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.

24 thoughts on “The Unwritten Genius

  1. This post reminds me of a story told about the writers of Batman. Batman is said to be the “smartest superhero” because he has to “think his way out of traps” because he has no “super powers”. The writers were talking about the problem of “getting him into the trap” because the best way to “get out” of a trap is to avoid being trapped.

  2. I am of the belief that very few people are actually stupid if you measure within the fields that interest them. I could not memorize a season’s baseball stats for a thousand dollars; but people who couldn’t explain the tides or the phases of the moon (both of which I could explain in elementary school) can reel off player names and stats and recount games for hours on end. I can’t tell you the difference between knit and crochet, but a knitter can tell you scores of different stitches and techniques. When you find and recognize what a person likes, you may not find a SMART person, but you will rarely find a stupid one.

    I’m struggling with sort of the opposite problem right now: a first person narrative from a protagonist who is street smart but not book smart. I keep struggling between how she would say something and how I would say it. And it catches me in odd ways: I tend to use past perfect correctly: if not the first time, I generally correct it when I reread the sentence. But with her, I have to keep reminding myself that the average colloquial speaker does not use past perfect very often: and so I have to go had hunting.

    1. I agree, Martin, I find everyone’s smart (and dumb) about something – it just depends on where they’ve applied themselves. Big yes on book smart vs. street smart. Someone who doesn’t have a stellar IQ might still be curious or have a good sense of humor, while someone who is brilliant might be neither.

    2. My favorite example of this: as a graduate student I taught introductory physics. Students that complained about the mind-wrenching difficulty of such equations as F=ma would be happily calculating the most arcane baseball stats before class. And when I pointed that out, they just blinked at me.

      1. And once you know something deeply enough, you can stop even understanding that there’s any complexity there at all. I once had two friends who were astounded that the square root of three squared was three. I couldn’t find words to explain why it simply had to be that way by definition. I had moved so far past that knowledge, I could no longer even conceive that there was a question there.

        For their part, they could rattle off ignition timing adjustments for every make and model of car they had ever worked on, while I was only dimly aware of what ignition timing was.

    3. Well, yes. It’s easy to write a story provided your character is within his/her field of interest.
      There are stupid characters/stories, but that is when say the entire murder/chase/robbery happens because character A won’t talk to character B. Mind you, most of those are on TV shows/movies, not books.

  3. I observe in a couple comments above another characteristic of intelligence: the ability to look at one’s view and the other party’s view, and give validity to both parties, and allow that the other person (the one quoting baseball statistics, for heaven’s sake, or ignition timings) is ‘just as intelligent’ as oneself – for very large values of intelligence.

    The ignition wielder and the baseball quoter are often incapable of the reciprocal understanding – and THAT is my definition (even if I get crucified for saying so – and thanks for one of the best ‘chuckles of the day’ in a long time). It isn’t necessarily good for you to be bright – having too many options can be paralyzing. And studies of happiness show that the happiest humans are those enough above the norm to have life be easier, BUT not smart enough (whatever that means) to paralyze themselves with too many options.

    I will even venture to affirm that most writers are of way above-average intelligence, and for the same reason: they create characters from PARTS of themselves which they then flesh out as necessary (think Genesis and Adam’s rib) or infuse their own brains into creatures created from observing other humans. It is not a choice – you get what you get in the lottery of brains – but happy people don’t write. Writers have something bothering them under their skin. Smart writer’s stories tend to make sense and instigate thought.

    It is not wrong to say when people are smart: ask anyone whether they would go down into a mine with a stupid coal miner, or whether they would rather have the bright lawyer doing their divorce case or the one who barely passed the bar. Americans want people to all be the same and at the same time are amazingly elitist. This does not compute.

    At the same time, smart is not everything: would you rather have the smart lawyer who drives everyone crazy, or the dumb one who plays golf with the divorce judge and knows how the judge likes his evidence presented?

    1. We’re talking degrees of smart here – and yes, there are some people who are higher degrees of smart than others, but there are so many variations and permutations of intelligence, and development. In your example above, I don’t think your “dumb” lawyer is so dumb, he’s just more people smart than the one who drives everyone crazy. Different kinds of smart. (I’m labeled as on the extreme high end of intelligence, but I meet people every day who know more and are more skilled than I am in many things, so I’m kind of Meh about intelligence labels. IQ measures such a tiny portion of intelligence.)

