The first thing to understand about stupidity is that it's a lot like villainy. If the dumbest person you ever met was a guy named Steve, you can be pretty certain that Steve did not wake up in the morning and think, "I am dumb." His actions were not based upon his lack of intelligence. When he screwed up your order at Dunkin' Donuts for the seventh straight time, it wasn't born from some conscious decision to be dumb; it was because he simply couldn't get the order right in his head and kept trying to haphazardly fill in the blanks.
We tend to think of intelligence in broad terms, that someone is either smart, stupid, or average. But there's more to it than that. For all you know, Steve is really dumb in a lot of ways but has a wonderful knack for stacking items and sorting the storeroom. And there's certainly someone dumber than Steve out there, someone who doesn't even understand that he's screwed up your order more than once, who thinks you're just trying to trick him into changing your order over and over.
For the purposes of this article, we're focusing on characters who are, at best, smart enough to realize that they're pretty dumb. They recognize that they do things wrong a lot of the time and don't really make smart choices, even though they're also entirely powerless to stop behaving that way. But that doesn't preclude these characters from having some talents, even rare and extraordinary ones. Stupidity is a nuanced affair.
The critical point here is that someone who's dumb just breaks down somewhere in the thinking process. It's something we all do at various times. The problem for dumber characters is that there's something that prevents them from moving past a certain point, not just to the fallout of actions but even where they'll be halfway along the line. It's the stereotype of a man lighting a fire at one end of a rope bridge to stop his pursuers, but then remaining on the bridge to taunt them.
The important character bit is why these characters don't think past the certain point because that informs a lot of how to act with these characters. Someone who just happens to be naturally dim is going to act differently from someone who is actively disinterested. It's the sort of thing that breaks down into loose categories, even if it's relative.
The Airhead isn't necessarily stupid so much as disinclined to think. He either grew up in privilege or just happened to be part of a society where certain things didn't bear consideration. This is our image of people blankly staring at ATMs that aren't working, people who know something is wrong but have no conception of what the next step is supposed to be. It's easy to relate to because we're all airheads at various times -- many of us would know that we need to hunt if we're stranded in the wild but not actually know how to do so.
The Dope isn't in the same boat. He's genuinely not smart, which means that in a world for people of average intelligence, he's struggling to catch up. This is the sort of person who screws up your order multiple times, and each time he gets part of it right, but the rest becomes a mess as he struggles to remember what comes next. Think of a child running behind you and trying to mimic your actions, interacting with adult-sized objects despite being too small to make most of them work properly.
Meanwhile, the Thoughtless is fully capable of thinking things through and understanding stuff in the abstract. The problem is that he doesn't put together all of that information into a coherent whole. He knows that he needs to focus on the road while he's driving, but then he gets a text, and it might be important. So he reads it, and then he has to reply because not replying is rude. Then he plows into the car in front of him because he was so focused on the immediate task that he doesn't think about anything surrounding it.
You get the idea. And you also see how it produces a different set of behaviors that are equally stupid. The airhead wouldn't get into that car crash, but that's because he would stop in the middle of the road to reply to the text without thinking of the consequences to others. The dope would be glancing back and forth between the road and the phone, trying to figure out which one she's supposed to address first and making the situation as a whole worse.
So perhaps it would have been more apt to say that stupidity is more like madness, a broken system for understanding the world that you have to understand yourself in order to play it correctly. This takes with a lot of brains to do... or none at all.
Feedback can be left in the comments below or sent along to email@example.com, as you prefer. Next week, how to stimulate roleplaying when it's dead in the water.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.