The Unwritten Genius
Most of us want to write smart characters – of course. This wasn’t always so. The worship of the mind has to date from no further back than about a hundred years, perhaps two hundred. Why? Because before that the advantages intellect conferred were mixed. Yes, if you were of a class and in a position to use your mind to advantage, it could be very useful. Even at the level of skilled tradesman, finding a better way to do things would make it easier for you to make a living, and therefore confer an advantage.
But if you were a farmer, and your greatest advantage was to know how to work the soil in the way your ancestors had worked it, then really… what good would great intellect do?
So our tendency to want people to be “smart” comes from the time of the industrial revolution, just about. And it influences the characters we want to write and read about.
Part of my issue when writing the Musketeer Mysteries, for instance, was that while Porthos was a perfectly good character for Dumas – people enjoyed his stupid utterances – I simply couldn’t write a stupid character. It didn’t have the feel of comedy, it had the feel of piling on. Plus the structure of the books required me to be in his head about ¼ of the time, and I didn’t know how to convey that.
And if right now you’re going “Sarah, you write Dyce. You know how to write dumb characters,” please pause and think, because you just hit upon one of the more difficult things about writing intelligent characters.
We all want to – of course we do – but … how do you do it? How do you convey intelligence?
It’s harder than you think. First, we don’t all perceive intelligence in the same manner. We don’t all perceive levels of intelligence in the same way.
Being – mumble – somewhere on the intelligence scale, I’ve long since realized that I perceive people at my own level as “smart.” I perceive people below me as “dumb” – even people who demonstrably aren’t, btw, by their professional or economic achievements. I perceive people above me as… well… it depends. Most of the time I perceive them as confusing.
We took my younger son to be tested by a psychologist when he was 11, because he wasn’t doing well in school, and when my husband and I tried to determine whether it was because he lacked the capacity or because he was uninterested, we couldn’t ANSWER. Turned out he’s at least one standard deviation above us, and probably more (at that point they’re estimating.) But to us, it often presented as “he’s bafflingly dumb.”
This is because smart people often have to work through things that are perfectly obvious to those who don’t try to overthink it. Say, in a completely outrageous example, you come across a dead bug. Should you eat it? Normal human beings go “Ew.” My son would be quite capable of sitting there in earnest debate with himself. “On the one hand, it’s a good source of protein.” “On the other hand, I don’t know how it died.” “On the third hand, some tribes in Africa eat bugs, so it must have some benefits.” “On the fourth hand, it could be carrying micro-organisms that would give me the cockroach’s revenge.”
Not that he ever ate bugs (not even when the Natural History Museum baked them into cookies) but you know what I mean. Sometimes he did things that were obviously and mind-bogglingly dumb to us not because he was stupid but because he overthought it.
If you go back and read the Dyce books, you’ll find that her stupidity is in fact of that stamp. I have no interest in defending the character – she’s a completely insane woman and writing her means I have to go insane for however long it takes to write the book. However, her stupidity is of the kind that overthinks everything and comes up with insane justifications for the things she does. A stupid people would never think of doing half as crazy stuff. (The Dyce books: Dipped, Stripped and Dead; A French Polished Murder; A Fatal Stain.)
But it’s not even that. It’s that people are smart in different ways. My younger son is a certified genius. Supposedly one in a thousand people are as smart as he is (and most aren’t as functional.) You can – and do – see this if you trip into one of the ways in which he’s smart. For instance, he’s supernaturally good with puzzles and, by extension, math and scientific enquiry. He’s also very good at seeing the solution to visual/spatial issues.
However, the words that come flying out of his mouth can be… For instance, once, at the dinner table, he informed us that if he should pre-decease us, he wanted to be crucified. You could see the rest of our – very verbal – family, looking up and staring at him wondering what the heck he meant. Finally our older son said, “Uh, okay, but it will freak out the neighbors.” To which #2 son said, “I’m not saying to burn me at home. You can take it to a crematorium.” At which point we nodded and went “Oh! You mean cremated.” “Yeah, same thing,” the one who slays the English language said, while continuing to eat.
People who don’t know Monsieur de Malaprop is actually smart, might be excused for thinking he’s dumber than the rocks.
So, we come to the same issue. We perceive characters as smart who are smart in the way we are. Meaning, for instance, that if you write a smart and bookish character, with a breadth of reading and a taste for the classics, I’ll probably perceive them as… perfectly normal.
