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The book that I'm currently writing has a 16-year-old boy called Joseph Norton as the protagonist and it's implied via flashbacks that during his childhood he would frequently run away from his foster parents and live on the streets. His homelessness caused him develop a pragmatic mindset that helps him survive all kinds of crazy shit that occur in the story and a worldview built upon nihilism and existentialism.

The problem is that I'm not really street-smart as I've been looking for resources on how to write street-smart characters and haven't found anything that could help me. I'm trying really hard to ensure that Joesph's street-smarts/pragmatism doesn't come across as an Informed Attribute, a trait that was tacked onto his character just to make him stand from other YA protagonists or conflict with other personality traits that he has such as his love of world history and mythology, unique philosophy and skill with kickboxing.

Any ideas as to how can I properly execute such a concept?

  • Well, what kind of street smarts are you looking for? Is he homeless and can survive on the streets? Does he know the social order for the unseemly characters on the streets (low level mobs, drug pushers), is he a beggar who knows how to emotionally manipulate people or a con who can spot a fast one a mile away? – hszmv Nov 1 '18 at 20:26
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Make sure your character remembers things.

A street-smart person is someone who has noticed a pattern in life and uses that to their advantage.

He noticed that a gang always hangs out in a certain pub because he sees the same four or five people going in every evening, some of them with bloody knuckles, maybe one has a gun hidden in their jacket which he caught a glimpse of once. He knows to stay away from that pub - unless he wants to find those gangsters.

He knows where the quiet places in the city are because he wanted some privacy when he was homeless. He got a sense for when someone wants to start a fight because he remembers the ten or twenty times it happened to him before so he recognises the body language, the speech, the attitude.

He knows what the different type of drunks look like from a distance because of how many he's seen at night. He knows when someone is high on drugs because of places he went and people he met.

He knows how to blend in, he knows how to be intimidating, because when he didn't he got in trouble. He was caught by his adoptive parents or a teacher, he was beaten up a few times because they failed to scare off the mugger. He tried these things he has experience. Try to flesh out what life was like on those streets and remember them.


Research is a brilliant tool for any writer. "Street-smarts" is not a graduate degree, it's a way of life. Research that way of life by reading and watching it.

If you're struggling to find ways to research it, try watching crime shows, documentaries, read books on it. I recommend The Lies of Locke Lamora for a fantasy spin on the lovable rogue.

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Read blogs by former runaways. They'll explain tricks they learned to survive, some of their experiences, what to avoid and the basics of day to day life.

Showing off street smarts can be as simple as knowing that by spending some money on a year long gym pass, a homeless teen could have access to a hot shower and clean bathroom, and a place out of the cold for most of the day, to knowing the best story to tell police when they want to know why you're sleeping in your car at the age of 16.

If you live in a city and want to really learn about this kind of life, see about volunteering with a group that helps homeless and runaway teenagers and families,

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The other answers here are good, but I just want to add a few points.

If your character is street-smart, they need to know how to get money quickly. In your case, your character would have needed money while on the streets. Naturally, they should display their knowledge regarding this. For example, they should be able to distinguish between rich and poor people. They might say phrases like 'Follow the money', if they're on the run with others and are looking to mug someone. They might know which areas are richer and which are poorer so that they know where to target.

Your character would also need to know how to find shelter (especially when needed). They might know that committing a crime in front of the police can lead to a night in the cells (which are safe from the gangsters outside combing the city for you). Your character might have some old connections who would be willing to help them out and provide shelter. Your character might know that the sewers are quite safe to rest in at night as virtually nobody goes there.

Your character would need to know how to stay hidden. They might know that sometimes the most outlandish outfits are the ones that get ignored by their pursuers as their pursuers are expecting them to be hiding and not attracting attention. Your character might know that if they cover themselves in blood then they won't be noticed by the people who just started a massive shootout to kill you. Your character might know that if they pretend to be part of a family then they won't get spotted by the people who are looking for a single orphaned teenager.

Your character would need to know how to follow someone (and avoid being followed). Your character might know that an easy way to follow someone is to stain them with something like blood or paint so that the liquid leaves a trail on the ground which can be followed. Your character might know that the best way to avoid being followed whilst walking is to turn the corner, camoflage themself and then come back around the corner to walk in the opposite direction, so that the follower is left looking in the wrong direction. Your character might know that the best way to avoid being followed in a crowd is to simply crouch-walk, so that their follower simply can't see them.

Your character also needs to know how to get food. Your character might know that there's a free volunteer-run food bank two streets away who give free food. Your character might know that rich people are more likely to throw unopened food away, meaning that they can find food in bins of rich estates. Your character might know that his £1.50 might buy just a burger at the local McDonalds, but it could also buy a 2-litre bottle of lemonade and a 24-pack of Walkers in Tescos.

Overall, your character should know that little extra information that gives them the edge on the streets in whatever they're doing.

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Why is it important that he have street smarts? If he uses them in a specific way in the story, writing that will display the street smarts. If you worry you can't think of how a street-smart character will behave, remember this: your character needs to solve a problem in real time with a good idea, but you can take as long as you like to decide what they do! The writers of Malcolm in the Middle endowed their protagonist with a different kind of smarts, but apparently their standard strategy was to spend ages (days, I think I read) coming up with how he could solve a difficult practical problem, then showed him coming up with it much faster than that. How much truth there is in that story I don't know, but you can try that technique.

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  • I think you hit the nail on the head there. The writer's advantage on writing someone smart is that they can take days to come up with what is snappy comeback in the scene – Andrey Nov 1 '18 at 16:59

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