The Burden of the Smart Protagonist

I hate it that intelligence is usually portrated as a character flaw.  It just bugs the ever-livin’ hell ouf of me.  For a country that prides itself on achievement and exceptionalism, the U.S. of A. sure seems to dislike smart people.  We bow down to athletes and actors like living gods, but smart people, they just make us uncomfortable.

The anti-intellectual thread runs all through American culture.  For example, Mr. Fantastic, the smartest guy in the Marvel Comics universe is usually portrayed as an inattentive husband and neglectful father.  This is just a given.  Hank Pym AKA the original Ant-Man is most famous for smacking his wife.  And Tony Stark might be a superhero, but he’s also a bit of an egotistical jackass at times.  Smart Bruce Banner is the embodiment of weakness to the Incredible Hulk’s brutish power.  Dr. Doom is smarter than you and that’s part of what makes him so dangerous.

There’s nothing specific to Marvel about this though.  It’s an age old tradition.  It’s the nature of the villain to scheme, to build warbots and deathrays, to plot the overthrow of governments or the heist of the century.  And it’s the duty of tough guys, men and women of action, to punch their way through those plans.

Yet there is something deeper at work here.  We don’t really like smart people.  We certainly don’t like people smarter than us.  We don’t mind people tougher than us for some reason.  If they can kick us in the head, we’re enamored of them.  If they can build a time machine, we dislike them.

Why?  I don’t know.  One might argue that intellectuals are oftened saddled with overwhelming egotism as a character flaw, but how many professional athletes get away with bluster and “attitude”?  For all his “aw, shucks” way of presenting himself, President George W. Bush thought he was chosen by God to be President of the U.S.A.  That’s a hefty slice of self-confidence.  Admittedly, Bush is a fairly divisive figure, but he was rarely accused of being “too distant, too dispassionate” by anyone.  Meanwhile, President Obama must deal with the burden of being a smart guy.  Even his supporters admit that he can come across as “aloof, uninvolved”.

Dr. House is brilliant AND a jerkass.  Monk is highly intelligent AND highly compulsive.  I could really go on, but do I need to?  All too often, the intelligent character is the hippocritical character, the insecure character, the neurotic, the downright evil and cruel.

The reasoning behind this isn’t entirely built on anti-intellectualism.  It has at least something to do with how we classify satisfying conflict in a story.  A story where Flash Gordon fistfights his way through hordes of goons to stop Ming the Merciless from enslaving the universe is fun, exciting.  Because Flash is the fighter and not the schemer.  He’s the underdog.  And because he’s just a guy who excels at punching out bad guys, he isn’t the agent of conflict but rather the solver of conflict.

To be fair, smart characters, the schemers, the thinkers, the masterminds, are usually not the kind of character to react to a plot.  They are usually the instigators.  It’s the hero who steps in and saves the day, and it’s not unusual for that hero to have some smarts on his backup team, but these are the supporting characters, not the protagonist.

But underneath it all, there’s a cultural hostility toward intelligence.  We want a President we can “drink a beer with.”  We want action heroes who punch away their problems, and we assume that intelligent people must be deeply flawed, either psychological or physiological wakenesses.  Even Batman I think suffers from this rule because Batman is smart, hence Batman must be psychologically flawed whereas Green Arrow is just an excellent archer, hence he can be fine.  Even Superman is allowed to be “boring” i.e. “well-adjusted” because, even though he’s smart, he’s perceived as more of a trouble-puncher.

My ultimate point is that I like smart characters.  I like them a lot.  I like them as villains, sure, but I’d like to see them more as heroes too.  That’s all I’m putting out there.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Charmscale
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Your website is seriously slowing down my computer. Is there anything you can do about that?

  2. Posted July 26, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I very much agree with what you say in general about the anti-intellectual bias in this country. There are two things worth bearing in mind though as well. One is the also “age old” tradition of storytelling that says one should give characters flaws to make them feel more rounded, and thus we find these characters possessing not only genius, but also whatever other troubles their creators have sprinkled upon them so they will seems less two-dimensional; of course, this can be overdone individually or en masse, yet that’s allegedly the thinking behind it. Second thing I would point out is that people of high intellect – those of actual genius-level intelligence – do, more often than other people, end up suffering certain concomitant mental problems, with brilliant Monk’s OCD being a perfect example of that unfortunate parallelism.

