This is a post I’ve been thinking about for a while, because I’m not actually a real-world expert in the subject matter. My perspective comes from my experience as a writer and general experience, not any sort of scientific authority – so please take this all with a grain of salt.
Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when I hear a character in fiction described as a “genius” or a “prodigy”, the character doesn’t actually sell that to me.
There are a few main reasons for that.
The principal one, which is talked about fairly regularly, is a trope generally called “Informed Ability”. The audience is simply told this character is intelligent, or given a litany of reasons why they’re intelligent – often including eye-rolling numbers like “he has an IQ of 200!” or perhaps slightly less awkwardly “he’s proficient in 12 languages!”
The problem here is fairly straightforward – it’s easy to tell the audience someone is a genius, but it’s vastly harder to demonstrate it convincingly. When you make a statement about a character’s ability in any subject (intelligence or otherwise), and that ability does not appear to be consistent with how the character actually behaves on the page (or screen, or other medium), that makes the facet of the character we’ve been informed about unconvincing.
There are a number of factors involved in “selling” intelligence to an audience (if that’s your goal), but to me, one of the key factors is just making sure they consider options and scenarios that may be obvious to the reader (or watcher, player, etc.)
For example, in gaming, it’s extremely common to find a character that’s in the process of dying. Maybe they have time for a dying speech, but little else.
I am constantly irritated by how infrequently there’s an option to just feed the dying person a healing potion or cast a healing spell and solve the situation with tools the characters clearly have on-hand.
In gaming, this may be somewhat more understandable in that branching narratives (e.g. being able to determine if a character lives or dies) are resource intensive, and continuity for scenes like that is difficult. There has to be time put into coding for things like checking if the party has the necessary resources, adding the dialogue options, and doing any narrative work to accommodate branching paths in that situation. I would argue that in most cases, you can still explain this problem (“he’s too far gone for healing”) and at least address the subject, though.
In mediums like reading and television, if you want to sell me on a character being intelligent, you’re going to have to have them at least present options like “use the healing potion on the dying guy before he dies”. That’s a low standard, in my opinion, but I what I consider to be failures to reach that standard all the time.
(Notably, this isn’t just true for intelligence. If you tell me that Worf is a master warrior and he loses every fight virtually instantly, I’m not going to believe you. Poor Worf. At least he gets to shine a bit more in Deep Space Nine.)
The problem of informed ability in fiction has been discussed elsewhere in great detail, so I won’t go on about it too much. I do want to address a couple other points that I see more rarely, however.
Contrary to what Dungeons and Dragons might tell us, Intelligence is not a single attribute.
There are numerous different things that could be called “intelligence” by different people. Experts have their own ways of breaking this down, but from a non-expert perspective, I see several categories of intelligence as being both important and distinct from one another.
These include things like:
* Processing speed (e.g. being able to do arithmetic quickly).
* Linguistic flexibility (e.g. clever use of existing language).
* Linguistic learning rate (e..g being able to learn languages quickly).
* General reasoning (ability to parse information and come to a reasonable, if not necessarily accurate, conclusion based on the data available).
* Problem solving (figuring out how to use the tools at your disposal to resolve a problem).
* Short-term memory.
* Long-term memory.
* Verbal social intelligence (being able to parse information from word usage, tone, etc.)
* Non-verbal social intelligence (being able to read non-verbal cues).
* Spacial reasoning.
These are just some examples from off the top of my head.
I’m not listing these because an intelligent character needs to demonstrate all of them – my point is actually quite the opposite.
It is perfectly reasonable for some people to be “intelligent” in some of the discussed categories (or others) and not in all of them. Just because someone is a brilliant physicist doesn’t mean they’re automatically going to be able to learn an alien language quickly – and when people assume that things work like that in a story, I tend to find it frustrating and difficult to believe.
(I can believe that a character is both a physicist and good at learning languages – I can’t believe they’re good at learning languages just because they’re a “genius physicist” and therefore super smart.)
As a result of the above, when reading (or watching, etc.) fiction that purportedly has intelligent characters in it, I tend to prefer to see characters that are strong in a specialty (see: Ocean’s 11) rather than simply hyper intelligent in all areas like your typical Sherlock-esque archetype. Notably, I tend to like balanced group dynamics more in other categories as well, rather than relying on a single exemplar protagonist who is simply good at everything. Having multiple experts play off of each other is, in my opinion, both more realistic and more engaging than simply having someone solve all the problems.
Finally, “intelligent” characters can still make bad decisions, even in their own areas of expertise. This can happen due to any number of factors – maybe they’re acting on bad information, or willingly taking a risk…or maybe they’re just having an off day. That happens to the best of us.
I think the archetype of the “perfect” intelligent character (or perfect warrior, or thief, or anything) can be great – some of those characters are among my favorites. But I also think it’s acceptable (and, at times, more interesting) to write characters that have strengths and weaknesses even in their own areas of expertise.
When I write characters, I like to give them strengths and weaknesses in their own fields. I consider needing to overcome a difficulty to be more compelling than being instantly good at everything. This is an element of personal preference that I don’t expect every other writer to agree with, but I think it’s worth mentioning that this is an option.
For example, Taelien in the War of Broken Mirrors books has a magic sword that he can’t use properly (and that comes with all sorts of disadvantages). And so he trains, he researches, and he searches for solutions. I find that more compelling than simply having a magic weapon, or even just being an excellent fighter – he has something directly related to his skill set that inhibits his ability to perform at his maximum ability.
Corin in Sufficiently Advanced Magic is an even more obvious example, because he’s behind on the school curriculum and he has fears that inhibit his ability to optimally use his magic early on. That’s something he has to work to overcome, and it’s not going to be an instant “fix”. I don’t believe every character problem has to be solved in a single book, and I wouldn’t have found it realistic for Corin to overcome his fears in less than a year.
Anyway, I’ve digressed quite a bit here, but the key takeaways are a few bullet points:
* Demonstrating intelligence is more important than telling the audience a character is intelligent.
* There are different types of intelligence, and some characters can be better at certain types than others.
* Intelligent characters can have weaknesses and make mistakes, even in their areas of expertise.
All of this simply reflects my opinions; other writers may feel differently.
Thanks for reading this little rant – hope you enjoyed it.