How to create characters smarter than the author
How can you design a character that is supposed to be smarter/more clever/more intelligent than the author?
This question came up recently on the Forum at Silver Pen. (Readers of this blog readers who are not members of Silver Pen should consider joining. It’s free and it’s a great place to learn to improve your writing.) Several people chimed in with advice.
Before we look at the answers, let’s consider what “smarter” (or more intelligent) means in this context. One commenter at Silver Pen cautioned not to get too hung up on “smart” and “clever” because these terms are somewhat relative. Two quotes from different commenters in the discussion are relevant:
“Granted, some people may have more information from their education, but they may not necessarily be smarter than a man living on a farm all his life with little schooling.”
“Smart/clever/intelligent is not the possession of more knowledge, but the ability to apply it in the most effective manner. As to having a character smarter than you, the writer sets the bar, so it is movable.”
Thus, being smarter can mean possessing more knowledge on one or more subjects, but it can also mean being more analytical in the sense of understanding problems and more capable of seeing a solution them. “Smarter” can mean “more clever” in the ability to devise unique or creative solutions, not necessarily having more facts at one’s disposal, although this can help.
There are several ways to accomplish this in a character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, was a doctor by training, not a detective. Was Doyle as smart, clever, and capable as his character? Yes and no. He made Holmes seem smart by carefully crafting the character in a way that made him believably intelligent. Here are a couple of references that I found fascinating.
You create such an intelligent character in the same way as you would any character who has knowledge or experience outside your own. Whether this person is actually smarter than you doesn’t matter. The key is to make the person SOUND convincingly smart to the reader.
The first place to start is by deciding what specifically the character can do or knows that you can’t do or don’t know. If it’s expertise in another subject, you can do research (easy to do online these days), or perhaps you can find someone who has the knowledge you require. A great deal of fiction writing is simply faking it and using your imagination. Sometimes you can show intelligence simply in the use of vocabulary and speech patterns.
When an author who has an extensive knowledge of some subject attempts to impress the reader, it can easily come off as fake and even boring. Worse, it often sounds like the author showing off, and that rarely impresses readers.
Let’s say the author is fluent in a particular language, especially one less commonly used in writing (Hindi, for example). Done properly and judiciously, the use of phrases in that language can add color and flavor. If done poorly, too frequently, and with the author having to translate for the reader all the time, it becomes pretentious and even condescending. This is true of any knowledge that the author throws at the reader. be careful of crossing the fine line between informing the reader and showing off.
The best way to do it right is to make sure is always seems to come from the character, not from the author. This is one place where first person POV has drawbacks because in first person it can sound like the author’s voice. Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes did it by making the POV character Dr. Watson. Holmes is an egoist in the extreme, but it’s Holmes, not Doyle who sounds this way. However, exceptions can exist. One novel I especially loved (and learned from) is Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. The main character is always talking to the reader and explaining techie stuff (which is fascinating), but the TV show Burn Notice did the same thing with spy stuff. In both cases, the character is clearly intelligent. Doctorow also acknowledges in this book all of the people who helped him, so we can be pretty sure this is a case where the character is (or was) more intelligent than the author.
Another way to make the character sound smart without the author showing off is to give the character limited knowledge. He might be smart in some areas, but less so or clueless in others. This makes the character more realistic. The articles on Holmes referenced above show this.
One of the commenters on Silver Pen said that creating an intelligent character is easier than it used to be because of the Internet. Do some research. You can often find obscure facts that the character knows but that the author (or general reader) might not. Make sure the information sounds as if it comes from the character, not from the author. The commenter pointed out that scientists are always pulling this. He gave an example of a scientific article that shows that kind of narrative voice.
