Story Musing: Writing a Clever Protagonist

One type of character I’ve noticed that’s been tricky to write has always been the clever protagonist. Typically a lot of fantasy novels resort to the protagonist unlocking a special power, summoning an inner strength (maybe the power of love, friendship, confidence, etc.), or just something that allows them to overpower the antagonist. It follows a traditional underdog hero overcoming someone more powerful than them, overcoming the odds as it were. It’s quite common in superhero movies, fantasy stories, video games, anime and also many books. But sometimes it can be a bit unsatisfying since it’s the heroes are just overpowering than the enemy. Something that is often far more satisfying to read or see is the protagonists either tricking or outsmarting their opponent. That’s where a clever character becomes far more interesting.

But what makes a character clever? What is it that makes them be able to trick or outsmart their antagonist who may or may not be as smart as them? Often the best way to create a character like this is to understand the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Intelligence is how much knowledge a character has on a given subject. It could be the history of the land, the people, the antagonist and maybe the laws of the magic system. Wisdom is the ability to understand a situation, a person, a society or whatever is being dealt with and how best to take advantage if it. In a sense, wisdom can be considered the application of knowledge acquired.

A good example of a knowledgeable character would be David from The Reckoners series. David’s whole identity is gaining knowledge on both the epics in his world (superpowered beings, often using their powers to take advantage of others). He spends his entire life studying and planning his revenge against the epic who killed his father who just so happens to be invincible. But his knowledge extends to firearms as well which not only becomes practical for survival and taking down epics but also gives him an adorkable endearing quality. Whenever he encounters any dangerous situations, he’s using his knowledge gained over the years to quickly adapt and formulate a plan to save the day and help his team.

But what about a clever character who isn’t quite as knowledgeable? Can a character be clever and ignorant at the same time? It’s certainly possible but it requires a bit more careful work. There’s a dangerous potential of situations coming out lucky rather than the protagonist actually actively fixing the situation for themselves. Tress from Tress of the Emerald Sea is probably one of the best examples of a character who is both clever but ignorant. She starts her adventure completely ignorant of the world outside her island and is deathly terrified of the spores that make up the oceans of her world (it’s wildly imaginative). But she turns out to be a very inquisitive character and learns about the world whenever she can from whoever she can. While she may be inexperienced, she shows her ingenuity time and time again and outsmarts the antagonists she runs into by thinking quickly and tricking them despite her not fully knowing the situation.

It’s these clever characters that help to make the story more interesting and, in my opinion, more exciting. Characters who rely more on their intelligence and wisdom, being clever in these situations, often allow for more creative and inventive solutions to problems that come up. Whereas the more common main characters tend to punch or overpower their way out of a problem, it’s the clever characters that really make us anticipate how they’re going to escape. It’s a much easier way to create and interesting character and a character driven plot that leaves the reader wondering what comes next.

– Raphael

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