      Someone who starts with a lower level of intelligence but has developed it so much more than a lazy smarter person – who is the more intelligent then? I have seen people who were very smart as college students, but stopped there, as if the label “smart” were enough, and required no more development. They make rather pathetic 50-year-olds.

      I also don’t agree that writers are unhappy – I think they are distributed along the happy/unhappy scale, just like everyone else. We just hear more about the unhappy ones because happy people aren’t as interesting. (I do admit to having a knee jerk reaction against the romanticizing of misery. :-))

      And I don’t agree that writers are all way-above-average intelligence (though I think many writers think they are). I’ve met all kinds of people who write, who are different degrees of smart – granted, those who are lower in general intelligence aren’t likely to be successful. But, mostly, I think writers have way-above-average verbal facility while writing (not necessarily while speaking live, that’s a different ability), but they can be dumb-as-dirt about content and substance. (I will grant that the ability to write encourages the ability to organize and think linearly (or think at all :-)), and that is a boost to intelligence.) I don’t know, is verbal facility is the same as smarts, like people smarts?

      1. If you read Kris Rusch’s blog, you’ll realize just how many people who are skilled with words are lousy with numbers or with foreign languages (notably legal-ese).

        I’d think that verbal facility would be related in some degree to people smarts, but not entirely. There are non-fiction writers who do beautiful jobs with conveying information, but who have zero people skills and/or street smarts. Their talent is for locating, correlating, analyzing, and then presenting data in language that lots of people can understand. But dang, I know of one that you really do have to tell to come in out of the rain. *shakes head, shrugs* He’s brilliant, just no survival skills to speak of.

    2. I don’t know, I know of a couple of writers (both those I’m thinking of are nonfiction writers) who I would classify as dumber than dirt, but they are good writers (aka excellent storytellers). For at least one of them being dumb was probably an advantage, because if he would have been a little more intellegent he wouldn’t have gotten in some of the predicaments he did (bear in mind this isn’t ignorance, he has the experience that he should know why not to do certian things) which of course provide the interesting stories. In fiction a writer needs to be able to tell a rational story to be be successful, which may require more intellegence than a nonfiction writer, who simply needs to tell what actually happened, rational or not.

      1. Someone did a study on this. I wish I could find it… Anyway, apparently the closest to average you are as to intelligence, training and looks, the more likely you’ll be a bestseller.

        Having heard a couple of bestsellers (not my friends, who are — of course — brilliant) talk in unguarded moments, I’d say this is true.

  4. One of my favorite minor characters thinks he is not smart because he never had the chance to go to university (upper working class family with no spare money). But while he’s not a genius, he has that rare gift of knowing what he does not know. So he listens, asks questions, and is one of the people the MC turns to when the fertilizer hits the impeller. He’s also one of the more difficult characters to write. *smile of chagrin*

    1. I’ve found, particularly if I’m trying to write a “light and fluffy” story that smart characters are a pain in the pattootie. They insist on overthinking everything and you have to go there, of course — you’re in their heads!

  5. I have a PhD in mathematics, and am fairly handy with tools. Wherever that puts me on the “smarts” scale.

    One summer between years in college I got a job in a steel mill. To get the job I had to pass a mechanical test: unscrew four bolts from a board and swap them, bolts on the bottom for bolts on the top. I picked up a wrench, loosened a nut, laid down the wrench, took the nut off by hand, and repeated 4 times, then reversed the process. I passed easily.

    The guy after me not only never went to college, but probably couldn’t have passed the entrance exam. Nevertheless, he beat my time. He picked up the wrench, loosened all 4 nuts, took off all four bolts by hand and swapped them, then picked up the wrench again and tightened them.

    This taught me two things: first, no matter what group I’m in, there’s at least one person in the room who can teach me something I’d be glad to know, and second, always look for ways to simplify my work and eliminate unnecessary motions.

    It was a lesson in humility that has stood me well for over 60 years.

    1. Yep. Of course it doesn’t apply to WRITING smart characters. Though, as I said, ninety percent of the time when someone complains about a character’s intelligence, they’re complaining about the writer’s beliefs. For instance, apparently any character who falls in love is an idiot. Eh.

