Well the bride looks a picture in the gown that her mama wore

So yesterday, I finished “The Gift of Music,” for Andy LaPierre, who y’all will have the pleasure of meeting next year some time.  I seriously have no idea what to do with the story, and said so to Steve, after he read it last night.

“Why not try to sell it?”  he asked.

Which is — wow.  What an idea.  I don’t remember the last time I submitted a story, cold.  Somewhere in the last decade or more it became clear that I wasn’t writing commercially viable short fiction and I just stopped submitting stories.  I didn’t stop writing stories, because…well.  But I did stop submitting.

We did the chapbooks, and of course there’s Splinter Universe (which I fear may not be a viable “market” for this story until sometime next year).

Anyhow, I’ll think about that. . .a little later.  Today, I have a pile of chores before me, having chosen to devote yesterday to getting Andy out of my head.  I also have a full-blown summer cold, and all I really want to do is lie on the couch and watch endless episodes of “Maverick.”

Or maybe not.

Before I vanish into the Land of Chores, though…I don’t know how many of you follow Ursula Vernon’s blog, where, a couple days ago, she was ruminating on the lack of less-than-bright protagonists in fiction.  Here’s the post. Which I read with interest.  Ursula identifies three “stupid” leads in her post — Buttercup from The Princess Bride, Bertie Wooster from the Jeeves and Wooster novels, and Freddy, from Cotillion — and wonders why there are no others.

Now, after ‘way too much thought, it occurred to me that all three of the characters Ursula identifies are comic characters — The Princess Bride is, after all, a farce; the Jeeves books never pretend to be anything but broad comedy; and Cotillion is definitely one of Heyer’s lighter works (though I must go on record as being at Freddy’s feet).

So, here are my questions:  (1) Can you (yes, you) think of any non-comic novels in which the main character is not extremely bright, or gifted in some manner that makes intelligence into a non-issue?  (2) Do you feel a lack of, in Ursula’s phrase, “good stupid characters” in fiction?

Have at it.


12 thoughts on “Well the bride looks a picture in the gown that her mama wore”

  1. Until you put in the qualifier of “gifted in some manner that makes intelligence into a non-issue”, I was going to offer Garion from The Belgariad and The Mallorean, but… massive sorcery there. Plus humor. Ditto the best friend Kalten from the Sparhawk books by the same author(s), Eddings.

  2. Well…there’s my novel _Remnant Population_ in which the protagonist is of ordinary intelligence, poorly educated, poor, and generally considered a nonperson by way of age, race, social class, and life history. (Contract labor in a badly run, and failed, space colony.) She has practical good sense, 70-odd years of experience, native cunning, and rock-solid determination that for once in her life she’s going to do what she wants, not what other people tell her. It’s very clear that other characters are smarter, better educated, and wealthier (this includes the extremely intelligent aliens.)

    The background inspirations for this book were two other books, not in our genre, which also had non-comic and not-spectacularly bright women protagonists: _The Wall_, by Marlen Haushofer (Austrian writer), published in 1963, in which a middle-aged ordinary woman finds herself marooned “alone” (she later finds out there’s one man up there too) behind a transparent wall high in the Alps–everyone below her altitude is apparently dead. And _Two Old Women_, by Velma Wallis, published in 1993, about two women abandoned by their tribe in a time of food shortage as useless and whiny. They survive, in the process recognizing how they had let themselves become selfish and useless, so no wonder they were left. None of these characters is comic.

    Jane Austen wrote some novels in which the protagonist was not overly bright (to my mind!) though she might have a good heart or moral character: Fanny in _Mansfield Park_, for instance or Anne in _Persuasion_. What about _Madame Bovary_? Victorian-era writers (other than women writers and some of them) were fond of writing about women as less intelligent, overly emotional and sometimes doomed by their silliness. (Trollope could write comic women, and so could Dickens, but Kingsley and Thackerey–o lord Thackery and Ghu-forbid Hardy did not.) The more serious Victorians (not all were) did not think stupidity was funny–they thought it was tragic. The romantics thought it might be an advantage–unhampered by brains, the Noble Savage would have uncorrupted feelings. (Oh, wait–Melville–what about _Bartleby the Scrivener_? And is there a super-intelligent person or even an average bright *sane* main character in _Moby Dick_? Unless you count the whale?)

    Some writers have written sympathetically about mentally deficient male characters…_Forrest Gump_ was a book before it was a movie, and it presents the low-IQ protagonist very favorably. There have been others, including in the SF/F realm, but I’m not thinking of them (my own “disabled protag” novel has plenty of IQ, but was hamstrung for decades by society’s reaction to his label.)

    If you work up to “average” rather than “below average”, then there’s an entire genre of working-class-protagonist novels either about the difficulties of being working-class, or about the virtues and successes of such. _Trustee from the Toolroom_ by Nevil Shute, is one of my all-time favorite books, and that protagonist is unexceptional until…he does exceptional things. But quietly, without fuss. There are a lot of 20th c. novels about average men and women, in which they show no particular intelligence or any other interesting characteristics–says the cynic who dislikes the “suburban angst” kind of novel. Um…what about Hemingway’s novels and stories? The men are not distinguished by great intellect but by presence or lack of masculinity as Hemingway defined it.

