Tuesday, 21 June 2022

How to write a character who is smarter than you

We all have that one character (or few) who is significantly smarter than the writer. So, as a writer, how do you write such a character convincingly?

I can't claim to give you a formula for this or an answer that works every time. However, I have a lot of experience writing precisely these types of characters. This is probably also true of other mystery writers in general. I will share a few of my favourite tricks for pulling off highly intelligent characters convincingly.

1. Make them smarter in different ways.

A good example of this is Cassie from the short stories I've published here. No, Cassie isn't really smarter than me, or at least, not in every way. She is also somewhat immature. However, she does have a significant edge over me in a few things.

She is more observant, and her recall is mostly flawless. She is also willing to work on something that might not be very useful for a long time.

The thing is, all of this are qualities that can be faked on the page (or even in a comic book format) quite easily. As the writer, you will know which details are important and which details aren't, but the thing is, neither your characters nor your readers will have that knowledge. So when your character notices random things all the time, neither they nor the audience will know which of these are more important. You can also do this with details in the background for a visual medium. As long as you remember to put these details in / make it reasonably likely that your character observed them.

Then, when your character actually recalls the relevant information, it can look, well, impressive.

Of course, you can come up with other characteristics like this. A photographic memory helps. A character who observes people for fun will notice more than your average person. Depending on the genre you're writing, the characteristics that are useful will change.

2. Work backwards.

This can be a hit or a miss. 

If you know the ending, you're working with more context than your average character or reader. Therefore, your deductions, etc. will be more accurate. Having your character make these deductions would make them look really smart.

However, this is also very easy to mess up. First of all, you have to make sure that your character has all the information needed to make the particular deduction. You also have to be aware of the fact that the same information may be interpreted in different ways, so having your character acknowledge other possibilities would be a good idea. The problem here is that it's very easy to develop tunnel vision when writing something like this and completely fail to see alternative theories. 

Alpha readers and time can be your friends here. You can wait until you've forgotten the details of the story partially, but it can be a bit inconvenient, especially if you're a pantser like me (i.e. coming back and realising there's another possible explanation that your detective would have run with). Alpha readers are hard to come by. I really don't have an easy answer for this.

So what happens if you mess this up? The result is an explanation / deduction / theory that your character pulled out of their rear end. Or at least, that's what your readers will think. This will break your immersion completely, so use with caution.

In short, this is a high risk, high reward strategy.

3. Time is your friend.

You have hours to days to write or plan what your character must execute in minutes. Use that to your advantage. 

Your character may not have the luxury to document everything in the heat of the moment to discover patterns. You do. They may not have a full plan of their location. You can draw one and then sketch your plan there. They can't sleep on the problem, you can.

Once you've done that, have your character do all of that with less time / resources / etc. and they will look extremely smart. Of course, you should work with the information that the character would know or have a reasonable chance of knowing, otherwise you will risk breaking immersion.

4. Contrast

Contrasting your character against someone who isn't as smart is another good way to make them look intelligent. People generally interpret things relative to what's around it, so this can make your character look more intelligent by comparison. This is basically the Dr Watson to your Sherlock Holmes. 

So what if you have a lot of intelligent characters? Well, you can make them intelligent in different ways, which maintains the contrast, but highlights each character's capabilities relative to the others. This is especially useful if you have an ensemble cast, where everyone's supposed to be smart.

5. Have other characters tell the reader that a particular character is smart

This, admittedly, is a bit of a sneaky strategy and one that has to be used sparingly. You will also have to back this up with some proof occasionally. However, having other characters tell the reader that a character is intelligent (and treat them that way), particularly at their introduction, is a good way to form a particular impression in the minds of your readers.

However, you will have to back this up, especially if your character appears with any frequency or has an important role in the story. Otherwise, it will make the rest of your characters look less intelligent and possibly make the whole story frustrating. 

The advantage here is that you can take your time with showing your character's smarts. For example, you can introduce a character and then take your time with having them do something significant and smart. This will also come off an a payoff of a previous setup, which makes it even more satisfying.

6. Have your character's intelligence be of the sort that doesn't have to be demonstrated on the page

This is a fairly common approach, especially with scientist type characters. You can simply have them come up with gadgets, etc. with no explanation about how it was done, because frankly, most readers aren't interested in that. You can also add in a little technobabble to make it sound more convincing. 

This works, but I don't like this approach very much. Bad technobabble can be off-putting (I can't remember the number of times I've had to scream internally because they got the physics / engineering so wrong). 

A better approach would be to research the subject in question a little. You don't have to understand the maths (because you will have to deal with maths if you're going to study it in depth), but as long as you understand the general theory or study how experts talk about the subject to other people, you should have a reasonable starting point. Then you can go ahead and write about someone who created a supercar or space station without having to design one yourself.

Closing thoughts

These are not the only tricks you can use. If you have any, please put it in the comments! I'd love to hear about it and maybe have a discussion. 

Not all the tricks mentioned here are equally successful, and not all of them work for every intelligent character. You will have to decide what works for you (I know I say this in every writing related post but it's true). 

Hope this helps, and see you next time!

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How to write a character who is smarter than you

We all have that one character (or few) who is significantly smarter than the writer. So, as a writer, how do you write such a character con...