Sometimes a story needs a genius. An expert, unparalleled in their field, with a theory that just might be right. And yet smart characters are a huge risk for any writer. Get them right and the reader will be as impressed with the writer as they are with the character, but get it wrong and it feels like the author is simply using a ‘smart’ character as a mouthpiece to move the story along.
So what’s the difference between an expert and an author surrogate? What can you do to have readers believe in a character’s intellect? In fact, what you don’t do is just as important as what you do, which is why in this article I’ll be presenting the essential Dos and Don’ts of writing smart characters.
The first thing to consider is a prop inextricable from the genius, and yet one that runs the risk of becoming an instant cliché…
Books seem like a brilliant way to cheat when presenting a character’s intellect; you can tell a lot about a person, and a lot about a character’s IQ, by what they choose to read. That’s why a lot of authors like to introduce their genius with a book in their hand or, even better, by listing the contents of their bookshelf.
DON’T use the same old books
The common mistake is to reel off a list of culturally recognizable ‘smart’ authors. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Twain for fiction, or a mandatory Darwin text if writing a scientist. The problem is that these are ‘curriculum’ texts, books we’re taught to revere at school. We understand them first and foremost as the symbols they are, and so instantly recognize – and become immune to – what the author is trying to do.
When Twilight’s Bella Swan dismisses a reading list, stating she’s already familiar with it, the reader is more likely to sense a poseur than an intelligent character.
I kept my eyes down on the reading list the teacher had given me. It was fairly basic: Bronte, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Faulkner. I’d already read everything.
– Stephenie Meyer, Twilight
There’s no denying these books are smart, brilliant even, so where’s the problem?
DO give the character taste
The problem with listing well-known books or authors is that they’re safe choices, and ones which tell us nothing at all about the character except that they’re smart. Smart people read, but like anyone they read according to their tastes. Real intellects have opinions, and the books the reader sees should address this.
In The Adamantium Men Jason Aaron attempts to paint his immortal protagonist as ‘a man who has read everything’. Despite this, he references few actual books. The most prominent is Go Down, Moses, a collection of short stories by William Faulkner. While drawing on one of the same ‘smart’ writers as Twilight, it manages to feel less like a roll call and more like a genuine sign of a keen mind. This is because we believe the protagonist would genuinely, and particularly, enjoy Faulkner’s work.Show intelligence through preference and opinion. A favorite book beats a nondescript library.Click To Tweet
The character is reading for the enjoyment of it, and reading according to his taste. Because of this the book becomes a symbol for the habit of reading, itself a culturally accepted symbol for intelligence.
We believe he is reading this book → We believe he is a ‘reader’ → We believe he is intelligent.
When one of the antagonists asks about a story from the book (‘The Bear’), and sincerely laments that he’ll never get to read it, the sense of intelligence is so strong that it spreads to cover both characters. With a simple reference we also believe the antagonist’s intelligence, it even seems to signify some dignity and humanity, and their combat means more.
“Yeah, I read ‘The Bear’. That’s a good one.”
“Can you tell me how it ends?”
“They kill him. They kill Old Ben. Boon Hogganbeck jumps on his back and stabs him to death. But he pays the price for it. He goes crazy in the end.”
“Heh. That musta been something to read.”
– Jason Aaron, The Adamantium Men
To make characters seem smart you must consider their nature, research the type of book they would truly enjoy, and allow that book to be seen or mentioned as naturally as possible. In this way the book becomes a brief window into the character’s intellectual life, and encourages the belief that we’re seeing one element of a defining habit.
Having a character answer questions is a subtle but effective way to show the reader that they’re smart. This narrative device is explored brilliantly in Aaron Sorkin’s television show Sports Night. Here two anchors have fallen into a feud, with one taking umbrage that he is always the one scripted to ask questions, while his colleague gets to provide the answers. In one cringe-inducing scene he attempts to turn the tables, asking an unscripted question he knows his colleague can’t answer.
Dan: Casey, tell us, why should we care?
Casey: Why should we care? Well… a drop from the first round to the second round represents a loss of millions of dollars to the player.
Dan: Well that’s why [the player] should care. I’m asking why we should care.
Dan: We’re doing it on our show. There must be a reason.
Casey: Well… I, ah…
Dan: Good answer, Casey.
