Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Clever characters

I’ve loved intelligent characters ever since I read Watership Down when I was eight or nine. Blackberry was definitely the smartest of the rabbits, but Bigwig’s plan to escape Efrafa was really admirable, partly because he was so outnumbered and partly because he was risking so much to help others whom he barely knew. Ever since that, I’ve enjoyed it when characters won through sheer force of wits.

But such characters have to be likeable as well, if readers are to find them appealing as well as admirable. So here are a few thoughts on how to do that…

1. Contrast them with others who are just as good.

Or better. Jason dinAlt, the protagonist of Harry Harrison’s Deathworld novels, is a professional gambler who uses a small telekinetic ability to win at games. So he’s wealthy. He’s also extremely intelligent, adaptable, sophisticated, yada yada.

What makes him endearing, though, is that in each novel, he ends up in some environment where he’s hopelessly outclassed. In the first book, he travels to the planet Pyrrus, which is so deadly that even children carry specially designed guns (which operate far faster than conventional weapons). Jason needs training to survive on that planet, so the Pyrrans put him in a class. He has to sit at a small desk and be taught along with a bunch of kids – who naturally find that very funny.

He’s also assigned an eight-year-old boy as a bodyguard, and when they’re in the final phase of training, the boy shoots the predatory animals before Jason even has a chance.

After an hour of this, Jason was so irritated that he blasted an evil-looking thorn plant out of existence. He hoped that Grif wouldn’t look too closely at it. Of course the boy did.

“That plant wasn’t close. It is stupid to waste good ammunition on a plant,” Grif said.

Can’t help liking Jason after that, even when he single-handedly brings about peace on Pyrrus.

2. Have more than one intelligent character.

Giving someone else a chance to shine reduces the chance that an intelligent character will come off as an unbearable luminary, sort of a mental Mary Sue. And considering how specialized intelligence can be, having different characters be experienced in different fields is realistic.

Even if they’re good at the same thing, they can share the spotlight. One of my favorite moments in The Fountainhead is when Roark looks out over the city and sees three of his buildings, but also looks at his mentor’s most famous accomplishment. It was a wonderful tribute to his mentor. Even though Roark is portrayed throughout the book as a Persecuted Genius, there are enough such moments that I never got tired of reading it.

Along those lines…

3. Don’t have other characters praise their intelligence or skill.

Or have the character pat herself on the back – unless this is meant to be either funny or a serious flaw. She doesn’t have to downplay her intelligence or dig her toe into the ground in an aw-shucks way if someone compliments her, but such compliments shouldn’t come along too often. There are too many books where other characters repeatedly stress that the heroine is smart or sensible, to the point where I wonder who they’re trying to convince.

And of course, it’s better to show the heroine’s mind in action than to say that she has “intelligent blue eyes” or “intelligent green eyes” or intelligent body parts of any color.

4. Let them be wrong.

Or better yet, outsmarted. This can be a lot of fun to write – not to mention productive. It’s easy to identify with someone who comes up with a clever plan – but loses because the opposition is just that bit smarter, or luckier, or cheats. We’re firmly on his side after that, pulling for him to win next time.

On that note, there shouldn’t be a ticker-tape parade when he wins. Even if he’s done really well, he’ll be much more appealing if the readers feel he’s being ignored rather than being praised and applauded.

Or if things get worse because of his victory. Each time Ender’s army wins a battle in Orson Scott Card’s Ender's Game, the teachers make it more difficult for him. They adjust the controls so the other army has an advantage. Ender still wins. So they let the other army enter the Battle Room first. Ender still wins. So they pit his troops against two armies – both of whom are in the Battle Room first. Those are some of the best scenes in the book.


Mary Witzl said...

It's true that there has to be something vulnerable or flawed about a character to gain our full sympathies. When protagonists are perfect and do everything right, they're real yawners.

Anonymous said...

I love my characters to be both clever and snarky. They will make stupid mistakes, but they are clever none the less.

Maria Zannini said...

I love it when clever characters get outsmarted. It makes them more personable and I rejoice (or cringe) as they struggle to regain the ground.

Good points!

Angela said...

I love this post and especially points 3 & 4. If anything, clever charcters need to be disparaged, not praised. And they absolutley need to make mistakes, because then they strive to prove themselves twice as hard. It becomes personal. And they do it cleverly, of course!

Anonymous said...

What I like even better than clever character's are clever villains. It sucks when the villain carries the Idiot Ball all over the place for no good reason.

Being evil and resourceful is far more interesting than just being a complete monster just because.

Marian said...

Mary - Right. At best, such perfect characters have to be contrasted with others who are flawed and human. They can't carry the story by themselves.

ralfast - Parents allow their kids to make mistakes and learn from them. Characters deserve no less. :)

Maria - So do I! George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, one of my favorites, is so tense because that competence =/= invulnerability.

You can be the best swordsman, the best tactician, the best leader... and you can still be outsmarted, tricked or just plain defeated by someone who is bigger and stronger than you are.

Marian said...

Good point, Angela. A clever character who makes an understandable error doesn't become stupid - she becomes human. And as you said, she can become that much more determined to win as well!