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Writing Secrets: How to Depict a Smart Character?

Date published: | Lisa Barlow

Girl in glasses in the library is sitting and reading a book.

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How to Write about Genius Characters?

Let’s start this educational post for students with a small glimpse into the way most mainstream moviemakers and writers depict smart characters. In most cases, such character is a man of science. At some point, he appears and delivers a technical monologue about a zombie apocalypse, time machine or anything else depending on the genre. His speech sounds somehow obscure due to the scientific jargon, but the overall message is clear.

Once he is finished, one of the characters, who is a regular dude with no intellectual background, drops the line: “Hey, can you say it in English now?” This regular dude is a character audience usually identifies with (or the filmmakers think that they will).

You must have seen this in sci-fi movies and novels for a million times. Thus, we believe that this can be described as anti-intellectual and disrespectful joke that treats the audience as poor fools. Since only a no-lifer and a sexless nerd can have an interest for such things in the reality.

We believe that the main reason for such scenes to appear again and again is a real challenge connected with depicting a character, who is really smart. Authors find it easier to make a comic turn instead of letting a genius show the real power of his mind. So how to depict a character smarter than you are? How do you show that genius brain when you don’t have one?

One way is to let him talk on a scientific jargon, of course. However, your readers may find this too overwhelming. Let’s say, most of them are not mathematicians to see the beauty of complicated ideas, so they would rather feel excluded from the mind of a genius than enjoy it. Both you and your audience should have a glimpse into the mind of a genius first.

The best thing to do so it to read the texts written by authors, who were successful in the art of depicting smart people. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle. His brilliant Sherlock gained popularity right after the first novel was published. To say the truth, the author didn’t expect that something like this will happen, since those stories that were serious and dear to him never enjoyed fame. Actually, Sir Conan Doyle didn’t enjoy it either. The one who did was Holmes. Doyle had complicated relationships with this character, since he knew that Holmes was not a genius. Therefore, he was frustrated by the way audience perceives him and did a joke of Holmes. He created a mocking novel, where he revealed character’s algorithms, showing that anyone else can learn them. As an author, Doyle bared his literary methods, giving up all the information to the audience. The great discovery here is that intellect has nothing in common with gathering the data, but about analyzing the meaning. Sherlock has the same set of data and tools you have. However, he sees something that you don’t.

The Doyle’s way of depicting a smart person is not about “can you say that in English”. It is about “how did I miss the point myself?” This is something that really lets the audience relate to the character. It is sharing of the intelligence, not displaying it. The message is: “We are all in this.”

So to depict a smart character, you need to have a clear picture of how his mind works and which logical algorithms it uses. This way, you can build a character audience will appreciate. Complicated technical monologues won’t let your audience in, but rather leave them somewhere outside. At the same time, showing how the thought of your character works in action and how he perceives and analyzes the world is the best way to success. This might be not that simple, however, you should try reading more books of the authors who use this particular method. Just observe how they describe the situations and scenes that go through the mind of a genius. Make sure that you understand them and can follow them easily. Then think about other similar turns and apply them to your future character. Indeed, showing someone smarter than you is not easy. At the same, well, the process itself will surely make you as smart as your character.