– Sports Night, Draft Day Part II – The Fall of Ryan O’Brian
The moment is humiliating for the colleague, and shows the power that being ‘the one who knows the answer’ has on an audience’s perception of a character. Know the answer and you’re ‘the smart one’, don’t and you’re a babbling dunce.Show a character is smart by having others turn to them for answers.Click To Tweet
Smart characters are there to have the answers, and showing them correcting or helping out other characters is a good way to show they’re equipped for the job. The problem is, readers like the other characters.
DON’T embarrass established characters
It’s a weak but common trope to show a new character’s abilities by having them best an established character. They pick up on a mistake made by another expert, out-duel a master swordsman, or find the missing piece that cracks the case.
Functionally there’s nothing wrong with this. As a purely intellectual process it works wonders, the intent being:
I know A is good at X → B is clearly better than A at X → B must be incredible at X.
Of course we’re not creatures of pure intellect. We like certain characters, we’re invested in their relevance and respect within the story, so the process goes more like this:
I like that A is good at X → B has embarrassed A → I dislike B.
I know that A is good at X → The writer is trying to pretend B is better at X → I don’t believe B is good at X.
DO create unique moments
The answer is to give the new character their own moment to shine. Keep the established character who might usually solve the puzzle busy, or give the new character an advantage the reader can believe: they’re a specialist, they have relevant experiences, they were in the right place at the right time.
When a smart character has all the answers, all the time, they become irritating. Far more effective is to have them nail the answer at sparser intervals. Intellect is far more memorable when shown through quality rather than quantity.
The easiest way to show someone has a brain in their head is to demonstrate all the long words they know, but this device often causes more problems than it solves. Whether it takes the form of jargon or just a large vocabulary, like anything else it has to be done right to work.
DON’T be too verbose
Verbosity, the use of too many words or too diverse a vocabulary, is often used to signify intelligence. Unfortunately it almost always signifies a closed-off, unsympathetic intelligence. Unless you have reason to believe there are certain things your readers will know about that the majority of characters believably don’t, then inflated vocabulary is going to make readers feel excluded. (It’s not impossible to pull this off if you can include the reader in the ‘smart’ club – for example, it’s easy to make a character look savvy by having them explain social media to out-of-touch comrades.)
Having characters talk in this inaccessible way will make them seem smart, but your readers won’t see it as a good quality. In fact it’s so exclusive that your readers will often have more sympathy for someone who mocks verbosity than someone who exhibits it.
“The efficiency of the cleaning solution in liquefying wizards suggested the operation of an antithetical principal, which—”
“Did you have to get him started?” Cimorene asked reproachfully.
– Patricia C. Wrede, Calling on Dragons
DO communicate well
Here it’s best to take a cue from a real-life genius:
If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
– Albert Einstein
This should certainly be true of your characters: the better they understand something, the better they should be at communicating it.
This narrative device marries nicely with having a smart character ‘answer’ a question: the sign of a truly brilliant character is the moment when they take an incredibly complex idea and use a simple metaphor to make it clear to the other characters (and sometimes the reader).
The character who says ‘well, it’s like if…’ will almost always seem smarter than the character who begins ‘the anti-proton neutralization field will…’
The difference isn’t always clear, but goes something like this. A smart character communicating a difficult problem is 2D. Yes the situation seems complicated, yes they seem able to cope with that, but this is a flat, contextless idea of complexity. It’s like knowing someone is good at karate because they have a black belt; skill is understood, but not appreciated.
In comparison, when a character simplifies an idea so the reader or another character understands it, the situation gains a dimension. That dimension is the comparison of two states: the reader knows or can see how it felt when the problem was complicated, and they know how it feels now that the problem is simplified. The smart character has ‘solved’ the problem in front of them, changing the situation from one state to another. This difference between states provides a context for their intelligence; however different the situation now seems, that is how much intellect they’ve displayed.Show intelligence through communication over vocabulary. Click To Tweet
Because of this (as long as you stay believable) it’s easy to make a character seem brilliant by taking the most complicated situation you can conceive and presenting it in the most simple, understandable way possible.
Character first, genius second
As always, the key to writing any believable character trait is to know the character inside and out. Write a ‘smart’ character and you won’t get very far, but write an expert, understanding the drive and history behind their expertise, and all the small touches that make them feel real will suggest themselves.
For more on the little moments that make up fully realized characters check out Nail Your Character’s Backstory With This One Simple Tip. Or for more on what it takes to forge a believable character try Don’t Let Fake Minor Characters Ruin Your Story.
Who’s your favorite literary genius and why? Let me know in the comments.