HOW SCIENTISTS SOUND SMARTER THAN THEY ARE
Now for a practical example. Theoretical mathematics has always fascinated me, but I admit to being woefully inadequate when it comes to understanding it. Number Theory fascinates me, but it also boggles my mind. Nevertheless, in my first novel “More Than Magick” I created Jake, a character with a PhD in math because it made sense for the needs of the story. I could have gotten by with not putting any real math into the novel, but I wanted to let the reader see Jake’s mathematical side at least once. I remembered reading a Scientific American article years before I wrote the novel. I should point out that one of my test readers, who was very math savvy, found the error in the article. I decided to incorporate that error into the novel to add an extra level to Jake’s intelligence.
This is the only place in the novel that Jake gets to show off that way. I should also point out that the same test reader felt the scene really added nothing to the plot. I understood the point, but at the same time, I pointed out that it established his character (and perhaps provided a cute puzzle for interested readers). Even though Jake is smarter than me when it comes to math, I only had to convince the reader of Jake’s smarts, and I think this scene accomplished that. The narrator/POV character is Scott Madison, who isn’t named in this passage.
In December Jake invited me to an on-campus karate demonstration in which he was participating. I figured I’d enjoy seeing him get mangled. He failed to tell me that he was the demonstrator. He made it look so easy, and his finesse entranced me. If he could do it, so could I. I asked him for lessons.
“On two conditions,” he said. “First, you agree to my exercise program, which will add muscle and help protect against broken bones. Second, you take my grad math class in the spring. Math will give you mental muscle.”
“Deal!” A good physique wouldn’t do me any harm, and I was good at math. How hard could Number Theory be?
Monday, first day of class: Professor Jake greeted us, took attendance, picked up his chalk, and began, “Consider this problem. An Arab has seven camels and three sons. He dies. In his will he leaves one-half of the camels to the eldest son, one-fourth to the middle son, and one-eighth to the youngest. How can you divide the camels among the sons and avoid a confrontation with animal rights’ advocates?”
One self-proclaimed genius thrust up his hand. “It can’t be done, Dr. Kesten.”
Jake arched his eyebrows. “Maybe you should drop the class.” He turned to the chalkboard. “A wise man with one camel comes along and adds it to the herd, making eight. The sons each take their share and the wise man leaves with his original camel.” On the board he annotated.
“It’s a trick!” the genius protested.
Jake faced the class. “But it perfectly solves the problem. Now, what if the father had seventeen camels? Does there exist a set of simple fractions such that adding and then subtracting one camel would provide a solution? Yes, and they are 1/2, 1/3, 1/9. Your homework is to determine how many different herd sizes exist that satisfy these conditions, namely, all of the fractions must be in the form of 1/x; you have to add, then later subtract just one camel; no camels can be sacrificed in the solving of this problem; and a younger son must not receive more camels than an older son. Clear?” He dismissed the class early.
On Wednesday, the genius thrust up his hand before Jake even asked. “The answer is fourteen, Dr. Kesten.”
“Ah, you found the June 1992 Scientific American article that discussed the problem.” The genius slowly lowered his hand. “However, it asked how many different solutions, sets of fractions, existed. I asked how many different herd sizes there were. Besides, if you had checked the solutions in the article, you would have found two of them to be incorrect—camel deaths would occur. Even Scientific American makes mistakes. Anyone else?”
No one had the correct answer of nine.
The next week, Jake popped a quiz on us. After class, several students, including the faux genius, went up to him and said they were dropping the class. I wondered if I should have done the same.
The martial arts training was equally painful. He also made me learn the Japanese terms and quizzed me frequently. After one week of his mental and physical torture, my body ached, my brain throbbed, my hair hurt, and my brain cells were ready to strangle each other.
That evening we had dinner at my apartment. Jake did the cooking. Afterward, and after listening to my complaints of the damage he’d done to my body, he assured me, “Working out will improve your sex life.”
“I don’t have a sex life.”
“My point exactly.”
An author doesn’t have to be as smart as his characters. If that were true, a lot of novels would never have been written. The author only has make the character appear intelligent or clever. The reader need never know that the author is “less intelligent” than the character. And, honestly, the reader probably doesn’t care how smart the author is. All he really cares about is the story.