Writing Intelligent Characters

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.
* Etc.

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.

15 thoughts on “Writing Intelligent Characters

  1. The problem with trying to make your characters seem (very) intelligent is that often the structure of the story line determines what they think, talk about, ask questions about, do, etc and not do, and in what order.

    Which often involves ignoring some things, such as the scroll that Corn found on his judgement trial/visit at the begining of Book 1 in an unreadable language, while bringing in other seemingly unrelated info/items/actions that set the stage for future plot elements. So the characters can end up seeming not very smart because they do NOT do the things that you would expect them to do.

    So why has not Corin asked anyone about reading that scroll? He could have asked various teachers, although Prof Orden would have been a bad idea, but Prof Vellum might have been able to help him. The most obvious person to ask is Keras, followed by Derek, Sheridan, maybe Elora (probably not a good idea), and finally his brother Tristan now Corin is talking to him. Yet we have (almost) never even seen the scroll mentioned and have no idea even about where Corin is keeping it. I am not sure if Sera even knows about the scroll, perhaps she could help him with it. Even Vanniv might be able to help read it. Other Professors to ask could be Edlyn, Conway, and Teft.

    Another really OBVIOUS person to ask is the Researcher, who was tied to the restricted sections of the Divinatory, but now has a contract with Sera, instead of Mizuchi. So why hasn’t Corin asked any of them for help in reading it? Apparently, it must involve things that you have planned, but are not ready to show your audience (readers).

    So Corin ends up seeming dumb because he ignores something probably important like the scroll in an unfamilar language.

    1. You’ve hit a couple interesting point there – readers may assume that anyone who prioritizes differently than they would isn’t behaving intelligently, or that there is only a single “intelligent” approach to any given situation. I tried to highlight this sort of thing to some degree in Stealing Sorcery by showing varying different solutions to the same scenarios – that’s something I’d like to do more of in the future.

      There’s another layer to that as well – narrators don’t tell the audience everything they’re doing. They pick and choose the things they want a specific audience to know about.

      This is going to be much clearer in the Keras book, where Keras explicitly mentions that he’s not covering certain subjects intentionally. It was intended to be implied with Corin, but I didn’t play up that element of it enough.

      Corin has specific things he focuses on intensely, and he also has certain things he tends to keep to himself. This is true for many of the other characters as well. For example, it’s clear to most readers that Sera wasn’t talking to Keras about Ceris when Corin interrupted them – but Corin doesn’t follow up on that. This may be because he missed the social cues (which is common for him), but it may also be because he just doesn’t like to be intrusive because it’s more trouble than it’s worth to him.

  2. Changing the subject, something is going to need to be done about opening up the Serpent Tower in Vallia fairly soon for judgement visits, or else there will not be very many students available for the next first year class at the school, except for some transfer students who got their attunements elsewhere. While if might be possible to send some of candidates for Judgement in Valia, to another Tower in another country, that would leave almost no source for the attunements which are normally got at the Serpent Tower, and are an important part of the military as well as economy for Valia.

    A remaining possibility would be to start doing a LOT of artificial attunements for those Judgement candidates in Valia, or perhaps Tristan can open up the Judgement Gate, but he will have problems with working around Katashi trying to keep the Tower closed. Or Tenjin gets released somehow as part of a deal involving Tristan and Elora and their friends.

    Perhaps Lady Laura and/or Corin can somehow broker a deal that releases Tenjin in return for Tristan being able to leave the Tower, as well as amnesty for Elora and others for their roles.

    A lot may depend on Feras, in particular, as well as Katashi, and even Selys if they can contact her.

  3. I am quite happy with the series. I was not trying to seem negative in the comments about smart characters, just pointing out how characters could end up seeming not as smart because of the structure of telling the story.

    I expect that in (al)most cases, anything I raise as a concern such as the next year’s first year students and getting their attunements at a closed Valia’s Serpent Tower, is hopefully/probably something that you are planning to address in some way in the future.

    I am really waiting to see what happens in Caelford, since we have not seen it so far and I think that a lot is happening there that is connected to Valia and your story so far.

    Plus I would like to repeat my suggestion: have them visit Marissa’s home farm on their trip to Caelford, most likely on their return trip, it should give us an additional interesting perspective on other parts of their culture, country, and Marissa’s story line/background.

    I am wondering when/if we will see Jaden (the maker of the box), maybe in Caelford as a friend of Keras, and I put her at the top of my list for who might be Tristan’s hidden powerful sponsor.

    I am also hoping we will finally meet Corin’s Mother in the next Book.