25 thoughts on “The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters”
Very very useful tips… Must rewrite a dialogue now! 😉
Glad they’re of use to you.
Thank you, it really really helps me. I’m writing a smart character right now. But as far as it go, he becomes such a smartass-wannabe character. It feels fake. So, this is really helpfull. Thank you so much.
Sorry about my bad-english. English is not my native language, after all 🙂
No problem, I’m really glad it’s useful to you. Don’t worry, your English is great!
Hi, do you have any ideas how to make a character seem moderately smart (enough to stand out but doesn’t need to be an expert at anything) without them having much or any contact with other characters?
The easiest way would be to use media and opinion. The reader can infer intellect from what the characters chooses to read/watch/listen to, but they’ll also infer it from the presence of strong or complex opinions. What those opinions are matters less, it’s just a way of showing the character thinks deeply and critically. An example would be having the character interested in a specific type of music, but be very discerning about which artists they enjoy within it (especially if their opinion clashes with the majority). It can take some effort to parlay that into general intelligence rather than just having a field of interest, but this can be done by displaying opinions in a few areas. They don’t have to be an ‘expert’ for this to work; it’s enough to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that they’re engaged with the world around them.
Having a character answer questions or solve problems is another useful device. The cliche is to show a character watching a gameshow and getting all the answers right. That exact scene is a little played out, but just showing them to know things on the odd occasion would work well – their drink has a ‘fun fact’ on the back that they already know, that kind of thing.
Good Read! I happen to have come across a set of mini-essays all dedicated to writing various facets of intelligent characters well, and this article seems to agree on everything! (Search “Optimize Literally Everything” and you’ll find it easily)
My favorite bit is the “don’t be too verbose” and “communicate well” part. As somewhat of a science geek, I tend to understand a tad more of the sciency jargon that gets used for shallow portrayals of “intelligent” characters, and it bugs me when they use words that don’t even properly fit the context. Science fiction is particularly bad about this when the technobabble borrows terms from actual science. It comes across as such incredibly cheap writing.
And the top-level of “intelligent” character described in the aforementioned “Optimize Literally Everything” articles is essentially founded upon the “communicate well” principle. His advice is to have the character explain some theory or concept using language common to their setting, specifically staying away from conventional jargon that might be found on the subject in a textbook. This shows that they understand the ideas on a level independent from our world’s body of knowledge and that their thoughts are wholly relatable to the world they inhabit. He does note that it requires the writer to do some research in order to understand the topic well enough to *write* the context-appropriate explanation, but really any smart-sounding metaphor that’s doing its job would require that anyway.
When it comes to intelligent characters, my favorites are those who come across as “clever”–often, this comes in the form of making a deduction with already-available information that the reader *could’ve* made themselves, but often haven’t. Some of the best of these appear in fantasy stories (or at least settings with supernatural elements) where the characters make use of some previously-explained world mechanic in some way that wasn’t obvious.
One standout example comes from the show Naruto, an animated show focused on ninja battles. One character named Shikamaru is able to manipulate his shodow’s shape, and is able to control anyone whose shadow touches his while using this ability. He notes that his shadow must maintain overall area though, so it’s unable to stretch far–but he can pass it through other objects’ shadows for a boost. The shadow moves slowly, however, so most opponents in this world of agile ninja are able to avoid it. (Though he uses this to pressure opponents into his teammates’ traps)
Other than this powerful “shadow possession” ability, Shikamaru is less than average in most areas of importance: he’s not very fast, not particularly durable, and doesn’t hit hard nor have any abilities that hit hard. But he’s *smart*–and the writers to a great job of portraying this with all the clever ways he makes use of his Shadow Possession ability, including: making a feint assault then extending a “real” shadow from another direction; extending his shadow using the shadows of thin wires from his opponent’s own traps; noting the time of day and its effect on the length of objects’ shadows; and floating several paper balloons toward his enemy to “island hop” his shadow between the balloons’ shadows to reach an opponent who thought herself to be a safe distance from all shadowed areas. It wasn’t hard to believe Shikamaru to be the “brilliant but lazy” type when he finds ever-more ways to creatively stretch rules that are nonetheless completely consistent. (And despite this brilliant display of character intelligence, the show unfortunately seems to struggle to believably portray anyone else with even *average* human-level intelligence)
Thanks for your thoughts and examples. You’re right; a character who bends their brains to fit the moment will almost always seem smarter than a character who can’t operate outside their area of expertise. It’s down to the author to help them do so.
