Too Intelligent to Write: Ultra-Smart Characters

In fiction we often come across those characters who possess amazing intellects, who can outwit and outthink everyone around them (I’m sure there are such people in the real world….somewhere…). These characters can be either highly enjoyable or incredibly irritating, but are almost always NOT the narrator or main character. I have recently discovered a very good reason why: they are hard to write about.

I’m not alone in discovering this. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character that people now refer to as “the greatest mind that never was.” Sherlock Holmes is famous for his incredible mind, and is without a doubt the star of his series, but Doyle does not tell the story through him. Instead, he drives the story through Holmes’s friend Dr. Watson, who can observe Holmes’s actions and relay them to the reader, leaving the motivation behind the actions for a dialogue at the end of the adventure (Doyle does have Holmes relay a few stories himself at the end of the series, but these he admits expose some of the surprise prematurely). Half the fun in reading Sherlock Holmes is trying to guess just what Holmes is thinking, and Doyle (and many other mystery writers, such as Agatha Christie) capitalize on this by making the narrator a normal person whom the readers can relate to, allowing the Intelligent Character to be shrouded by mystery.

I wondered about this for a while. What would the story be like if seen through the eyes of a highly intelligent person? So I tried my hand at it…and discovered what I’m sure many other writers have: it’s HARD! If the character has excellent observations skills, then the fact that they would notice (and deduce) everything meant introducing new characters took paragraph upon paragraph. Surprises too, took forever to write, because the character had to be smarter than the surprise, or at least, figure it out at once. More explanation to the reader. Following the character’s train of thought was exhausting. The only way I found that I could write with this main character successfully was to write in such a limited fashion that I didn’t delve into anyone’s thoughts, leaving the story up to action and dialogue. This isn’t my best writing style so I gave up after a while, feeling a little defeated but also enlightened.

I may someday go back to that story and try to write it again. I even branched in that direction with some characters in Universe of the Soul (the humacom thought process is intelligent, logical, and otherwise abnormal). But for now my writing talent is not up to the challenge. My ultra-smart characters will just have to endure being secondary characters for a while longer, enlightening and bedeviling my poor main characters throughout whatever mess they’ve gotten into.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nkeda14
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 17:18:49

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you this, but I LOVE your site. Your posts are always so interesting and unique 🙂
    I think you are right though. Seeing the world through the eyes of a genius is difficult. It requires a lot of skill to know what to include, and what to leave out while still conveying the characters over all thought process. My current MC is very intelligent (but luckily not a genius!) I find her a nice challenge to write!


    • Jennifer Mandelas
      Aug 17, 2011 @ 16:21:50

      Thank you so much! I’ve been dabbling with smart characters and characters who are beyond the ordinary, and they can prove a real challenge. But how do you improve your writing without challenging yourself, right?


  2. adrian kyte
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 19:14:03

    Certainly, i find writing ultra-smart characters a huge challenge. It’s easier if they are young(er). Often there is an eccentricity that borders on madness, an obsessiveness about their work. And yes the reader can feel alienated, so it rarely works to only feature that character’s POV.

    There are some writers, such as M john Harrison (in Light), who can write a genius protagonist in quite a sparse way; though this character happens to be a murderous psychopath!


    • Jennifer Mandelas
      Aug 17, 2011 @ 16:25:02

      Insanity can be a lot of fun! Finding out their idiosyncracies can be fun, and sometimes worth the hard work of putting them in ink in a way that other readers can connect with them.


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