Creating smart characters

I’ve been procrastinating this morning by browsing writing questions on Quora. Someone wanted tips for creating a character who is smarter than they are, and I was struck that most of the answers seemed to assume this must be a very difficult thing to do. Suggestions ranged from role-playing; to the Arthur Conan Doyle method (have a character of normal intelligence, i.e. Dr. Watson, describe the character of greater intelligence, i.e. Sherlock Holmes); to making the character confusing and incomprehensible; to not even attempting the task.

Now I write a lot of very smart characters, some of whom are definitely smarter than me, and I don’t find it that hard at all. You don’t need to make every line they speak or every action they take redolent of their greater intellect, unless you are actively trying to present their cleverness as the only interesting thing about them and the only reason they are in your story. Instead give them a quirk, some character trait that suggests quick thinking or the kind of specific intelligence you want to convey.

For instance: I’ve created a character who likes wordplay and aphorisms. He tends to drop them into conversation, either to amuse the friend he’s speaking to or stump someone who’s annoying him. The rest of his conversation is intelligent in an unintimidating way, but just four or five of these zingers scattered throughout the novel is enough to give the impression of a really big brain at work. Another possibility would be a prodigious memory, someone who remembers the details of things they read or saw long ago. Or you could give your character a facility with numbers – have them add things up in their head before the person with the calculator or cash register can give them the total, for example.

How you do it will depend on the type of story you’re telling and the purpose of the character in it, but think about the things that make you form an impression of someone’s intelligence in real life. It will rarely be because they suddenly start spouting the laws of particle physics or deduce what you had for breakfast from the stain on your tie. It’ll be the way in which they speak, what they do for a living, the esoteric subjects they seem to know a lot about, how insightful they are. Utilise those kinds of naturalistic cues in your writing and it will be easier to make your character’s intelligence believable.

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2 Comments

  1. Really well stated and insightful. I work in an R&D lab with some incredibly smart people that I feel privileged to work with (read: way smarter than me) and I agree with everything Stephanie mentioned. I might add that by far and away the majority of the people that are smart (in the way we generally think of — there are lots of ways to be smart that don’t involve quick and witty thinking or extensive memories – but that’s a different blog!) are “NT” or “Rational” personality types. See Meyers-Briggs personality typing. Since NTs are a rather small percentage of the population and they tend to flock into certain fields, a majority of people can spend most of their lives without meeting, in any significant way, very many folks of this type. So, I would suggest doing a little homework by reading up on the other characteristics that tend to go with the rational mind. I am sorely tempted to start listing ways and attributes one might use to convey this type, but I’d be here all day! However, a little investigation into the NT personality type might add some depth and believability to your character.

  1. Creating Smart Characters – guest writing tip from author Stephanie Saulter | Jo Fletcher Books
  • Stephanie Saulter

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