Common Sense VS. Science

Who will win out: the scientists who have studied all their lives to solve this world-destroying threat OR this random character with no knowledge of anything who just happens to have a bit of common sense on their side? You guessed it! It’s totally the random character with no background in science.

This drives me nuts! It’s really insulting to all the science-loving characters in a story–and honestly just downright unbelievable anyhow. It’s also a really common trope in many books these days. Along comes the protagonist who just happens to have all the answers without really stopping to think or study the problem at hand. Years of studying has nothing on this character.

It ties in with the whole “chosen one” trope, where the MC is better than experts at basically everything and learns all they need to know almost instantly (or in the heat of battle). It doesn’t quite work that way in real life. If you throw me into an operating room and expect me to adapt and save the life of a dying person who is bleeding out on a table… I’m going to faint instead. And probably take a doctor or a tray of instruments down with me. So, maybe your character isn’t so iffy around blood, but they certainly wouldn’t be able to perform an operation without medical knowledge. I don’t care what you say to justify it otherwise.

When I begin a new story, I stop and think for a moment. Can my character do this? What does my character have to go through to accomplish such a task? In Sky Knight, my protagonist trained for years at an academy before taking to the skies to track down criminals. If she hadn’t trained for so long, the story would have been quite different. It’s good to think about where the character is going and what is needed to make it to the end of the story.

While you might have a good plot line going for you, if your character comes off as all-knowing, it really damages the story. Try to find balance. Have a good build-up, where your character can learn all they need to learn in order to overcome the conflict in the story, and don’t surprise the readers with additional problems halfway through the plot that the character can sudden master because of past studying we were never informed about.

I like to balance this all-knowing problem with having other characters around who all have skills helpful to the plot line. If you have several important characters, give them something to do other than slapping on titles like “the love interest” or “the sidekick” or “the comic relief”. While it’s cool to have a protagonist who can do anything and everything (looking at you, Smallville), it’s more entertaining and believable to have balance amongst your characters.

Happy writing,

Sandra

(NOTE: I actually LOVE Smallville. My issue rests solely with Superman.)

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3 thoughts on “Common Sense VS. Science

  1. If I can offer a bit of push-back, Sandra, while I do agree with the basic idea- experts should be experts in their own field, and specialized knowledge isn’t something that can just be discounted- a lot of it does depend on what the character’s done and the rules of the setting.

    On the one hand, experts do tend to be pretty myopic in their fields, and especially tend to mis-step when they get out of it. As an example, I’m a business major myself, and it drives me up the wall when, say, an actor, or a religious leader, or yes, even doctors and scientists, start speaking about economics as an authority, yet spew utter nonsense. In such cases, the ‘common sense’ explanation seems to make sense, but it doesn’t.

    Conversely, you get situations where economists get so completely wedded to their models and theories, that they forget or overlook- or worse, even explain away- what’s really happening, whereas a normal businessman can pick up the real problems right away. In those cases, the expert’s focus is actually a detriment.

    And this is, of course, assuming that the experts are correct in their theories. Think back to the days of humors and leeches, where the expert cures were fatal but the average ‘wise woman’ or ‘savage’ could treat a fair bit just with common sense and a modicum of information at their fingertips.

    Heck, even in living memory, you had the Soviet Union following hilariously wrong genetic theories, whereas the common person could just shake their heads and know what’s wrong, even if they might not be able to do everything a botanist or geneticist could do.

    I’m also thinking… one of the biggest problems you’re talking about is that common sense isn’t seen as a replacement or such for expert knowledge, but is actually superior. I think that such cases detract from how it should work. Experts are experts because they’ve trained and know- often at a glance- what the problem is and how to fix it. Someone with a logical mind and/or common sense should really be portrayed as testing their way through a problem. That is, a lot of problems can be solved through thinking it out and figuring out what to do- that’s how a lot of people become experts, after all!- but it’s so much slower and less efficient than an expert’s solution. I think if characters were shown that way, it’d actually work a lot better, both characterization- and narrative-wise.

    None of this is to detract from your primary point, which I still agree with. Just raising the idea that there are situations where an expert might be incorrect, and yes, common sense can get people an awful long ways in a lot of situations. It’s just usually overplayed and not handled the way it usually should be, which is definitely worth being frustrated about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great points, Ben! I see where you’re coming from, and you’re absolutely right. My biggest complaint about this topic, however, is when a character just pops into the picture and instantly solves the problem by saying (for example), “Why don’t we just push the red button?”

      I thoroughly enjoy stories where our hero/ine sits back and allows the experts to do their thing, because how could they know how to mix those chemicals together? Or build a spacecraft? Or pick a lock? If the hero/ine needs to solve a problem, let’s have them study up. Or we can give them a problem they can figure out with trial and error, like you stated.

      Lots of ways to look at this topic. Thanks for commenting!

      Like

      • Aah, yeah, you’re absolutely right, that’s something I intensely dislike- and complain about- myself, so I’m 100% with you on that topic. Again, it is true that sometimes experts overlook simple solutions because they don’t think of it- not having things plugged in because they thought they’d already done so, &c.- but yeah, that’s pretty rare and definitely not something we should see all the time. Definitely not on super-important matters. Heck, I worked briefly in a nuclear power plant, dealing with procedures, and yeah… anything that is even slightly official tends to be regulated to DEATH, so the simple solutions tend to already be thought of.

        But as you said, lots of ways to look at this topic, and lest I forgot to mention it earlier, thanks for both the post and the reply back. Definitely something to discuss and have pointed out, so that (hopefully!) it’ll be less common in the future.

        Liked by 1 person

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