1. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    Too smart?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by maskedhero, Jul 3, 2013.

    I recently read a book with suggestions on creating characters. One of the suggestions that struck me as rather interesting was an assertion that main characters should not be developed as too smart, since readers wouldn't appreciate, or be able to connect to someone in that position. He brought up Sherlock Holmes as an exception, but then said it worked because his story was delivered through a much simpler filter character.

    This troubled me a bit, since making a main character who is clever doesn't seem like it would be off-putting, but do you suppose this is true? What are some examples of clever main characters that spring to mind? Is stumbling through life, unable to come up with solutions without lots of error the best way to write a character? Would a very knowledgeable person make a better villain in most circumstances?

    This is purely theoretical and for discussion, but I'd love to hear what you all think of characters being too smart for print/readers/publishing.
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't agree with this. Most of my characters are pretty smart. I feel like most of the characters in the stories I read are fairly smart, as well. I'd be irritated reading about a character that was stupid.
     
  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    They both have their value, I think.

    You get novels like Henning Mankell's - his MC Wallander is overweight and diabetic, lonely and really, a loser in life, who's very good with solving crime. He's realistic - far more realistic than Jack Reacher or James Bond - Wallander is human. That makes Wallander special because it's damn hard to portray a truly realistic human in a novel, complete with flaws.

    But then again, think about the smart characters - the really smart ones. Name me one such character who's NOT legendary!

    James Bond
    Inspector Morse
    Sherlock Holmes
    the guy in the series Lie To Me
    House
    L and Light from the anime Death Note
    Jack Reacher

    And since we're talking super smart characters - what it boils down to is that they become near invincible, so let's throw in Superman and Batman as well.

    The Wallander type of character verses the Sherlock Holmes type are two different types of writing - it's geared towards different audiences, is all. People read fiction for a fantasy - we enjoy seeing insanely smart people own the bad guys or the stupid guys. Are these legendary characters particularly realistic? Usually no, and in real life these would be the weirdos of society probably. But are they entertaining? They sure as hell are. Both types of characters take skill to do right. I wouldn't invalidate either one.

    Overall, I disagree with the author of the book you're reading - making someone too smart doesn't mean readers won't be able to relate, if you add other qualities to your character. L from Death Note was ridiculously smart, but the creators added random quirks to him, made him a funny guy, gave him little habits that we can relate to or be amused by, made him say things that reveal something human about him. These things make readers relate. Being smart or not says nothing about whether the reader can actually relate to the character.

    However, if your character is super super smart, it makes it harder to write. You need to know how to build tension and up the odds against your MC, so that when the reveal or solution comes when your MC's finally worked it out, it's got to be worth it. It's got to be a whopping AHA!!!! moment. And that's damn hard to do if your character is really very smart, because you have to construct it in such a way that there's no way the reader can outsmart your supposedly inhumanly smart character.
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Smart doesn't mean that the character doesn't make choices he later regrets or that he can control everything that happens, or even that he knows everything. He can figure things out along with the reader.

    Readers didn't seem to have a problem with Professor Langdon in Dan Brown's books. The DaVinci Code did quite well, and I don't think you can characterize Professor Langdon as anything other than smart. Even in the Fifty Shades books, the characters were smart. They did some strange things, but it wasn't for lack of intelligence.
     
  5. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    All my favourite characters are pretty smart, but audience is a bell curve, where most people fall into 'average' group that isn't too smart. It is relatively easy to alienate them with a book featuring excessive intelligent themes and characters. But, it's a choice we all have to make as writers, are we writing solely for the audience, as a whole, or do we ultimately not care who reads our story, as long as we tell it in the best way we can. There's usually a happy medium between the two.
     
  6. thatblowfish
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    thatblowfish New Member

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    Maybe if you had a character that assumed a certain level of intelligence that'd be an issue, like if the character was referencing like advanced molecular physics or something without explaining what they're on about, that could cause a problem for the reader. I know I wouldn't want to read something that assumed a certain level of expertise from me that I didn't have. This isn't really the same as smart characters, as a character can be smart and still accessible and relatable, so long as their dialogue or thoughts aren't expecting something unrealistic from the reader.
     
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  7. Anthony Martin
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    Anthony Martin Active Member

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    I just wrote to my sister last night that, after about 100 pages of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (Tom Robbins), I want to hate the main character Switters. The narrator (Robbins) writes Switters so goddamn clever that it gets on my nerves at times. I'll give it a chance though because, on the whole, I don't agree with the author of the book you mention.
     
