Literal-Minded People: Add Humor, Plot Complications, & Characterization

Figurative Language : Literal-minded People :: Specific Colors : Color-blind people

It’s a little harsh, but it’s true. And it’s not because they’re not smart. People who are literal-minded take words at face value. They don’t understand puns (bad pickup lines are lost on them), they find loopholes in all but the most specific instructions, and heaven help them if they’re given a vague prophecy!

            Person A: What do prisoners use to call each other? Cell phones!
            Person B: …But prisoners don’t have cell phones. Aren’t those taken away
            when the person is put in prison?
            Person A: Yes. No – it’s a joke. Cell phones. Cell, get it?
            Person B:
            Person A: Never mind.

This is a typical way to show a literal-minded person’s reaction to a pun. Most often, the conversation is happening with a larger group who all understand the pun, and when the literal-minded person inserts the question or comment that shows that he or she has completely missed the point, it’s met with silence and humorously perturbed expressions (followed by laughter, annoyance, or sighs, depending on everyone’s relationship with that character).

Adding an unexpected reaction can make dialogue humorous even if it’s only background for the scene. And unusual reactions are easily formed by taking something literally. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a good example of a literal-minded character whose unusual reactions are used to funny effect in the series. Granted, he has a long list of other quirks that also help make his responses unusual and humorous. He also occasionally (if belatedly) realizes that he’s been too literal.

            Penny: Guess what ?
            Sheldon: I don’t guess. As a scientist I reach conclusions based on
            observation and experimentation. Although, as I’m saying this, it occurs
            to me that you may have been employing a rhetorical device, rendering
            my response moot. (source:

This is the type of character who would say, “The ceiling,” when asked “What’s up?” Or who gets confused when someone asks, “How’s it hanging?” or any new variations (Do people still ask that?).

Plot-wise, there are plenty of ways for the literal-minded quirk to complicate things for your characters – not the least of which is by causing reactions with the other characters. Here are few thoughts on how having a literal mind can cause plot complications:

  • Requiring a longer explanation in an urgent, time-sensitive situation
  • Causing a split between characters of a group (leaving the literal person out for convenience sake, getting the wrong impression of the character’s worth, etc.)
  • Taking sarcasm literally and acting on it
  • Misunderstanding a message that used a common phrase that doesn’t have a literal meaning and passing it on paraphrased (based on the literal understanding – it’s a little like the game of telephone…)

You get the idea. Almost anything related to social interaction and misunderstanding is possible.

Making a character literal-minded is also a good way to reinforce an existing character detail or trait like age and ethnic background. Children tend to be much more literal than adults, so making a child literal can make the character’s age more believable to the audience (if you want to see that tied to plot, read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

People who learned English as a second language are often more literal with the language, as well. There are plenty of logical reasons for that: they don’t know all the synonyms, idioms and figurative phrases aren’t necessarily taught in language classes, and not all languages emphasize puns like English does (puns are everywhere in English!). Whatever the reason for the character, it’s pretty common for someone new to a language to only know the literal interpretations, so taking phrases literally helps back up that aspect of the character.

Humor, plot complications, and characterization – there’s plenty for literal-minded people to do in books and movies. Just don’t tell them that because it’s kind of figurative, and, well, that’s not their forte.


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