As writers, we habitually draw from our own experiences to develop and relate to the characters in our stories. If our protagonist needs to learn bravery, we reflect on moments when we managed to overcome fear. If we’re writing romance, we look to our own relationships and the couples around us for examples of how lovestruck men and women might behave. But if one of our characters is supposed to have an IQ that’s much higher than ours, we run into a challenge. Where can we pull inspiration from?
Despite their elusiveness, exceptionally intelligent characters have fascinated audiences for decades. Their unparalleled ability to think critically and far ahead leaves us anxious to see what enigma they’ll solve next and whether their opponents can outwit them. Some of the most memorable villains are terrifying not because they’re evil, ruthless, and strong but because they’re brilliant. Their most powerful weapon is mental, not metal. The same can be said of heroes—Sherlock Holmes has become immortal in fiction and film because no one can get enough of watching him unravel mysteries.
Yet, because these characters have such lofty intellects, portraying them without annoying readers can be tricky. Either the characters come across as unbearably pedantic or competent but not above average. We don’t share their skill sets and specialties, so we struggle to connect with them—which means readers will too.
Fortunately, no matter the situation or genre we’re dealing with, the old adage still applies: show, don’t tell. When we demonstrate that a character is a genius instead of telegraphing it, we step aside so that readers can discover and appreciate who he is. This process can be broken down into three techniques that are universal to every ultra-smart character in the history of literature.
1. Make the Smart Character Consistently Successful
Geniuses may not be psychic, but their deductive reasoning enables them to foresee the future. They anticipate shifts in the plot and adjust accordingly, much like they’re playing a game of chess. If you’re writing a war scene in fantasy or science fiction, your smart character could be a general who is extremely efficient at outmaneuvering the opposing army. In suspense or a thriller, your smart character might repeatedly beat the police at identifying the serial killer’s next victim.
Sherlock Holmes always links subtle clues well before readers—and Watson, his trusty sidekick doctor. When I read Doyle’s classics as a kid, my favorite part came after the culprit had been caught. Between puffs of smoke from his iconic pipe, Holmes would explain how he figured out who committed the crime. Suddenly, all the puzzle pieces I’d missed clicked together, and I’d gape alongside Watson.
As a contrast to Holmes, Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars trilogy uses his superior insight to destroy sectors of the galaxy. Because he’s closely studied each culture’s art, he understands the citizens’ traits and can predict their defense strategies in advance. As long as he holds all of the available information about the heroes, his smaller force is inconsequential. He wins because he’s a master tactician.
Both Holmes and Thrawn hardly ever fail in their areas of expertise, supplying readers with consistent evidence that they’re not ordinary men. Allow your brainiac hero (or villain) to thrive, and he’ll build a reputation inside and outside the boundaries of your story.
2. Describe the Smart Character from Someone Else’s Point of View
As I’m sure you’ll agree, part of the joy of reading is inserting yourself into new experiences through the point-of-view characters. For the duration of the scene or story, your thoughts and emotions subconsciously meld with theirs. Their problems and talents become yours. If you’re inside the mind of a smart character, you’ll hear all of his observations, conclusions, and plans firsthand, making you feel as perceptive as he is. However, if you’re witnessing the smart character’s actions from the perspective of a bystander, the distance will help you retain your amazement.
Doyle chose Dr. Watson as the narrator for all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures. Readers aren’t nearly as astute as the legendary detective—they’re more comparable to the bumbling, oblivious doctor. He serves as a guide for how readers should respond to Holmes. When Watson is stunned, angry, or disappointed, the audience mirrors him. His relatable nature also has a second benefit: readers are more likely to buy into Holmes’ remarkable knack for investigation.
Likewise, Zahn very rarely allows Thrawn to relay events himself. Instead, he assigns that role to Eli, an up-and-coming officer the admiral decides to invest his time and training into. Eli is in constant awe as he accompanies Thrawn on multiple victorious missions, and when he’s impressed, so are readers.
These secondary characters are the intermediaries who make their counterparts more accessible. Because readers can easily imagine themselves being as confused as Watson or as starry-eyed as Eli, the smart characters they interact with seem realistic and human—sometimes even endearing.
3. Give the Smart Character a Fatal Flaw
No one is perfect, and letting a smart character be the exception will ruin his believability. Without a weakness, readers won’t worry about whether he’s going to survive danger or not, because they have no doubts that he will. That turns him into a bore.
As beloved as Sherlock Holmes is, he’s a terrible role model. Often cold and calculating, he lacks empathy, and his relationships with others are tenuous and strained. Plus, he’s addicted to opioid. His enemies would exploit that if possible, sowing distrust and discontentment among his allies.
Zahn went deeper and saddled Grand Admiral Thrawn with two flaws. First, he’s embarrassingly naïve about politics, so he overlooks social cues, and imperial leaders despise him so much that they conspire to terminate him. Second, he neglects to account for variables. As I mentioned earlier, when he possesses all the data, he’s unstoppable. But when he faces the unexpected, he can’t recalibrate fast enough. Spoiler alert: that’s exactly how he’s defeated.
Remember, a person’s IQ doesn’t remove their fallibility. They still have the capacity to make mistakes.
The Game’s Afoot
Crafting a smart character can be a daunting task. The balance between an obnoxious and a fake know-it-all is delicate. But now that you have these three tips in your pocket, try experimenting with each one. You may not need to incorporate all of them. As the author, you’re the best judge of what’s effective for your characters, and every method has room for flexibility. Just don’t be intimidated! Armed with this advice, writing intelligent characters should be “elementary, my dear Watson.”
Joshua Barrera was born in a little town in upstate New York. From an early age, he thoroughly enjoyed imaginative play with his brother, utilizing whatever was around him to create new worlds in which they were the heroes. At around ten years old, he developed an interest in writing those fantasies down and crafting them into stories. Thus began his endeavor to become a writer.
Joshua loves to read (oftentimes narrating out loud for his family!), and some of his favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Zahn. He enjoys writing either fantasy or science fiction, occasionally dabbling in other genres to gain more experience and skill as a writer. Other than reading and writing, his hobbies include entertaining card games, playing musical instruments, and spending time with his wife and three crazy kids.