  3. Posted July 26, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Maybe that’s why unconventional heroes, such as brilliant archaeologists and librarians, are so satisfying to me. I like a protagonist who’s brainy, too. (but I don’t mind if they also know Kung Fu…)

  4. jason presti
    Posted July 26, 2010 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you 150% and i was glad to read this blog post. It is one of the aspects of American culture and specifically Hollywood that i despise.
    Growing up from a young age reading “hard” Science Fiction books where the “smart” guy was the Hero, it is hard in other mediums to see them reduced to broad stereotypes in others. I really like your example of Reed Richards, especially in the last few years starting in the Civil War storyline where they “deconstructed” the heroes and changed their very natures.

    I hate the “retconning” that Marvel has done of late, where they have retro-actively changed Marvel history and changed some of their characters fundamentally. I can never forgive Marvel’s attempt to make Tony Stark their “Main” hero in the Marvel U by changing history to take away Captain America and Reed Richards’ role as the “responsible father figures” of the Marvel U and giving it to Tony. It is reprehensible how much Marvel has changed their history in the last few years.
    There is even a scene in one Civil War issue where Susan Storm goes to berate Tony Stark for being responsible for Reed’s taking sides in the War and she tells him that HE was the one that Reed and all the other heroes always looked up to! I was so frigging mad at this scene that i threw down my book and soon after stopped collecting certain titles.
    When I was reading comics from the early 80’s to the early 2000’s Tony was the irresponsible Playboy with problems galore and REED and CAP were the father figures.

    Anyway, one of the main reasons Doctor Who is my favorite sci-fi show of all time is exactly because he is a Hero who is prized for being the smart guy and uses his brain for almost EVERYTHING. The British do’t have the same hang-ups that we Americans do and are not afraid to have “Hero” characters that would NEVER make it in American Television or movies for that matter.
    They also are not afraid of hiring actors who actually look like “real” people and not the idealistic, unrealistic versions of people that Hollywood uses…but that is a conversation for another day.

  5. Rippley
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    A. Lee Martinez

    I originally started this reply explaining away our western history. I had planned to tell you about the Platonian Socrates, Nietzschian intellectual battle between the Greeks and the Jews–men of action vs. men of idle. I’m not going to give a run down of history. You and your audience most likely know the all-to-real history of western civilization. It would be pointless for me to regurgitate the academics. But I want make the point that our history is loaded with intellectuals getting the best of our other strong, weak-minded ancestors. (Survival of the fittest?)

    I also want to point out that the intellectual has always (post-enlightenment) been equated cold, calculated logic/math (exemplified in Hawthorne among others) whereas the athlete/strong man has always been equated with humanity and nature. I think if you give Patricia Highsmith a once through, you will see this division clearly.

    Ok, now back to the problem at hand. You want a smart protagonist. But the audience wants action and emotion. The problem with a cunningly, smart protagonist would be that the hero would come off as either an anti-hero (a rogue, a bit picaresque in nature), or robot-like nerd. Do these hero characters exist? Yes. Do they make for great reading? Yes. But do they also end up coming off ambiguous, and hard to take serious as the “hero?” Yes.

    My point is, Bill Gates is unnerving. I don’t know if y’all consider him smart, but he could “theoretically” use his intelligence and money gained theretofore to cause a lot of damage. Such a man raises paranoia, because he not only controls/controlled my virtual space, but also because he owns enough stock in each major company to change the world for better or worse. Stop calling me a conspiracy theorist! Bill Gates is my hypothetical example or why we fear intelligence. We fear intelligence, because, as Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is Power.”

  6. Rippley
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    It is not unreasonable to suspect that the genius who discovered how to create fire also fed his family and torched his neighbor.

  7. Zovesta
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I was waiting for someone to point this out.

    I agree. =/ It really is a shame.

  8. jason presti
    Posted July 28, 2010 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Dude, Rippley you are blowing my mind here. I was not expecting this much of a philosophical debate here LOL!
    However, you do make some very lucid and valid points that i agree with. in fictional writing the line between intellect and emotional core is a fine one. Go too far in either direction and you risk losing a signifigant segment of your audience.
    Once again going back to the brits, TORCHWOOD is a very good example of this. It took some time to get used to watching Torchwood because their “heroes” are much more flawed than typical heroes in American television. In fact they are written so much as realistic, normal people that when they make REALLY bad decisions and screw up stupidly it is a shock.

    In American TV & Movies we like our hero characters to be generally “better” and “smarter” than the average person and maintain a certain level of competance where they are almost always doing the right thing barring some some small mistakes that show character flaws.

    I myself go back and forth and want a mix of personality types in my protagonists. I don’t mind having the intellectual as the Hero and having stories where i have to use my brain to follow it. I like the challenge.
    I also like some stories that are all heart and emotions and may not be the most “realistic” as long as they speak to me the right way.

