is not much wiser than Emma, and allows Emma to guide her nearly to disaster. But you don’t hear people talking about how much Harriett annoyed them. Harriett didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room. That was Emma, because Emma, equally lacking in the thought department, is also the book’s heroine. The story follows her. So realize that with this annoying quirk, the more prominent your character, the more annoying it will be, and the more heavy lifting you will have to do to counteract its effect if you want your story to be readable.