  8. New Konoiche
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    New Konoiche Member

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    I think smart characters are usually better than stupid ones. Yeah, you don't want to overdo it to the point where they aren't relatable anymore, but its a lot more fun to read about/watch someone who at least partially knows what's going on than someone who's completely oblivious.
     
  9. iolair
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    iolair Active Member

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    Interesting characters have good and bad points.

    Sherlock Holmes was driven to distraction by boredom if he didn't have anything to occupy his mind, couldn't get close to people and was a drug addict.
    Bond, while extremely competent, gets into trouble because his ego leads him to overestimate his abilities beyond what even he can achieve.
    Hermione Grainger thinks that she should be able to understand EVERYTHING and gets frustrated and irritable when something eludes her (sounds like me!)

    In fact, in fictional smart characters, harmful levels of arrogance and perfectionism seem very common - in both heroes and villains. Those that don't suffer these problems often have poor social skills.
     
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  10. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    Nothing wrong with a smart character so long as the reader understands what is going on. It's a problem if the author writes over the heads of the readers, as if the character expected the reader to deduce everything, too. That was Watson's purpose - to translate between Holmes and the reader.

    A character is usually more interesting if they are flawed. Overcoming the flaws can be an important thread in the story.
     
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  11. B93
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    B93 Active Member

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    double
     
  12. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Absolutely. Then again, a character who is "too smart" is a natural to be done in by his/her own arrogance.
     
  13. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    EdFromNY is right about this. Anybody who is arrogant will trip up, sooner or later, and fall flat on their hypothetical arse. Being smart isn't the same thing as being invincible, even if the character thinks so!
     
  14. b3av3r
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    b3av3r Member

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    I think being "too smart" is not a problem if the entire person is well-rounded. It would be difficult for a reader to relate to person who is a genius, is physically perfect, has great social skills, etc. I think that kind of character would come off as fake because while everyone has some talents very, very few people if any have all of the talents. Plus, as was seen in the older Superman comics if you have a character who is invincible with God-like abilities/powers it because increasing difficult to create any sort of conflict. This wouldn't happen with a character who is a genius but has arrogance or social difficulties or addictions or whatever weakness you choose to give the character.
     
  15. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I think it's an are they so smart they're not relatable issue. As long as they're relatable it's not an issue. Also tone
    can help, or hamper. If he sounds like a show-off, or a smug know-it-all he'll be irritating.
     
  16. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't find intelligence to be connected to arrogance. Although there are of course, intelligent people who are also arrogant, there are multitudes of stupid people who are as well. Similarly, many intelligent people are not arrogant at all (and of course many non-intelligent people lack arrogance, too.)

    There is the possibility of someone who believes himself to be highly intelligent, possibly more than he is, but that is a form of arrogance, which is not the same as having high intelligence. Believing one is intelligent is not the same as being intelligent, and can often signal the opposite. Truly smart people realize just how much they do not know.
     
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  17. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    Creating a smart person, with some flaws, who isn't arrogant would seem to be similar to pushing a ship through a cluster of icebergs then.

    Questioning your own ability is a hallmark of intelligence, and that might be a path to go down with a smart character.
     
  18. ArnaudB
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    ArnaudB Member

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    I like smart characters, mainly because they can pull insane tricks and also because stupid MC can get really annoying quickly. That say smart isn't the same thing as knowledgeable or erudite. Sherlock Holmes for instances had brains, but it was also his (quite insane) knowledge on histories of crimes and various poisons among other things that help. Hell ever watched Detective Conan? In many episodes what make that "detective" good is that he has knowledge on so many random things that other don't have, which in turns allow him to push the investigation forward.
    Too smart isn't bad as long as you don't have a perfect character, and that the deduction isn't over the top, especially with plots. For instances the MC guessing all his enemies plans and intentions beforehand correctly would be unbelievable, especially if he hasn't made extensive studies on their character, past life, assets, etc...
    It has been said but the real purpose of that 'not too smart' suggestion is that it's really hard to pull a very very smart character successfully, lot of planning and narration management required.
     
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  19. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I usually hear readers gripe about the opposite, that stupid characters drive them nuttier than squirrel crap. But on the other hand, it's kind of embarrassing if the writer sets out to write a smart, clever character, but turns out the writer him/herself isn't the sharpest tool in the shed. This is probably why I don't write super-smart or clever characters, or if I venture to write a scientist (which I have written to the current WIP), I just pick my nerdy brother's brains for advice so as to at least create a facsimile of intelligence and cleverness.

    I can't write wise characters either. I have no substance to add to them, Maybe I'm just too young to have deep wisdom. I find it a little sad (and kind of cute) when young writers set out to write some old wizard who's supposed to have a wealth of experience and wisdom, but the idea kind of falls flat on its face when it doesn't correspond with the character's behavior or wise advice they tend to give to young uns.