    1. Oh, that’s fine – you’re right, that’s absolutely a consequence of the story telling style, too. It’s absolutely true that structure is relevant, if the author is trying to keep some revelations until later, and I’m absolutely guilty about doing that in some cases.

      I appreciate the suggestion about Marissa, but as much as I’d like to explore that at some point, it’s not “on the way” from a geographical standpoint. That’s something that may come up later, though.

      Thanks for the feedback and interest!

  4. Another possibility, which has been mentioned, is to use the Jaden Box to summon her once it gets fully recharged after summoning Katahsi in Book 1. However, if she is busy doing something (probably), possibly far away (maybe, if she is NOT in Caelford or Valia), she may not appreciate being interrupted by being summoned, even if it is by Keras (as well as Corin). The other problem (for Corin), is having something that is linked to her to summon her. This is probably less of a problem for Keras, but it might be an obstacle even for him The other problem is that if they succeed in summoning her, she may very well take the box away from them.

    Since we do not know where Marissa’s home farm is (relative to the school and the trainline to Caelford) we have no way of knowing where it is relative to the trip to Caelford. I do think if is in a rural area, near magical badlands, but that describes most areas outside (and maybe even inside) the borders of the major countries.

  5. By the way, I hope that you have read the paperback series of Books (in the 1970s and 1980s, I think it had about 40 books) from DAW about Dray Prescot (I have used that name as an online and game name (it is my Steam nickname) since 1981 when I was playing Beyond the Stellar Empire, a Play By Mail game from 1981 to1991, since his main home country that he marries the Princess of, was Vallia (with 2 l s not one l). It was a favorite series of mine, similar to the Barsoom Books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and other interplanetary adventure books by Burroughs and other authors).

  6. I know that you have (ought) to be planning something about the closed Serpent Tower and the problem of the inability to get Judgement Attunements for the next first year class at the school, and can even guess at possible courses of action that you might take. But I have no idea what way you will take the story because of them and other possible ways that the problem might be solved.

    Also while I would LIKE to see them pick up some Restricted Attunements (Paladin for Patrick (maybe from Feras or Selys) and Abjuror for Marissa in particular) on their trip to Caelford, I am not sure the storyline will offer the opportunity and justification for them to get them from a Visage and/or Goddess. The really unusual idea of mine would be for Corin to someday get Hierophant for the Goddess Selys (perhaps the first known Hierophant for Her in centuries), or a Visage (maybe Feras or even Katashi (not likely, but not impossible)), which would be another combat support Attunement for Corin.

    I do hope to see them make a long and high Tower climbing trip up Caelford’s Tower, probably with Keras and maybe Celily. I am also hoping that they (not Keras) all (including Cecily) will also make a Judgement Visit to Caelford’s Tower, even though they would be a little weaker than normal for such a Visit (but the Caelford Tower climbing trip might strengthen them for it). Possible Attunements to gain could include Forgemaster for Cecily (to help her make magic items), Biomancer for Corin (for artificial attunements to go with Arbiter and Enchanter), Controller for someone, and maybe some of Caelfords combat attunements or attunements used for technology related items (we do not know yet what many of their attunements are besides the ones I have mentioned already). Corin needs to get Soul Blade, but that is normally available in Dalenos, not Caelford. Perhaps Patrick could get an Attunement that involves Light to go with his magic sword, Bright Reflections, as well as his Elementalist Attunement and its Lightning special ability (his Sword plus Light plus Lightning sounds like a potent combat combination, with Paladin to come someday in the future for him). Which could leave Controller for Sera, which could go well with her Summoner Attunement, in order to take control of dangerous Monsters (although I also want Sera or Patrick to get Sword Master, but that may be from Dalenos as well, but it might be from Caelford. Paladin for Patrick could substitue for Sword Master, leaving Sword Master for Sera.) I think that they need to get someone in their party with Controller and Sera would be a good possibility, with Marissa as an alternate choice if Sera got Sword Master in Caelford.

    An interesting idea would be for Keras to make a Judgement Trip in Caelford as a way to meet the Goddess Selys instead of climbing to the top of ALL the Towers. Although that probably does not fit in with your planned timeline for the Book Series.

    A different interesting idea of mine would be to add Controller on Corin’s forehead next to his Enchanter Mark, assuming that it had Perception on top and Enhancement below it, with sideways links to his Enchanter Mark. Which could give him Chronomancer (Perception and Transference) and Diviner (Enhancement and Mental), and assuming that the diagonal connections are not made since they are opposites (Perception/Mental and Enhancement/Transference). That would give him 3 additional Attunements in the same Attunement Mark (very powerful, if it is possible).

