Don’t Make Your Characters Dumber Than Your Audience

There should be a universal list of no-no’s that every writer (and editor) should be forced to go through when they have completed their work.  Amongst them, in fact maybe even atop this whole list, is that your main character should never become dumber than your audience.  Here’s what I mean:

I’m in the last 150 pages of a 2500 page fantasy trilogy.   I have some real pet peeves with this series (which I run into in a lot of fantasy novels) , but here’s what just happened.  Throughout this complex, intriguing, and very good story we have gotten very close to this character named Fitz.  He’s had to endure massive tragedy, massive pain and punishment, and massive discrimination.  He’s strong-willed, clever, and dedicated to his King most of all (who was overthrown by his scheming brother when the King went searching for a way to stop the raids from evil foreigners on their coasts).

Now, nearing the end of this epic story, Fitz and a small group of others have traveled out of their land to find the good King and help him overthrow his conniving brother.  For Fitz, this also would mean that his wife, a woman whom he loves more than anything but believes him to be dead, and his daughter whom he’s never seen will be safe and that he can return to them.  We are close to these people, and we want Fitz to get back there and finally have something good in his life.

Fitz holds The Skill (like Jedi mind tricks – only a few people hold this power and some are evil), though he was never trained in it.  There is a group who are from the conniving King, however, who have been very well trained in it.  They have been following Fitz and his group into the wilds, hoping to corrupt his mind and find a way to hurt him.  Fitz and his group members have realized that a very minuscule Skill-link has formed between Fitz and another character in his group, The Fool (he was the King’s fool – kind of a mysterious prophet).  They are all concerned that this link could be exploited by the king’s Skill users to get into Fitz’s mind without him knowing, or worse – they could take control of the Fool’s mind and get to Fitz.

Then the conniving king recently communicated to Fitz through one of his Skill users that I know where your wife and daughter are.  I will rape her, torture her, and then kill them both.  You can do nothing to stop me. As you can imagine, this is horrendous news for Fitz.  However, he quickly realizes that there is no way any of them know where she is.  So he simply must not allow them to know.

A few pages later, The Fool begins acting strangely.  He asks Fitz if he would be okay with him visiting his wife were Fitz to be killed.  Fitz responds that he’d rather his wife (remember, she thinks he’d dead) never know that he still lives because she’d be hurt he didn’t come to her.  But the Fool persists with his pressure and Fitz says, “Well I don’t even know where she is specifically.  Only that she’s near this town called Buck Cliffs.”  And suddenly the Fool freezes, collapses, and acts exaclty like the last two times evil King’s skill users tried to take control of him.

What does Fitz do?  He gets angry at the Fool for acting like an idiot.  Even when the rest of his group claims that they found the Fool laying on the ground having violent dreams.  They even say, “It’s as if he’s been Skilling using.”  What does Fitz do?  He gets concerned the Fool is sick.  Eventually the Fool wakes up and Fitz has a change of heart, telling the fool he does with him to visit his wife if he were to die.  “Why on earth would you be telling me that, Fitz?”  He doesn’t remember the conversation – only as if it were a remnant of a dying dream.  What does Fitz do?  He still assumes the Fool is sick.

So here I am.  150 pages left, and my main character has been deliberately made an idiot by the author.  Why wouldn’t they realize that the Fool is doing exactly what they’d warned themselves about for days and days on end?  They would realize it!  Instantly!  And if they couldn’t prove it, Fitz wouldn’t be able to hold himself back from using the Skill to try and kill those other guys or at least use people’s minds to try and warn his wife.  Oh I’m certain he’ll realize that the others have now found the approximate location of his wife.  But not for a while (and the book is nearly over).  And in the meantime, I don’t believe anything any longer.  I think a hell of a lot less of the characters I should care most about.