Archive for June 23rd, 2012

Jun 23 2012

Writing Highly Intelligent Characters and Points-of-View

Published by under Character Development

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. By itself, intelligence is not a personality. One barometer of whether characters have enough of a personality is whether they make choices most other protagonists wouldn’t make in the same situation. Giving your characters room to do unusual things will help make them memorable. For example, notable social skills (or the lack of social skills) help flesh out brilliant characters like Tony Stark (charming and uninhibited), Sherlock Holmes (cold and unorthodox), Dr. House (abrasive and aggressive), and Bruce Wayne (charming, but generally emotionally reserved to the point of sociopathy).


2. Please come up with some ways to show that the character is intelligent besides just:

  • Chess.
  • Having other characters tell him how smart he is. (For example, search your manuscript for the words “brilliant” and “genius”—double-check those lines to make sure that they sound somewhat believable).  Another issue is whether you’re sufficiently showing the character’s traits. Intelligence should not be a coconut power!  Please give us something so that we can conclude whether the character is smart rather than just telling us what other characters think. One potentially serious problem I occasionally see here is when characters are purported to have certain traits but rarely actually show them.  (For example, in Watchmen, the purportedly brilliant villain commits felony idiocy at least four times).  Unless there’s some reason for this discrepancy, it would probably make the characterization weaker than it could be.
  • Scientific mumbo-jumbo. This isn’t a huge problem by itself (especially in hard sci-fi), but an intelligent major character would probably feel pretty empty if this were the only way his intelligence manifested. Please see #2.1.
  • IQ scores and other standardized tests. This is the most blatant way to turn intelligence into a coconut power.

2.1. Not sure how to make an intelligent character come across as intelligent? Here are some ideas.

  • Heightened perception of opportunities and/or threats.
  • A better appreciation of possible motives.
  • An ability to reason through double-speak and lies.
  • Resourcefulness.
  • Unusual social skills (e.g. figuring out which levers to pull in each situation).
  • An unusually clear understanding of what’s going on (e.g. the ability to detect a physical or social trap or figure out why someone is behaving uncharacteristically).
  • Extensive background knowledge (e.g. the ability to use relevant scientific, historical, cultural and/or miscellaneous knowledge to help solve problems).  Sherlock Holmes is perennially solid here. I’d also recommend checking out Batman Begins’ Dr. Crane, especially the scene where he’s discussing a patient diagnosis with a DA that suspects him of working for the mob–it comes across as very believable that judges would respect his psychiatric evaluations, even though it turns out he’s corrupt and mentally unhinged. 
  • The ability to set up plausible plans several steps in advance.
  • The ability to predict and prepare for various contingencies.
  • The ability to coax and/or manipulate others.
  • A character intelligent in one way might commit blunders of overconfidence. For example, a capable attorney from one country might see it as a sign of weakness to hire an attorney if he gets sued in another country. “Anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client.”


3. A character’s intelligence might show up when the character narrates a chapter and/or is used as a point-of-view. The most obvious example of this would be vocabulary and word choice—I think the most common hazard there is using advanced vocabulary so often that the character comes across more as a caricature than someone that is actually intelligent. I’d recommend checking out how Stark, Wayne and Holmes do this—first, most of their lines don’t use vocabulary much more advanced than other lines in the work. Second, they very rarely use terms that are so advanced that most readers would have to check a dictionary (e.g. “sesquipedalian,” “cryokinesis,” or anything which might plausibly show up on a GRE vocabulary list). Another possibility would be working in interesting details and connections. For example, I think something like the connection between superheroics and marital infidelity in The Incredibles could be used to establish that a character is clever/intelligent and/or has an unusual perspective. Another possibility would be showing a keen attention to details and/or a grasp of which details are most important.

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