Especially in fantasy settings, this is often linked to fighting style and weapon, something I wrote on in the article below.
Hey, mister Rob! I would like to ask a question about writing a character that could be stated as “Innocence cinnamon roll”, as my friends call it to be. She is my protagonist and her naivety is quite needed for my plot and I am exploring another type of character since the girl in my last book ( and the very first book I’ve written) was strong-willed girl and a totally opposite of the character that I want to explore now.
I’ve been searching around and since all your How To’s seem to make sense, I thought I’d try to ask you than to search to other websites. I’m having a rough time about focusing on her personality and find myself in the state of writer’s block sometime.
Also I want to deeply thank you for your guidance! I’ve been curious about writing since I was ten (and I just started when I was 14, now I’m 16) and your tips have been so helpful! I didn’t really know how to start this passion of mine so I’m starting slow and thoughtful and man, your tips and How To’s have been a big help since here in my hometown doesn’t really support this skill that much, and there’s only a few writers and my school don’t really teach any basic and stuff.
Forgive my English if it’s quite confusing, it’s not my native tongue and I’m still learning. Thanks again!
Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad our articles have been useful in your writing. I’m not entirely sure what you mean about focusing on the character’s personality, but I’ll try to give my best advice.
For a start, I think the two articles below should be useful:
After that, it’s worth considering your character as they exist at the intersection of two paths. The first path is where they came from: what made your character the way she is, what shaped her and what defines the way she sees herself and others? The second path is where she wants to go: what’s her new goal, how did things change, who will she have to become to be successful? Don’t just consider these things separately, but in relation to each other. For example, what has to happen to your character to prepare them for the challenges ahead, and (the flip side) how does the character you’ve defined react to the events of your story?
You may need to tailor both paths to get a believable, engaging character, but it’s by playing the past and future off each other that you get an enjoyable character arc. One great way to do this is by using the quadrant method, as explained in the article below.
I hope that was useful, and good look on your continued writing.
Thank you. this do’s and don’ts are very useful.
my favorite fictional genius is Balthier (Ffamran Bunansa) of Final Fantasy 12. because I believe only people who pay attention to the story realize how smart he is. his geniusness was shown, not told.
Thanks for your thoughts. Authors walk a difficult line when including details that only dedicated readers will discover. On the one hand, the less attentive reader won’t get the benefit but, as you point out, those who do pay attention will treasure what they find.
This was great. I especially liked the ‘Don’t use the same old books’ part because I’ve ranted so many times about stupid characters who casually mention their ‘well-loved, dog-eared’ copy of Pride and Prejudice, and the authors who expect that to serve as proof of the character’s intelligence.
Thanks for the kind words. A similar thing happens with ‘geek’ characters referencing franchises that pretty much everyone is aware of – the number of characters who prove their geek credentials by referencing Star Wars shows how many writers don’t appreciate that communicating personal taste is way more effective.
I like intelligent protagonists. One of my books has a heroine, a law student, carrying “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky which is sticking out of her backpack. The male protagonist who the heroine has been avoiding and with whom she has butt heads before, sees it and asks her a question that relates to the book, which shows he’s also read it:
“Guilt, crime, justice—they seem to fascinate you, even in fiction. Have those issues changed from what they were in mid-nineteenth century Russia?”
“You have read Crime and Punishment?” She stared at him, a skeptic look in her eyes.
“Yes, why does it surprise you?”
A long, contentious conversation ensues about the book, at the end of which the heroine changes her mind about the hero. This conversation also reveals other attributes about the characters. I read this book about three times when I was in college because it fascinated me. I think you should read a book if you’re using the reading of it for characterization. If done well, it enriches and moves the story along, but I look at it also as a sort of homage to the quoted book.
An excellent point – I’d agree that authors should have personal knowledge of books they’re citing for characterization.
Thank you, these have been some of my pet peeves when reading and I’ve always tried not to write them.
It’s great to see it put in this light.
I think one of the worse ways to introduce a smart character is to just…You know, say “oh he’s smart” and then have him never been smart on the page (like Tim Drake in the New 52 and Rebirth of DC Comics, he literally has pages where he says “I have a plan” then shows up pages later saying “My plan has been set in motion and you have played your part well” to another character then never proceeds to tell us anything or the author will just have him say “yeah I created that ’cause I was bored” but never show his line of thought even the slightest bit and summarize everything by “he has an IQ of 142. Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV show had something similar in that he used a very very basic reasoning but they used the mise-en-scène to make it look like he was brainstorming and, while it apparently worked, it really left me feeling betrayed).