    If you define stupid as “May have normal IQ but repeatedly makes stupid choices and looks like an idiot” I think there are LOTS of examples, some comic and some not (and for much older novels, you have to consider whether the author and original readers thought it was comic. I find some of Kingsley’s novels hilarious in a way he and his reader would not. Ditto Rider Haggard’s _Beatrice_.)

    But I too have chores, and must get to them.

  3. A really intriguing question! The first character that came to my mind was Bruce Pearson, the catcher in Mark Harris’s (utterly heartbreaking) “Bang the Drum Slowly” (made into two TV versions, on with Paul Newman and one with Robert DiNiro & Michael Moriarty). There’s also Benjy Compson in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”. Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t a protagonist but he’s certainly a key character in the novel. Most of these protagonists don’t carry the novel by all by themselves, though (actually, few intelligent protagonists do either). The most intriguing one that came to my mind is Antonia Shimerdas, the title character in Willa Cather’s “My Antonia”. She is not stupid, but neither is she witty or daring or sparkling or overtly ‘intelligent’ — she’s stolid and persevering and one of the best female characters in literature.

  4. The obvious example is Charlie in Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon”. It’s been a long time since I read it but I remember that it has a lot of interesting things to say about the perception of people’s intelligence and how they fit in society. (Mind you, I remember being a bit irked by Keyes’ assumptions that Charlie’s changing IQ would be closely reflected by changing cultural tastes. High IQ does not equate with fondness for the traditional highbrow arts; that’s more a function of social class and upbringing.
    A more recent example of a hero who is determinedly not a genius is Ivan Vorpatril in Bujold’s “Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance. Though Ivan is certainly no dummy, he is surrounded by a pack of flaming geniuses and seeks the peace of an average sort of life. Throughout the Vorkosigan saga Ivan is referred to as “You idiot, Ivan!” and it’s fun to see that when he finally gets his own book, his kindness and sense of justice and duty serve to carry the day just as effectively as would blinding brilliance.

  5. I have a hard time qualifying Charley as a “stupid hero” for the reason that he doesn’t remain stupid; he’s there particularly to demonstrate the ages of man, as sketched by intelligence. I’ve always sort of felt that the real hero of the piece is Algernon.

    I never bought in to “Ivan, you idiot!” because clearly Ivan wasn’t an idiot, though he was (IMHO) unbearably inept for ‘way, ‘way too long. Of course, I have the same complaint about Miles, so that’s probably just me.

  6. Though there was nothing wrong with the verger’s intelligence, he was just illiterate. The point being the artificial barriers society erects and how it measures “success”. The story obviously had its influence as it has been at least forty years since I read it!

  7. I am reminded of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. One could argue that he is not the main character, but he is the center around which all else happens.

  8. This is going to be chock full of spoilers. SPOILER ALERT!!!

    The protagonist in Grisham’s THE FIRM is smarter than the (evil) LLC for which he works. They are in an oceanside location but have to have a mobster (from Chicago?) remind them, when they are searching for their traitor, that a boat might be a viable escape vehicle and they should do some shore-searching as well as for planes, trains and automobiles.

    Practically every character in a Michael Crichton novel, based on their understanding of educated science, at a minimum. The first of his books I read was THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (it was a new, five day wonder and I got curious). It was a long while ago but I recall there were characters who released a pathogen without testing for effects and the survivors did it mostly by luck rather than by “working on the problem”. // In A CASE OF NEED (it was an impulse item in a grocery check-out lane) by :”Jeffrey Hudson” the social issue which is the motivation for the lead had been legalized for several years before the book’s release and not handled well besides. // THE TERMINAL MAN (read for a first-semester college freshman “humanities” class) has the scientists stimulating the pleasure center of the brain of the featured character during aversion therapy. I already knew that, at least male rats (regardless of number of legs), will ignore a female-in-heat and masturbate when current is fed to their brain in that area. // JURASSIC PARK? A guy so rich that his scientists forget that some frogs can switch gender when the need arises [and what did they use to host the dinosaur DNA? Let’s not see the same hands, here] and then are surprised when there are viable eggs. // THE LOST WORLD is the sequel to JURASSIC PARK and has a live character who Crichton killed in the first book. And death did not make him more reasonable.

    JIMMY HIGGINS by Upton Sinclair is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.


    Lorelei Lee in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (by Anita Loos)

    HUCK FINN by Mark Twain is clever in his own way but not sophisticated, even for his times.

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

    It’s late, where I am, and I need to get some sleep before going to work. I hope this is lucid.

  9. Some of Heinlein’s characters–for example, the protagonist in Between Planets, I think, he was of average intelligence, and at least one of Lazarus Long’s wives.

    There are different types of intelligence–genius level academically doesn’t mean the person is genius level in social intelligence (or moron level, either, for that matter). There’s athletic talent/ability, there’s empathy, there’s creativity, musical talent (insert drummer jokes…) are other “intelligence” scales.

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