Saturday, December 6, 2008

Intelligent characters

It just occurred to me that although I’ve written about several intelligent characters, I’d never written about writing about them… convoluted though that sounds.

I looked for other articles on writing such characters, but the only one I found was this, and it used the term “genius characters”. None of my characters go that far. The word always makes me think of Stephen Hawking and Marilyn Vos Savant and I’m not sure I can write such a character convincingly – as in, give them the insights that geniuses have.

So what are some ways to write regular intelligent characters?

1. Show, don’t tell.

If the character says or does something clever, that will go much further than simply stating the character is clever (or worse, saying that he or she has “intelligent green eyes”). For instance, in Ender’s Game, when it’s Ender’s first night away from his family, he listens to the other little boys in the dormitory crying softly and starts mentally counting in multiples of two to stop himself doing the same thing. He gets up to seven digits before he loses count, and by then he’s under control again.

2. Give the character realistic flaws.

One reason I decided to have scientists in my fantasy novels was because I started out reading and watching science fiction – and grew tired of the stereotypical mad scientists. Another cliché is the icy hyperlogical type, an asexual automaton who showers with his lab coat on. I wanted to have scientists who were sarcastic, vulnerable, amusing, greedy, compassionate, aggressive – basically, human.

3. Decide what form the character’s intelligence takes.

Is your character the type of person who can quote anything they’ve ever read, or are they the quick-witted MacGyver type who can build a gun out of two paper clips and chewing gum? One problem I’ve seen in a few stories is the character who’s brilliant or innovative when the plot requires her to do this, but whose intelligence fails her at another time – with no reason being given for this brain-shutdown.

If a character has used his innate wits and knowledge of psychology to persuade and influence people throughout the story, he should not stop doing this when he’s dragged before the Dark Lord, unless he’s prevented from speaking or he knows the Dark Lord will see through any such attempt.

Applied to scientists, this guideline should deal with another stereotype – the scientist, who, by virtue of being a scientist, can perform surgery, build a rocket and split the atom. The specialist vs. the Renaissance Man, in other words. It’s possible to be the latter, especially at a time when science was much less specialized and one person could conceivably know about several disciplines. But taken too far, such a character becomes unrealistic.

I like focusing on one field – psychology in Dracolytes, chemistry in The Mark of Vurth and microbiology in Empire of Glass - because it means the characters will have to work that much harder within the limits of their knowledge, rather than using too many scientific solutions to save the day.

4. Justify their intelligence

A farmboy in a medieval village may have a lot of native intelligence, but he’s unlikely to know about battlefield maneuvers or shipbuilding. Likewise, someone who grew up on the streets is unlikely to have become literate by reading graffiti. It takes years of study and application to become competent in some fields – even Ender doesn’t step into the Battle Room for the first time and annihilate the other army.

And if characters do become students of history or alchemy or surgery in medieval times, they’ll have to do so realistically. How will their apprenticeship be funded? One reason I like Colleen McCullough’s The First Man in Rome is because when the impoverished Lucius Cornelius Sulla finds a teacher, he eagerly accepts the offer of education, but prostitutes himself to get the money to pay for that education. Will they belong to a guild that regulates what they do – and demands that they pay dues? Will they find a rich patron who can finance their research – but who will insist that they work on developing a new, untraceable poison?

Lots of story possibilities!


writtenwyrdd said...

Good thoughts. If you have a protag who is super brilliant they aren't necessarily going to be able to cook like a gormet chef, tell a joke or balance their checkbook much less disarm a nuclear bomb rescued from terrorists. Or, say, have a virologist come up with the solution to rampant zombiism from their own blood serum with the contents of a kitchen and a boy scout's kit.

If you haven't seen it, you might enjoy Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog on You Tube. The trite evil scientist motif is lampooned on it, to music.

Luc2 said...

Timely post! One of the POV characters in my new novel is very intelligent. I'll need to work out point 4 (justification) for his intelligence.

The biggest challenge is the main character, however. He is not using his mind that often. It's useful for getting him into hot water, and all sorts of conflict, but it's difficult to write.

Marian Perera said...

Hi Luc,

I don't know whether this will work for your character, but too often emotion trumps reason. You see that all the time when very intelligent people fall for scams or get involved with the wrong people.

It's also not difficult to make readers sympathize with this. We've all made mistakes where we knew better, but allowed our hope or desperation to cloud our thinking.

Marian Perera said...

"If you have a protag who is super brilliant they aren't necessarily going to be able to cook like a gormet chef, tell a joke or balance their checkbook much less disarm a nuclear bomb rescued from terrorists."

And if they are, they risk being a hat out of which the writer can pull any solution she needs.

It's like having a magician who can do anything with magic, from healing someone to annihilating an army to seeing the future.

I must look for the lampoon on YouTube - thanks for the suggestion. Haven't had any time this week, but the weekend's here now, fortunately.