    I also like the idea of adding Biomancer to Corin’s Arbiter Mark, and if it Biomancer has Earth in it, that could give Corin Mender as well. (Biomancer might be Earth and Transference, or maybe Water). They need someone with Water in their party, as well as Earth (Corin or maybe Marissa) and even Metal(Cecily) and Light (Patrick).

    In addition, I have in the past suggested adding Earth to Marissa’s Guardian Mark, to give her Mender and Shaper abilities. Perhaps that could be an Ascended version of Guardian for her.

    Finally, I have pointed out before the interesting idea that Summoner (Sera) is the exact opposite of Shaper (her and Corin’s Father) (I wonder if that has any hidden significance for the future storyline).

  7. It would also be very useful for them to have Shaper in their party, the easiest way (it it works) would be as mentioned above by adding Earth to Marissa’s Guardian Mark which would give her both Mender and Shaper. This is because Marissa is the only party member that presently has Enhancement, so she only needs Earth as well.

    Mender will require Life, which only Corin and Marissa presently have, as well as Earth which either of them might acquire. It would be very useful for their party for both of them to take a healing class in 2nd year, and it would be better if either/both of them had an attachment that specialized in healing, such as Mender and/or Biomancer.

    I somewhat expect Biomancer to be Earth and Transference or Enhancement, but Earth and Water would be useful for healing and to give their party another Element. I have suggested in the past, adding Biomancer to Corin’s Arbiter Mark if that is possible.

    Finally, as mentioned before in other messages, Corin need Soul Blade and Ice (and Spirit but I assume that is in Soul Blade) for his Sword, Selys Tears, probably on his left hand, but that will (probably) have to wait on a visit to Dalenos (perhaps Corin will have to visit Dalenos to meet his Mother). What does Necromancer need besides Soul, could it be added to Soul Blade? Way Farer would be a useful Dalenos Attunement for their party, as well as Metal related Attunements and any other combat related ones (from Dalenos)

    These two messages summarize a lot of my thinking from previous messges. (maybe I ought to try to post them in the other place for discussing your series).

    The biggest objective to all of these ideas combined would be making them too powerful, but they are facing some truely powerful enemies (children of the Golden Tyrant and others plotting against the Visages, particularly those behind Mizuchi’s attack on the school graduation party), and it will still require a LOT of time (the sooner they start the better to get that time) and experience to get strong enough in whatever Attunements they acquire.

    Actually I am hoping that they might acquire two Attunements each on the trip to Caelford, one by a long and high Tower climbing trip (in place of the normal end of first school year trip in a Tower), and a second by a Judgement Visit to Caelford’s Tower. Getting the Attunements now will mean that they can get classes in them in 2nd year of school.

    For the distant to very distant future in the Series, perhaps with help from Jinn, would be Visits to either/both of Edria’s Towers, as well as the Hidden Tower, and ultimately the closed Tower in the center which is where I expect Selys resides. Plus all the tie ins to the artificial attunement project(s).

  8. Thanks for this! It’s great to stumble across it because at the moment I am writing just such a character. This has highlighted some pitfalls I hope to now avoid.

    I always get mad when the narrator tells me a character is a genius & then they go on to demonstrate the opposite. Hopefully I can avoid inflicting such anger on my own audience (of 2).

  9. Biomancer could also be a combination involving Life and something else such as Water or Fire or Air (Transference or Enhancement are already in other Attunements (Arbiter and Guardian) with Life, as well as Earth (Mender), so they are not available). So Life plus something else could also fit in Corin’s Arbiter Mark or as an additional separate Biomancer Mark for Corin.

    We have already been told that there are other healing Attunements that involve Life (from other Towers), but that Mender with Earth is unique in being able to heal bones. So Biomancer could be one of these other healing Attunements.

    Quite possibly Necromancer (Sheridan) is Life and Spirit, although that combination might also be Soul Blade, which is not as likely since Soul Blade might be Spirit and Transference (Derek’s Mark looks like it has Transference in it, just like Corin’s Arbiter Mark).

    We also have to think about how well Manas in different Attunement Marks can work together to duplicate the abilities of another Mark. This came up in a class discussion about Fire in one Mark and Air in a second Mark, on the same person, being able to generate Lightning, the teacher said that it could be done, at least in some cases. We also saw two students combine Fire from one student (Patrick)and Air from another student (Sera) to generate Lightning, on at least one occasion, and was told that two students combining Manas this way was something taught in 2nd year. It also comes up in discussions about Chronomancer (Perception and Transference) for Corin, who wants to be able to move a lot faster in combat.

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