Over the years, every so often, I’ve gotten a letter or review about one of my books that essentially complains about the ruthless nature of a protagonist, who is supposed to be a good person.  These often question why he or she couldn’t have done something less drastic or resolved the situation they faced in a more clever fashion.  I realized, the other day, after seeing a review of Imager’s Intrigue and then receiving an email from another writer who was disappointed that Quaeryt couldn’t be more “clever” in his resolution of matters and less reliant upon force exactly what my grandmother had meant in one of her favorite expressions.  She was always saying that some businessman or politician was “too clever by half.”

So, I believe, are some writers.  I try not to be excessively clever, because it’s highly unrealistic in the real world, but it’s difficult when there’s an unspoken but very clear pressure for authors to be “clever.”  My problem is that I’m moderately experienced in how the “real world” operates, and seldom is a “clever” solution to anything significant or of major import a truly workable solution. As I and numerous historians have pointed out, in WWII, with a few exceptions, the Germans had far more “clever” and advanced technology.  They lost to the massive application of adequate technology.  In Vietnam, the high-tech and clever United States was stalemated by the combination of wide-scale guerilla warfare and political opposition within the USA.  Despite the application of some of the most sophisticated and effective military technology ever deployed, the U.S. will be fortunate to “break even” in its recent military operations in the Middle East… and given the costs already and the loss of lives for what so far appear to be negligible gains, it could be argued that we’ve lost.  I could cite all too many examples in the business world where “clever” and “best” lost out to cheaper and inferior products backed by massive advertising.  The same sort of situations are even more prevalent in politics.

“Clever,” in fact, is generally highly unrealistic as a solution to most large scale real-world problems.  But why?

Because most problems are, at their base, people problems, it takes massive resources to change the course of human inertia/perceived self-interest. That’s why both political parties in the United States mobilize billions of dollars in campaign funds… because that’s what it takes, since most people have become more and more skeptical of any cleverness that doesn’t fit their preconceptions…  partly because they’re also skeptical of the “clever” solutions proposed by politicians.  It’s why most advertising campaigns have become low-level, not very clever, saturation efforts.  Military campaigns that involve national belief structures and not just limited and clearly defined tactical goals also require massive commitments of resources – and clever just gets squashed if it stands in the way of such effectively deployed resources.

That’s why, for example, in Imager’s Intrigue, Rhenn’s solutions are “clever” only in the sense that they apply massive power/political pressure to key political/military/social vulnerabilities of his opponents.  Nothing less will do the job.

I’m not saying that “clever” doesn’t work in some situations, because it does, but those situations are almost always those where the objectives are limited and the stakes are not nearly so high.  That makes “clever” far more suited to mysteries, spy stories, and some thrillers than to military situations where real or perceived national interests or survival are at stake.


4 thoughts on “Cleverness?”

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    There is a much butchered quote about “a long enough lever and a place to put it and I shall move the world”.

    I love that so many of your characters give serious thought about the where and how to most effectively apply the ‘force’ that they do apply, BEFORE they apply it. Both the benifical and ill effects. Whether a careful assasination or the destruction of a moon (both Ecolitan events). Equally – Leveling a city (Fairhaven) was not undertaken lightly, but was the most effective way to buy time (and thus a future) for Recluce.

    The Ecolitan Institute made a point (that I’m sure I’m mis-quoting) that while political rather than direct action WORKS, the long term cost is much higher in the end.

    These critical readers may be losing track of the fact that decisions are made in the here and now by what we (or the characters) PERSONALLY KNOW AT THE TIME THE DECISION IS MADE. This is comparable to the periodic arguments about whether it was proper to use atomic weaponry on Japan, or go the invasion route. The total deaths, while terrible, were less than the firebombing of Tokyo had been, but the THREAT that Kyoto (of cultural significance) was next proveded the bluff that resulted in the Japanese surrender and the saving of hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives had an invasion occured.

  2. rehcra says:

    I don’t know about all of that but I do know I find clever characters fun to read; and many clever endings are enjoyable even when they come off as unrealistic as long as the clever parts actually feel congruent and clever.

    Either way I have felt like many of your stories simply replace the clever resolutions with deeper understanding of the Characters eternal mental turmoil. Which helps make the resolutions well thought out even if they seem simple.

    Incidentally they don’t.Your resolutions feeling simple. Not to me anyways.


  3. Jim S says:

    I’ve always found your characters to find solutions to problems that fit their abilities and their understanding. Forgive me for not having a list of characters available — but in Imager, Rhenn is placed in a situation where he feels he must endure until his hand is forced. At that point, he acts with efficiency to end a threat. This pattern continues through his story to Imager’s Intrigue — where he finds himself acting again to end threats, using the best resources he has available. He’s learned, and his actions are better planned out or thought out — but they fit his situation and his understanding.

    You did the same thing with Lerris (as I happen to be re-reading The Magic of Recluce) at the moment. Lerris consciously chooses to help the woman in Jellico — but hasn’t thought through the consequences. His actions fit who he is then — as does his somewhat clumsy escape. As he moves on, he finds himself in Fenard, and helps Destrin — but finds himself dealing with the chaos fountain. I’m sure that someone could have come up with a more clever solution — but it wouldn’t have seemed right for cleverness to come from Lerris. (That was Justen’s specialty, in The Magic Engineer…)

    As you noted, clever solutions are often less effective than desired, unless the problem is purely on a technological/physical sort of plane. When problems involve people — cleverness all too often ends up creating bigger problems than it solves. Or at least that’s been my experience…

  4. Wine Guy says:

    My father once told me that instead of learning the ‘tricks of the trade,’ learn the trade itself. What appears to be cleverness on the outside is usually actually hours/days/years of grueling hard work to be ready to take advantage of a fleeting situation as it happens. It only looks clever at the time and (possibly) in retrospect.

    Another problem with cleverness is that your opponent feels like he’s been tricked instead of actually beaten. It encourages them to come back and fight you another day. A good example of this is in sports: a weaker team beats the bigger/stronger team with a trick play during the season… and then in the tournament finals the bigger/stronger team cleans their clocks. This has obvious military and economic parallels as well.

    And cleverness has its place: usually in one-off times when the opposition is in no position to retaliate later on.

    On the other hand: being strong/fast/good tech/etc. AND clever makes for a fiendishly difficult combination to overcome.

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