Intelligence in Characters

One of the major problems that I’ve had with writing characters is in their intelligence. How smart are they supposed to be? Then there’s your own intelligence that, in relation to the character’s, becomes a problem.

When you write a character that’s incredibly intelligent, that character needs to be around your intelligence somewhere. This applies even moreso when that character is considered to be an intelligence grade higher than your own. Taking an intelligence as above average who wanted to write a genius character, that person would probably have some difficulty with the character purely because they cannot think on that level; this type of character would be written as if they were equal to or greater than yourself in intellect.

The other issue is writing a character who is stupid. This is a lot easier since all that you would have to do is write their personality out as an intelligence grade lesser than your own. The problem that exists here, and in the higher intelligence, is that you need to make it believable. It’s all very well and good writing a character who’s main dialogue consists of “chicken” but you have to consider whether or not it is believable.

Honestly, I think that this is one of the areas where I fall flat on my face and screw things over when writing for my own characters. Making it believable for the reader is the main problem. If a character is stupid then they will need to act, think, and talk stupid. If a character is intelligent then they will need to act, think, and talk intelligently too.

How do you make a character appear stupid/intelligent? Even when these two grades are out of your own mental reach you have to consider the personality of the character themselves.

Take a look at this: you could be incredibly intelligent/stupid but others may perceive you to be stupid/intelligent. Why is this? It would be down to the actions that you make, the ideas that you voice, and the general reputation that you’ve made over time.

This is exactly what you need for your character – if your character is intelligent for example, you’ll need to think very hard on what it is that they are going to be saying to other people. They say the right things and do the right things at the right moment and their plans are almost always successful. It would help to meta their knowledge to some extent; a character whom is adept at reading the body language or expecting certain actions from other characters would be able to do so. This is aided by the author themselves, who knows what another character is doing or thinking, so that knowledge can be expected by the intelligent one even if the writer cannot actually do this themselves.

The same can be said of stupid characters who wouldn’t so much as expect these things but would be far far less susceptible to such insights. Take Krunk the Orc, who isn’t the sharpest crayon in the shed drawer. He wouldn’t expect Amon the Terrible to trick him into saving the Princess (who just so happened to be a Daemon) for his own benefit even if Amon did anything but tell him his plot. Krunk probably wouldn’t be as talented as the intelligent character but that’s not to say that he doesn’t have a skill or two. Krunk may not respond appropriately to things whereas the intelligent character, such as Amon, may be able to read context and situations perfectly well.

For the intelligence of the characters things are expected of them. Intelligent characters should be the following, and stupid characters should be the opposite:

  • Tricks and plans come to fruition;
  • The character is never or rarely fooled;
  • They would act/react appropriately before their peers;
  • They have a good degree of observational skills;
  • Likewise they would also have a good degree of general psychology;
  • Their knowledge is deep and vast (for this I recommend researching the topic that they are involved in and treating them almost as if they have an encyclopedic knowledge of it);
  • They should be able to be taught or learn quickly; and
  • Be multitalented.

I actually find being talented in multiple skills quite rewarding for the representation of a character’s intellect. My arguement for this would be Sherlock Holmes, who could play the violin, form inductions and deductions, was well versed in all manner of sciences and was rather acquainted with pugilism.

I don’t want you to think that I’m saying that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t intelligent but let’s go through the skill set of Sherlock Holmes.

He has no knowledge of literature and no knowledge of philosophy. The same goes for his knowledge of astronomy. His political knowledge is “feeble”. His knowledge of botany is variable since he knows opium, belladonna and poisons generally but knows nothing of practical gardening. His knowledge of geology is practical but limited (he went so far as to show Watson a mud collection on his trousers, telling him which shades and colours he had gotten in certain parts of London). He has a profound knowledge of chemistry and his knowledge of anatomy is accurate but unsystematic. His knowledge of sensational literature is immense, with Watson describing him as appearing to know every horror perpetrated in the last century. He plays the violin well and of combat he is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman. He also has a good working knowledge of British Law.

All of these things are described by Watson but it shouldn’t be ignored that all of these things set up the reader to know that this is what is expected of Holmes to know. It sets his character up to have certain expectations so that you know, without a doubt, that he’s an intelligent man even though he wanted to remain ignorant of the fact that Earth revolves around Sol (and giving an intelligent arguement as to why he prefers this).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may or may not know everything that Sherlock Holmes would know. He is perfectly able to know what he doesn’t know, as may be the case when something is used as a device to exhibit just how different Holmes’ habits are to the common man (Sol and Earth, for example). This is what Watson is for – Watson is the quintessential everyman who is a tool to reflect on Holmes as a dramatic device (albeit with some skills that set him apart from John Doe in order to justify him as a main character) because he is the narrator. In doing this, Sir Doyle etches out Holmes’ reputation as an intelligence by setting him apart from everyone else, causing him to be a mystery. He is framing him, so to speak, so that when Holmes does something intelligent that the audience expected of him he is perfectly situated to be intelligent and continue to be known as intelligent.

Making Watson the narrator gives any description flavour. Consistently witnessing Holmes’ intelligent declarations through inductions is one thing, but by describing them through Watson’s surprise and remarks on the keen observations allows the reader to become impressed upon them the intelligence of Holmes in comparison to everyone else, who are the average Joes of the day.

This has turned into a Sherlock Holmes essay, hasn’t it?

Then I’d rather hope that you’ve got the gist of what I’ve been saying here. For a character’s intelligence, regardless of what grade it may be, has to be portrayed in their reputation, in their dialogue (and in some cases their thoughts), and in their actions.


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