    So, as a conclusion, smart characters (or too smart) are great when the author has the writing chops to pull them off credibly. Personally I prefer to read about characters who have street smarts but may lack book smarts. Maybe it's a relatibility thing even though I'm myself pretty educated... *shrug* In the end, no real life person, no matter how smart, is perfect, and imperfections tend to make characters appealing and relatable, so even with a high IQ, a character can be interesting and sympathetic.
     
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  20. iolair
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    iolair Active Member

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    I find it often is in fictional characters.
    Thinking through the bright cookies I know in real life, they're often quite humble - but wouldn't be so interesting to write about as their fictional counterparts.
     
  21. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    As with everything, I think it depends on how you write them. If the character is gratuitously quoting people from literature or history or science, with no real reason for doing so, then yes, they may be arrogant. But if you're showing them as capably thinking things through, figuring things out, sharing relevant knowledge, etc., then they're just smart.

    Perhaps it is dependent on whether the author sets out to portray a character as "smart." In so doing, the character may come off as arrogant. But if the author is just writing the character, kind of assuming he's smart, and he's just able to do things or knows things, then he's not likely to come off that way, unless he's portrayed as arrogant in other ways.
     
  22. Fan7asticMrFox
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    Fan7asticMrFox Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think a character can be super smart and not arrogant. At the end of the day its up to the author to portray the character whichever way they want. Yes there are stereotypes, but it's up to the author to break the mould and come up with a combination that is both original and interesting. I could quite easily imagine a super genius who is timid and shy, because he is deep in his books every moment he gets and this affects his social skills. To me that sounds quite realistic, plus it instantly creates a flaw for the character. And as most people have said, flaws are interesting - no one likes a metaphorically invincible character because it's boring and you know exactly where the plot is heading.

    My advice would be to imagine/write your character into a random scenario seperate from your main story and see how he develops. Play around with his personality, see what you think fits and take it from there.
     
  23. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    Man is there some good information here. The horror of a certain other thread going to hell begins to fall by the wayside...

    I love smart characters. Burn Notice is one of my favorite TV shows and the main characters are all brilliant in their own areas. They certainly have their flaws to make up for it, though. And that's the trick, really. If you're going to write a smart character, they need to be balanced with flaws. I'm not providing anything new there, though.

    Intelligence is only one aspect of a human being. Don't lose perspective of the other aspects and a character shouldn't suffer. What book were you reading? I'm curious of this dubious information...

    I don't like lower-intelligence characters unless they're meant to be humorous (and only in some instances). I can't stand bad sitcoms. They make me squirm. It drives me nuts when they do stupid things or fail to notice things just to set up jokes. On the other hand, intelligent characters, when done right, can teach me things. I've learned a lot of things from Burn Notice and Sherlock, and even from the main character in The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Of course, he's got an unfair advantage in that he's a wizard dealing with the magic community and obviously I don't know anything about an author's made-up reality. lol But he's consistent, has rules, and I get to learn them as they're explained and demonstrated through first-person narration. Lovely experience. Don't go too far, though. Like what thatblowfish said:

    If you're not careful, you could start writing something that looks like a science journal. lol While I enjoy learning, I'm still reading fiction for a story, not for a lesson in advanced molecular physics.
     
  24. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    That's the difference between intelligence and wisdom. :p

    I don't agree with the idea that smart characters are off putting. I also don't think Sherlock Holmes wasn't off putting only because he was "filtered" through John.

    Sherlock is a highly eccentric character. I'd say his difficulty connecting with others makes him more intriguing if anything but certainly not off putting. He is actually one of my favorite fictional characters and yes I am talking about the books. Watson is important because he is a stabilizing force to Sherlock. Sherlock is an addict with a poor grip on reality because it bores him he needed an anchor and Watson is that anchor which makes him very important to Sherlock's character. A lot of highly intelligent people have very low interpersonal intelligence but what may make someone off putting in a social situation doesn't necessarily do the same as a fictional character. Characters who are more closed off and secretive can easily become more interesting just because they are unknown.

    I also want to say intelligence is not a cut and dry thing. There are many different types of intelligence and everyone is impacted in different ways by it.

    Any time someone advises in favor of absolutes in writing I'd suggest to take it with a large grain of salt.
     
  25. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    Fantastic point there! Thank you for bringing it up. I, personally, am really good with writing and words. I would say my intelligence there is somewhere above average. Throw about anything else in front of me, though, and I'll run screaming. A great flaw to balance high intelligence in one area is low intelligence in another area. Like with Sherlock. :)
     

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