My favorite Heyer book is Venetia. I always thought of her and Demerel, the love interest, as perfectly normal, pleasant people, the kind of people I’d like to hang out with. It never occurred to me they were smart until I read someone’s review of the book calling them “Heyer’s most brilliant characters.” Then I could sort of see that they talked to each other in quotes and by implication a lot. BUT that’s what my friends and I do, so that’s not smart. That’s normal.
Take another example: my older son read one of my – published in Analog – short stories, which I had printed to self-publish. He frowned at it a little, then asked me why the character didn’t do one thing – at the very beginning – which made the story irrelevant. I had no answer. What is more, this was accepted and published by, arguably, the most “rational” magazine in the field, and the editors never spotted it.
Why not? Simple. See, the problem I was concentrating on was a technological one. Since that’s Analog’s bread and butter, they were right there along with me, and they missed the very simple habit that younger people than us have, which would have made the story unnecessary. (It just means I have to dispose of that in the second paragraph. Not impossible, but as printed that story is fatally flawed, and several smart people failed to see it.)
This is apropos of the fact that I got a crit-fan letter on Darkship Thieves – I’ve seen the same comment from reviewers (not many of them, mind, and it usually means “I don’t agree with the characters”) – saying that if Thena and her friends are supposed to be so intelligent, why are they so dumb? I have no idea WHY this reader thought they were dumb – except maybe for not seeing the grand design at a glance, in which case the reader forgot that reading a book is different from living a set of circumstances, and that we tend to accept what we heard as children at face value – and (even if it puzzled me for all of two minutes) it didn’t really worry me.
I can see engineering people, or other abstract-thinking people thinking that Thena is dumb. She is not a particularly “Grand design” or “abstract thinking” – she is frankly intellectually incurious (though she gets better in book two, mostly, I think, because Kit IS intellectually curious and she lives with him) and what she does to machinery she does instinctively and without much thought.
That is a result of how she was raised, which was by having her mind ignored. To be blunt, her father couldn’t care less what she thought or how she developed intellectually.
Does that make her stupid? Well, she’s very smart at the one thing she had to know how to do: survive.
While Thena and her cohort are supposed to be smart (one gets an idea that this is more by default) even smart people have to be taught. Left untutored, they will develop only what interests them or what they need to know. A genius in a tribe that lives by digging up grubs in the deepest forest, might find a better twig for the bugs, but it is unlikely he will quote Shakespeare, unless supernatural events are involved.
So, how do you write smart characters?
As best you can, and in the awareness you can’t please everyone.
Some rules of thumb:
1- Make the character smart in the way the character needs to be smart, and in a way that makes sense with his/her background.
2- Explain why what the character is doing is smart. This is tricksy, because you can’t simply say “the character is doing this because he’s so smart.” When I was a young writer, knee high to an epigram, I thought that just showing the characters doing stuff that is CLEARLY above the normal run of the human mind would make them seem “Smart” – no. Like trying to evaluate the intelligence of someone who outstrips your IQ, it seems it only makes them seem baffling and not a little crazy. Right now, the best technique I know is to show the character’s reasoning. It’s what Heinlein used. Seems to work okay (with exception like the letter writer. 😉 )
3- If absolutely necessary, have the characters around the character react to him/her as though he/she were something out of the ordinary. “Oh, Oog found curved stick works better on termites. Oog so smart.” Try not to overdo this. It’s not realistic. I bet you even Leonardo DaVinci had friends who periodically said, “Leonard, you ignorant slut—”
4- Remember even an amazing genius can be the dumbest of his group. In a book, that person is going to come across as dumb, and if you don’t want that effect, you’ll give them some special ability the others don’t have.
And that’s about it. Some people will still think your characters are too dumb to live. Some of those people will be so smart that ALL characters are too dumb to live. However, most of them will simply be upset you don’t cater to their particular prejudice/set of ideas of what constitutes smart. Let them go. In writing as in everything else, you can’t please everyone.
The only other caveat I’d ad is that sometimes characters will be very smart in a way you don’t expect, and you won’t realize it till you’re half way through the book, when you go “OMG, that’s why this has been such a pain. The characters are brainiacs.” With this, as in much else, go with the flow. Unless you really need the characters to be dumber than dirt (and then it’s possible your plot is dumb) just write the characters as they are. And don’t worry about it. I’ve had characters who don’t let me pick their name, their eye color or their profession. So I’ve grown resigned to not picking their IQ as well.
I’ve found some of the characters who annoy me the most, or some of the characters whom people most perceive as dumb — Dyce — are also the ones that do best. So I can always console myself by depositing the checks and having them clear. Let that also be your fate.