Jun 23 2012

Writing Highly Intelligent Characters and Points-of-View

Published by at 10:07 pm under Character Development

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.

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Writing Highly Intelligent Characters and Points-of-View”

  1. Nightwireon 24 Jun 2012 at 7:59 am

    Good job! This article helps me a lot!

  2. B. McKenzieon 24 Jun 2012 at 5:24 pm

    The four idiotic moments for the Watchmen villain:
    1) Using a password a fifth-grader could guess by looking at his bookshelf (Ramses II).
    1.1) Having his computer ask for additional detail after the heroes tried Ramses.

    2) Attempting to catch a bullet even though he doesn’t think he actually can (rather than, say, diving out of the way).

    3) Staking his life on the heroes deciding not to kill him for no discernible reason (how would killing the villain lead to nuclear war?).

    4) Murdering a superhero in hand-to-hand combat rather than coming up with a less risky plan (e.g. a bomb or poison).

    Granted, “I did it 35 minutes ago” was brilliant, but still…

  3. Linebylineon 24 Jun 2012 at 5:27 pm

    I think the key to writing characters with large vocabularies and avoiding the sesquipedalian loquaciousness problem is to stick to small and/or common words unless there’s a good reason to bust out something special.

    One good use of fancy words is jargon. It’s perfectly acceptable for a character to use a long and/or obscure word when discussing something technical, especially when mentioning something specific by name or when the only alternative is a clumsy circumlocution.

    For example, I might write about avoiding a “circumlocution” rather than avoiding “explaining exactly what one means using more words than necessary; in this case, in lieu of a shorter and more precise word or phrase.”

    A computer programmer might say that sha-1 may be better than md5, but you should really use bcrypt because it’s still considered cryptographically secure and it’s theoretically immune to Moore’s Law.* However, that same programmer would ask his buddy to bring him a “beer” and not a “malt beverage.” This is because, when talking about programming, he expects his peers to understand what those terms mean just as easily as they understand what beer is.

    (Also: I am *not* an expert in cryptography and I did *not* check my facts because you should *not* design an authentication system based on something you read in a comment on a blog about writing superhero fiction.)

    Another use is to have them accomplish something other expressing the literal meaning of the words. Obviously, there’s the matter of words having connotations or calling to mind certain images, but I’m talking about something a bit broader.

    Reasons for obscure terms to pop up in conversations between your genius and someone outside his or her field can depend on the character and the situation. An impatient character might give a terse, jargon-laden answer when asked what he’s doing, as a way of saying, “It’s too complicated to explain; leave me alone.” An absent-minded genius might forget that only he understands the jargon. An arrogant character might use jargon to show off. A character may use it to remind his bosses that he knows what he’s doing and they don’t, so they’ll stop hovering and let him get back to work.

    The bottom line is, use big/obscure words when you have a good reason. If you use them as a shortcut to make a character (or yourself) sound smart, it will show.

  4. Holy Grailon 24 Jun 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Are you suggesting coconuts migrate?!

  5. aharrison 24 Jun 2012 at 7:50 pm

    A big problem with attempting to use big words in order to show intelligence is using them correctly. If you’re not familiar with the words you’re attempting to use, you risk putting them enough out of context to make your text look bad. I see examples of this at my job all the time. Believe me, you don’t want to go there unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing. We get plenty of laughs out of these people.

    Another important thing is to establish what you mean by “intelligent.” I’ve known people that are brilliant when it comes to book learning, but just plain dumb when it comes to common sense.

  6. Trollon 25 Jun 2012 at 9:41 am

    I’m trying to write the POV of a smart high schooler who is really intelligent because she studies so hard, would that be any different to write or pretty similar to what you were talking about?

  7. YoungAuthoron 25 Jun 2012 at 1:51 pm

    If you want to know how to make an itelligent character, watch X-Men first class. Splendid movie. (Hint: Pay close attention to Charles Xavier) 🙂

  8. aharrison 25 Jun 2012 at 8:12 pm

    @Troll, Is the character actually smart or just well-learned? I’ve known people who could spout facts out of their text books who were of fairly average IQ. They just studied really hard. When it came to thinking on their feet or knowing how to actually apply those facts and factoids they’d pounded into their skulls, they were fairly useless. Is the character you’re talking about someone who can apply what she’s absorbed or just someone who can regurgitate it? You need to decide that first of all.

  9. Trollon 25 Jun 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Yeah, it’s bit a mix of smart and well learned. She can apply her knowledge in academic and normal life situations but she isn’t used to life or death situations. I guess that it’s actually good for her character development because then she’d have to learn to be able to rely on her cousin who’s more jock-ish and street/wilderness smart.