      1. Isn’t that “any character who falls in love with himself (or herself) is an idiot?” Like Mary Sue, lawyers, doctors, and other recursive treatments? Mirror, mirror, on the wail…

          1. *blinks* Um . . . okay . . . (I was going to say that anyone in love IS an idiot, it’s all those hormones overpowering the brain and all, nothing wrong with that, just the nature of the beast and all, but um, that’s . . . that’s beyond stupid).

            1. I think this is why I CAN’T write lesbians. Not because I can’t get in their minds (though it would take a leap) but because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Actually NYC publishers HATED gay male characters while encouraging lesbians. (Don’t even ask me. The lethal conjunction of political correctness and feminism, at a guess. Women who don’t need men, good. Men who don’t need women, eeeeevil.)

              And you know… my spirits rise with every attempt to depress them!

  6. This is something I came across much earlier in my roleplaying than my writing (I find I can handle it easier in writing, probably because I have more time to think).

    But one of my RP characters is meant to be scary-smart in the sort of General, military sort of way. She was meant to have an eye of assessing potential superheroes or talented vigilante types to decide whether or not to add them to the team and how to train them and get the best out of them and how to best deploy them in the field.

    The problem is, she’s smart in a way that is definitely not my method of thinking. She has a cool head, a detached manner, and a subtle, wicked sense of humor that I love about her, but have trouble controlling in real time. (She scares me, but I would absolutely want to be friends with her.)

    This problem is compounded by the fact that I was sometimes playing with people who were… not even up to *my* speed. So my brilliant character was “recruiting” people that she would not rightly trust to deliver her evening gowns to the cleaners. Or characters who were brilliant in their own way, but entirely unsuitable for the sort of team she would put together because they were mentally unstable. (I had to rationalize this by assuming these people were selected by her co-leader or were able to keep the objectionable qualities under wraps until they’d already been recruited and she felt it was safer to try to train them than to let them loose into the streets. The same reason she kept around a mutant experiment with a slave mentality and a tendency to turn into a ravenous monster if he weren’t fed regularly. Even though he mortified her by calling her Mistress.)

    Similarly, I had a character who would possibly rank somewhere on the genius scale (certainly he thinks so and would be fond of telling people), but probably used effectively none of that intelligence. He channeled it all into this persona he created for himself, compete with terrible French accent, flamboyant gestures, and a histrionic personality that I found utterly exhausting to play. A patisserie and fashion designer. He was painfully embarrassed to realize he wasn’t gay and I think he and his girlfriend probably did eventually marry and have kids, but I doubt they advertised it. Or, perhaps, it was played up as him putting on a terribly obvious beard. Not even all of the other players realized he *wasn’t* gay. Many of the other players (or at least their characters, sometimes it’s hard to tell if some of the players kept the distinction separate) loved him, but I’m pretty sure most of them thought Franco was quite stupid. Smart people would at least learn the language of the country they pretend they’re from, right? But I’m pretty sure Franco’s intelligence didn’t run to languages. At all. At best, it ran towards inventive, colorful insults. But even those rarely made sense. (“Ah! Ma petite flibbertigibbet! Those shoes…! La! But your hair is very… Yes. Oui! Bon. Sit down and let Franco make you magic. You might even be pretty.”) If anything, he was “smart” in a way that let him insult the characters and they’d thank him for it because some of them didn’t realize he was insulting them at all. Those who did realize would go rounds with him and end up either deciding to avoid him forever if possible or being charmed in spite of themselves.

    But, yes. Roleplaying helped with understanding different types of intelligence. Both from the perspective of writing it, and recognizing that even players who I didn’t think were on “my level” were able to surprise me with something incredibly *smart* to do that I would never have thought of. And though I had once been the one “playing dumb” until someone on the internet told me to stop hiding it, it would make me realize afresh that behind the personas some of the players put on out of character as well as in, there were minds that in some ways were leaps beyond mine. And some of those bright minds were masked not intentionally, but by manners that were spotless or just simple poor verbal or typing skills.

    I can tell you that I’ve read books and probably given some characters who are meant to be “dumb” more credit than the average person, that’s for sure. I’m convinced that some characters get others into trouble while keeping their eyes wide and innocent, but are laughing up their sleeves at what the “smarter” characters do. But maybe that’s just paranoia talking. xD

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