Super smart characters

So you, as the author, are the puppet master pulling your characters’ strings. You know exactly what they’re going to do and say, even if they don’t understand why.

But what happens when your characters are smarter than you? How are you supposed to write that?

It isn’t something I’ve done myself–I’m still wading into the waters, here–but I’ve observed lots of other writers doing it. Here’s my breakdown of the approaches I’ve observed.

1. Baffle ’em with bullshit

The old trick: if you can’t dazzle ’em with brilliance … . If your book is science fiction, make up technolingo that your readers have no choice but to believe. If your book is literary, make up a highly abstract and illogical-seeming train of thought that your readers have to accept. After all, impressions are individual, and your ultra-intelligent character obviously just understands things the reader doesn’t, right?

Sherlock Holmes is the premier example of this. Sherlock’s approach boils down to this simple maxim: once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Sounds good, doesn’t it? It’s bullshit. A person can never anticipate all the possibilities. No, not even Sherlock.

Drawbacks of this approach are that most people, especially clever ones, have bullshit meters. So bullshit if you must, but bullshit well.

2. Pet knowledge

In this approach the writer gloms onto one piece of abstract knowledge, an incident from Herodotus, say, and turns it into a fetishistic fashion show of the character’s erudition. Did you read a Latin inscription on an old headstone and look up what it meant? Go for it. Did you hear a weird anecdote about the African clawed frog at a dinner party? There you go. Did you–pardon me, Mr. Ondaatje–read the first page of Herodotus? You’re off to the races. Your readers might look up your piece of knowledge retroactively, and realize it wasn’t so abstract after all, but most of them will be impressed in the moment, and forgive you. You have created the needed impression. You have done your job.

3. Trust me, I’m the author

In this approach your intelligent character is always right because you, the author, manipulate the story to make the character right. This is how detective stories work: the detective deduces the identity of the murderer because the author makes that person the murderer. In the very best detective stories it’s possible to eliminate everyone else … if one is Sherlock Holmes … but the murder is often committed with the help of a deus ex machina that the reader, who isn’t entitled to use deus ex machinas when speculating about the murderer, didn’t dare imagine.

I’m reading Dune right now, and Frank Herbert does the same thing with the mentats and bene gesserit. They have miraculous deductive capabilities–because he makes them be right. The reader doesn’t mind this because it’s necessary for the story and the story is so damn good, but it’s a trick all the same.

So there you go: three ways to make an ultra-intelligent character work. Have you noticed others? Do share.


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