  10. GabriellaSimson 26 Jun 2012 at 7:54 pm

    Great article! I now have a guideline to work by 😀

  11. Mr. Whiteon 06 Nov 2012 at 9:10 am

    B.Mac, lend me your ears once more!! I have a character in a story series I’m doing. His name is Professor Roger Scully (Professor of Diagnostics and Anatomy) who often, at the request of Captain Henry Forbes (Scully’s best friend), aides the police in their search for dangerous men.

    Unfortunately, I fear Scully is too much like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. House. What can I do to set Scully apart from them?

  12. BMon 06 Nov 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Different personalities, a different relationship between the two main characters, different goals, different investigative methods, etc. I’d recommend checking out, say, the main relationship at the heart of TV’s The Mentalist for a story which shares vague similarities to Sherlock Holmes (a brilliant and quirky investigator working with a much more relatable partner, a cop in this case) but is executed in such a way that it feels very original. (For example, the conflict between the main hero and the main villain is very different, the hero’s backstory is different, his personality is different, etc).

  13. Mr. Whiteon 13 Nov 2012 at 4:31 pm

    BM, I need your help once more. I’ve begun writing about Professor Scully. In the opening sequence, he discovers a detective has been murdered. Knowing his friend Captain Forbes will ask for his help, Scully breaks into the morgue at night to perform an autopsy on the body.

    Now, for what I’m what I’m thinking about doing next is having the coroner come in the next day. He asks who did the autopsy, and Forbes convinces the coroner (who is a heavy drinker) that he performed the autopsy while under the influence. Does that sound like dropping the idiot ball? Or could that be an opportunity to show Forbes is more than just a sidekick?

  14. YellowJujuon 14 Nov 2012 at 10:55 pm

    For people looking for examples of highly intelligent characters, The Mysterious Benedict Society is a series that has a lot of intellectual characters.

  15. edgukatoron 15 Nov 2012 at 3:39 am

    @Mr White – I think it comes down to the tone of your story. In a realistic story, no way would a coroner think that he had performed an autopsy under the influence. The dead giveaway would be the work itself – if he was too drunk to remember how the hell did he do such fine surgery work (and I’m assuming Scully is a master at this type of thing, so it wouldn’t look like the work of an amateur).

    I would put yourself into the role of the police officer and examine the situation. You know your friend has broken in and committed a crime (interfering with a criminal investigation, interfering / desecration of a corpse / whatever). The coroner is demanding an investigation. What do you do?

    Trying to convince the coroner he did it drunk wouldn’t work, especially as it will probably bait him into anger. What are your other choices?

    – Maybe convince him that you are going to launch a thorough investigation, look carefully at every aspect of the morgue and remark on how careful the trespasser must have been… then talk to him about the amount of paperwork you will need to do… still not convincing – the act is so bizarre that it must lead to something, or must lead to somebody in the department, and if there is no-one else Forbes would be a likely suspect, at least as an accomplice.

    – Maybe instead of convincing him he was drunk, convince him he was over-worked. How many corpses have you looked at this week alone? And this John Doe, medium height, medium build, black hair and brown eyes – one corpse will look like another after a while… Hell, here’s your paperwork… you did this one already – no, you’re just over worked. You need a holiday. They really don’t pay you enough. Look, I’ll take the paperwork, look it over for any clues on the case and file it for you later… Convincing someone that it is their weaknesses is hard, but convincing someone it is their virtue is easy.

    – Alternatively, how many people are working in this lab? Maybe it was a different coroner? You know, the new guy. He still doesn’t know the right sign in procedures and he probably misfiled the paperwork. Lets have a look – yes here it is. Filed in the wrong place. Relax – no biggie, I’ll talk to him and straighten things out. Take the work off you… you don’t have to be the big bad boss, let me convince him I’m just giving him a heads up. Let me take that paperwork, though. It might just give me a lead. It’s a bit more risky – what if the head coroner ends up talking to the new guy down the road. Then again, that could be a good plot twist.

    – You can always play the incredulity card – You’re telling me someone broke in here so carefully they left no evidence, performed an autopsy, stitched the corpse back up, cleaned up (still leaving no evidence) and then just snuck out without anyone noticing? You’re crazy!

