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Writing Characters More Intelligent Than You
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A few weeks ago we had a colloquium speaker from the English department who mentioned in passing the topic of writing characters that are more intelligent than the author. One example was Hannibal Lector.

I just finished reading Soon I Will Be Invincible, a novel told half the time from the perspective of an evil genius whose IQ can't even be measured. I think it's hard to write characters that are more intelligent than yourself, and even harder in the first person. Doctor Impossible did come across as intelligent, enough to allow the suspension of disbelief most of the time...but he didn't seem that intelligent.

Thinking about it a bit more, I'd guess the main tricks for creating a character that seems really smart include:

Talk Intelligently: This is even harder to pull off in first person, but basically involves having the character use a lot of big words, a wide variety of turns of phrase, technical jargon, and of course, foreign languages. I've never been a big fan of writing with a thesaurus, but this might be a case where it is actually justified. You could also have the character know what people are going to say before they say it.

Have a Lot of Knowledge: This justifies writing on a computer connected to the internet, if you want your character to seem to know just about everything in the world. If you're hooked in to the internet, your character can recite opera lyrics from memory and know the roster of every baseball team for the past 100 years. I'm reminded of Aaron Sorkin (writer on Sports Night and The West Wing), whose characters talk a mile a minute and seem to know a vast amount of arcane knowledge while having a penchant for quoting directly from memory. They seemed smart, but sometimes it stretched credibility.

Do Smart Things: I think this is the hardest aspect of intelligent characters to write. Of course, you can just say "Dr. Greely built a time machine." But without any supporting details, nobody's going to believe that he is actually smart enough to build a time machine. The best way to convey intelligence through action is via the plot. I'm reminded of Hans Gruber in the first Die Hard. Yes, he spoke several languages and seemed to have read a lot, but what really made him seem intelligent was how he figured out how to get past that last seal in the vault. I generally despise characters who get into trouble because of stupid mistakes they made. So conversely I love to see characters who try to get what they want by acting very intelligently.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting topic. I was also reminded of the protagonist in Flowers for Algernon and related plots. If anyone has examples of very intelligent characters that are believable, or ones that are poorly done (e.g. Sherlock Holmes), chime in.

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