There’s a common character trope that I often read in middle grade and young adult novels. The smart minor character who knows everything. And I mean EVERYTHING.
Let me give you an example. This example obviously doesn’t exist in a real novel, but it should give you an idea of what I mean. So, we have a character. Let’s call her Geraldine. Now twelve-year-old Geraldine is really smart. So smart she has a photographic memory and she can memorize everything, including plenty of pointless and not so pointless trivia. Geraldine is usually a friend or ally of the main character and isn’t the star of the show.
So the main character and Geraldine and the rest of their gang are on a boat, and they need to navigate to the treasure buried at the bottom of the sea. How ever will they figure out what to do?
Geraldine knows all the polar coordinates (she memorized them one afternoon while she was still in diapers) and how to read the stars, so she can navigate them from any point of origin to a mysterious South Pacific island. When the characters finally arrive at their destination thanks to Geraldine, they have to scuba dive down to the treasure chest on the ocean floor. But don’t worry, Geraldine will know exactly how deep they have to go within 10 meters to the bottom to avoid getting the bends. And when they reclaim the treasure chest, and the volcano explodes on the island, Geraldine will conveniently know that the melting point of gold is 1,064 °C so that the main character knows to dip the chest back into water to save the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo before it is destroyed.
Okay. So maybe like some kids, Geraldine has some obsessions. She is obsessed with the ocean, with geography and maps, and maybe chemistry too to explain her knowledge of melting points. Maybe Geraldine gets nervous and can’t perform physical feats and her nerd glasses break under pressure – all the typical nerd character flaws.
However, besides Geraldine’s not-so-random obsessions that totally serve the plot and nerd character flaws that are totally cliché, she has no personality. There is no reason for her to be friends with the main character – they have nothing in common. She most certainly does not tell jokes. She never makes mistakes, unless she forgets to round to the proper significant figure in her calculations. She doesn’t serve an emotional purpose that connects with any other characters besides the author telling us point blank that they are friends.
This is because Geraldine isn’t a character, she is a reference manual.
“But Geraldine was integral to the plot!” you cry.
No, no, Geraldine was not.
When Geraldine navigated the crew to the island, she could be replaced by a GPS.
When Geraldine knew the dangers of the bends and the melting point of gold, she could be replaced by Google, an encyclopaedia, or a text book.
If Geraldine made a calculation (like how fast the boat could travel in a harsh wind or something), she could be replaced by a calculator.
Characters like Geraldine don’t just serve as some means for main character to achieve their goal. Characters, even minor ones, have their own purpose and goals in the plot. Maybe they want romance. Maybe they want the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo for themselves, muahahaha. Maybe they don’t even want to be there, but they have to be or else the main character will use the Magical Golden Amulet of Scubadoobadoo to enslave their family.
Please notice I’m not saying that smart kids and teens don’t exist. Some kids and teens DO have photographic memory. And some smart kids and teens without photographic memory CAN memorize an obscene number of facts. However, they have other aspects of their personality as well.
Because smart, bookish, nerdy characters are people too! They have passions besides facts they’ve memorized. They have failings. They connect to others. Sometimes they also like things that are incredibly mainstream like popular radio, or cute animals, or reality TV, or epic Youtube fails. They don’t just nerd, nerd, nerd all the time. They don’t.
So, if you must have a character that can recite pi to fifty decimal places, just remember, they are more than that. They are a human being with their own wants and desires, their own strengths and flaws. And if you can replace your character with a GPS, a smart phone, an encyclopaedia, a calculator – whatever – they aren’t fully fleshed out as a character yet. Find out what makes them tick besides your need for the main character to have a walking, talking reference manual. Please. Your readers will thank you.