Image: Matthew Loffhagen
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.
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.
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 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.
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.