  9. Rippley
    Posted July 29, 2010 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    jason presti,

    Quantum Leap, you might remember it. Quantum leap was a television show in the early 1990’s, depicting a super-genius physicist who invents a type of time-travel where the traveler becomes a person in trouble. Quantum leap was extremely popular for its time. Most important QL fulfills the criteria of Martinez’s smart hero.
    The problem with QL was that after the good doctor helped all these folks out of a jam, his efforts caused more complex problems, which left him stuck trying to fix the problems he created, so on and so forth, and he’s never going home. And the audience is left with a giant sign that says, “FAIL” written all over their favorite television show. The doctor can’t complete his mission, and he’s gone nose-deaf from hero-complex.

    Burn Notice, currently on the USA Network, is about a burned genius, super-spy who tries to help folks get out of a jam while, at the same time, trying to regain his position as an official spy. Smart hero, and again fits Martinez’s criteria. This super-spy, Micheal Weston, has helped multiple people, but at the same time made things more complex, because all the thugs have spread his name around, and people come to him expecting the same results as the last victim. Weston is no closer to his goal than when he first got burned, because the obstacles to obtain the goal grow as rapidly as his work to complete the goal. It’s Quantum Leap, again.

    Both characters, Micheal Weston and the doctor from Quantum Leap, fall into the pitfall of their own design. They are the modern day picaro, traveling from misfortune to misfortune in attempts to better themselves only to find that they’ve become the victim. The audience wants the character to solve the problem, but gets shutdown with a failed ending of humanity over practicality.

    The other type of genius hero comes off as a nerd (if it’s a comedy) or a cold calculating robot. I had two movies in mind that fit Martinez’s criteria and also made my point, but I cannot seem to remember what they were. So, my whole argument is screwed.

    Anyway, the characters that Martinez is talking about are out there. And they temporarily make for good television. But we usually end up with a nose-deaf humanitarian with a hero complex or a cold calculating nerd, neither of which can I take serious as a hero.

    p.s. I was foolish to think I could become a fiction writer. I’m not that creative. I can’t even imagine how to change the storyline for the smart hero. Eventually, in my mind, the smart protagonist has no end game. He’s forced to give up his own goals to solve other peoples problems. Perhaps, I guess, if the smart hero had simple (trite) goals then the build-up toward those failed goals wouldn’t feel so valuable to the story, and would lessen my negative views about his heroedom?

  10. Big Bear
    Posted July 30, 2010 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    Everyone always wants whats on the other side of the fence.

    the so called “intellectuals” envy the “jock” types for their physical abilities and social status.

    The intelligent people are often seen as anti-social misfits, lacking social skills and graces.

    They are presented all too often as jealous and spiteful of those more social adaptive and take to wanting ‘revenge’ for their oft misplaced ‘dis-inclusion form popular society.

    Even in fantasy , there is some grain of truth in the fiction. I don’t know about you, but I know way too many ‘intellectual’ types who fit many aspects of those stereotypes.

    If they allowed themselves to, they could be very cold and condescending. Choosing to make themselves feel better about themselves by seeing themselves as ‘better’ than those who were not s ‘smart’ or ‘clever’ as they saw themselves.

    I went to high school with people like that, I went to college with people like that and I have worked with plenty of people like that.

    I don’t think it is that great a stretch of the imagination to see the ‘super’ intelligent as socially inept and overbearing, pompous asses.

    That said, look at the common stereotype of the ‘big’ guy who is a blink away from being an imbecile. I think that stereotype is even more prevalent but also given very little regard or attention at the same time. It has been pretty much accepted that the big, strong types are “Lenny” and cannot be trusted with their own thoughts.

    incredible hulk? big/dumb vs small/smart.

    the tick…need I say more?

    spiderman, small/smart. the rhino big/dumb.

    eddie brock/venom..big, not so much smart as cunning like an animal then there’s Cletus Kasady/Carnage/small, smarter than venom and more evil by a long shot.

    Obvious exception would be the kingpin, (smart, big, villain)

  11. Posted September 4, 2010 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Interestingly, up until WW2 or so, the intellectual WAS usually the hero, or at least the protagonist, and the brawny guy was the sidekick.

    (See 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, or Doyle’s The Lost World)

    Heck, the hero of heroes of the pulp era was Doc Savage, the smartest man alive.

    I’m not entirely sure when the pendulum swung, but the first signs of it were probably the Flash Gordon/Zarkov dynamic.

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