I always just chalked it up to going with the “Show, don’t Tell” advice but I’m not sure if it’s the actual one.
Thanks for your thoughts. You’re right about the tropes you describe – it’s especially important to nail characterization when, with something like Robin, you’re redefining an existing character.
I get it! For example, explaining the how and why of keeping my BF cellphone clean and lag free, I showed him what I was doing got a blank face and then simply explained to him it’s like changing the oil of your car. Bingo he got it. ^-^
Thanks this article has helped a lot!
My pleasure, Robin, thanks for commenting. Your example describes exactly what I was talking about and, in doing so, is an example all by itself.
I’ve struggled for a while with making my characters sound smart without being boring or annoying, and so far I’ve failed miserably. Your advice was clear and to the point, not weird and vague like some writing How-Tos out there. Overall, I really liked it and will be looking forward to receiving emails from this site.
Anyway, I have a question. How would you portray a street-smart character? Does that fall under the ‘clever’ category, or would it be something else?
I think ‘street-smart’ follows the same basic rules, just about different things. Again, smart people have preferences, and characters look smart when they solve problems (as opposed to just expositing knowledge). Knowing, and being able to explain, why some kind of decision is better than another (for example, a homeless character who advises someone not to sleep in a given doorway because they get earlier deliveries) is the key.
I met a burglar once who advised me, were I ever in court, to wear sneakers on the day of sentencing since, if you’re put away, there’ll be a lot of walking before you get to change again, and it’s better not to do that in dress shoes (plus, you already made your good impression). It’s something that would never have occurred to me, but I could instantly see how and why it worked and was useful. Enough nuggets like that and your reader will accept that a character knows of what they speak.
Your article is very timely. for me.
My hero *must* be highly intelligent, because he’s an historical genius – an Italian Renaissance philosopher/alchemist who dies (due to arsenic) in the first part of the story. Since the poison produces convenient hallucinations, he bounces from topic to topic, talking with fleeting apparitions. He sees the Sibyl of Cumae (from Virgil and Petronius), Dante, and Plato.
Through the Deus-ex-Machina properties of an ancient, mysterious alchemical ring, he re-awakens in the 21st century, where he communicates Online with the heroine, a professor of Quantum Entanglement Theory. He woos her with words, long before he reveals his appearance. In his past, he believes his good looks influenced many people’s opinions.
Both characters have “issues” and secrets they fear to reveal to each other. And the villain shares characteristics with the protagonists – high intelligence, charisma, and wry humor – but his life experiences, despite being similar to those of the hero, result in different outcomes, including mild sociopathy (i.e., his sense of empathy is under-developed, whereas the hero responded to his misfortunes by becoming a “Rescuer/Fixer”).
Certain elements of his characterization are set in history, but I continue to research his life and mine it for obscure details. He was fluent in 23 languages and memorized the entirety of Dante’s Comedia at an early age. When questioned about his genius, he dismisses his gifts, saying he relies upon Cicero’s Methods of Loci – aka “Memory Palaces”. He describes these in simple, visually-oriented language, a la Einstein’s Thought Experiments.
I am a newbie author, so I’m often unsure about my instincts.
I have tried to humanize my hero as much as I can by giving him flaws. I’ve also noticed in his personal letters, he used self-deprecatory humor. Since ‘m attracted to smart, funny men, I’m hoping other people will be likewise.
Any further suggestions for this somewhat unusual character will be very much appreciated,
It sounds like you’re already putting the work in to nail this character’s personality. That said, we try to help, so my advice would be to ensure that this character has significant external influences. It sounds like you’ve nailed his history and inner life, so make sure you give equal attention to the people he interacts with and the situations in which he finds himself. A genius out of time is a great character because they can be intensely knowledgeable while also being a complete fish out of water. Likewise, make sure internal faults have external consequences – a character doesn’t truly have anything wrong with them until that fault costs them something, even something small (like losing an argument.) Antagonists are a good way of ensuring that protagonists externalize their flaws, since they can deliberately find out what those flaws are and try to exploit them.
This article was incredibly helpful!
I was wondering if you have any resources on science-based dialogue. I have a character who is humbly smart, with occasional smart replies, but it’s not *too* out there. I want to have her talk about science, or even math, but I simply have no knowledge on it. Without taking a college course on it, I’m not sure I’ll be able to write her that way. I just don’t want to make the reader cringe because my dialogue is too forced.