  16. B. McKenzieon 15 Nov 2012 at 7:00 am

    I really like Edgukator’s ideas here. I second the idea that the alcohol-induced blackout theory would not feel very believable, but I think suggesting that it was some other coroner combined with bad file-keeping and the plausibility argument would go a long way. I imagine the coroner could be convinced that his main goal should be pretending that nothing went wrong because it would be problematic for his lab’s reputation (and possibly his career) if word got out that he had a sloppy rookie on staff potentially compromising investigations. I imagine it’d be in his best interest to quietly try to figure out what happened but not go to the police until he has SOME evidence of what happened–otherwise, he’d look totally clueless. (There might already be rumors going around about his alcoholism–he might be on-edge about maintaining an image of competence at all times–a wild-eyed theory of a master intruder breaking in to conduct an autopsy might reinforce doubts that he was losing it).

    I would recommend fleshing out Scully’s motives here. He breaks into a lab and performs an autopsy because he thinks his friend MIGHT be interested in the results… which he could have gotten from the actual coroner? One possibility which comes to mind is that he has a burning curiosity on this case (or perhaps all cases) and/or does not play well with others–perhaps he broke in because he did not trust the coroner (or pretty much anyone else) to handle the job without screwing something up. Depending on his personality, he might even mostly admit to his police associate that it was him. (“Look, you can either work with the coroner that can’t even figure out how I got in, let alone what I was looking for and what I found… or you can be sane”).

  17. Neuromanceron 15 Nov 2012 at 9:02 pm

    I have a character who has the same ability as Sylar from heroes
    (except he can’t steal powers of cut peoples head open i know it sucks) in one scene he fights a man with super speed after fighting for a bit he lead the speedster into a hailstorm the speedster is moving so fast the hailstones go through him like bullets.
    (later the character is fighting a little girl and is so arrogant he fails to notice the shotgun she’s wielding telekinetically)

    intricately designed scenes like this help with the problem of not being able to express a characters intelligence

  18. B. McKenzieon 15 Nov 2012 at 10:00 pm

    “I have a character who has the same ability as Sylar from Heroes (except he can’t steal powers of [or?] cut people’s head open)…” Could you please clarify this? If he can’t take people’s powers, I’m having trouble understanding how his powers might be similar to Sylar’s. (Perhaps he can passively absorb people’s powers like Peter Petrelli?).

  19. Yuuki12on 21 Mar 2013 at 10:49 pm

    Thank you very much for posting this article. I very much needed the information, given my next big work revolves around an intelligent main character. That said, I would like an opinion on something. For that, I need to give a brief synopsis.

    In the year 2016, the planet earth is forever changed, when a group of Elves visit. Hailing from an alternate dimension, their goal is of course conquer and subjugate the planet.

    The reason why I mention this is because my main character, Andrew(given his expertise in computers), prior to the Elves’ arrival, managed to halt and isolate a worm, written by the race (in Elven of course).

    When the Elves first arrive and claim they want to “Enlighten” humanity and make peace, the main character is suspicious, given the fact that they’d sent a worm, and that if they were peaceful; why would they need to do this?

    Is this a plausible demonstration of his intelligence? Additionally, one other scene I had planned much later on, is when infiltrating a base. Having constructed a virus, based on the elven code, Andrew finds out the system needs an access code.

    At first, he’s baffled as to how to access it, but manages to solve for it, through a mathematical matrix.

    Again, is that a good example of showcasing intelligence?

  20. Yochananon 14 Mar 2015 at 6:16 am

    Not so much an intelligence question, but if a person had infinite memory, what would be different about them?

  21. B. McKenzieon 28 Mar 2015 at 10:17 am

    “Not so much an intelligence question, but if a person had infinite memory, what would be different about them?” In the actual case of Solomon Shereshevsky, his extreme memory (e.g. being able to recall conversations word-for-word 30 years later) was linked to an extreme form of synesthesia (where stimulating one sense stimulated his other senses in a way that would probably be very disorienting to the typical person). Alternately, you could go in a Sherlock Holmes direction where the character is able to make extremely effective and/or odd associations based on minor details.

  22. Mister_Magicon 05 Aug 2015 at 8:18 pm

    I have two intelligent people…. One male, one female (No not related, or love interest). One is a criminal empire kingpin in colombia, while the female only as mega corporation ranging in a lot of different areas of business.

    Male is a genius when it comes to strategy and tactics, almost as well if not better than the leader of the team.

    Female has the latest technology at her disposal and is pretty talented with computers and mechanics.

    Both were recruited into this team (team of seven) for their influence, expertise and such. but I am having a hard time figuring out where to place them. I want them to have their place in the mix of things on the ground and behind the scenes, but I don’t want the female in particular to be the female replica of Tony Stark… Any suggestions

    And oh yea this team is sort like an Anti-Hero or Anti-Villain team (however you want to look at it)

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