Sunday, June 26, 2011

Smarter Than Me

Question: Can an author create a character that is smarter than the writer himself?

Easy answer: Yes.

Writers have a variety of tricks in making their characters seem whip smart. Tricks? you say. Yes. Tricks.

As an example, let’s take one of the most well known bad ass genius characters of all time: Sherlock Holmes. This character is perfect to show how writers cheat.

The Tricks of Sherlock Holmes:

1. Begin with a “conclusion” and then backtrack by adding subtle clues. So while the writer moves backwards, the reader must read forwards. Therefore those tiny hints all seem to add up amazingly to one certain truth.

2. Surround the character with “normal” people. The more befuddled the supporting cast, the smarter the main character appears. There’s a reason Dr. Watson is narrating the stories.

3. Heap on the praise. Writers reinforce the perception of intelligence by making sure numerous characters comment in astonishment just how damn smart that main character is.

4. Carefully select the scope. Writers make their characters “geniuses” in areas of expertise that no one else really excels. Holmes is great at deducing facts from minor clues. Can anyone in the real world be declared an expert in that? Not the majority of us, therefore we merely accept this gift as part of his super intelligence.

5. Confront the character with another “super genius” villain. Holmes has Professor Moriaty. Moriaty is referred to (again and again) as incredibly intelligent (though evil). Using the same tricks to make him seem smart, once Holmes triumphs that makes our hero seem even better than before.


Now, don’t get me wrong. Doyle does an obviously great job at masking all these tricks. There are good reasons Holmes is a classic character. Nothing wrong with that.

But my question relates to a problem I face with E2. In my novel, all of my characters are super intelligent. Therefore that automatically eliminates Cheats #2 and #3 above. I have no super villains, so there goes #5. This is not a mystery where I can drop clues like bread crumbs. Out with #1.

Ah, so now I’m left with #4, which does fit perfectly with my characters. They are math geniuses. Logical whizzes. Linguists. History majors. Astronomers. Navigators. I mean, imagine an 8 year old girl who can calculate immense probabilities for incidents, like chance of impact with an asteroid or chance of all of our reality being only a dream. She can plug in the formula and Poof! out comes the answer. All done in her head.

Yeah, that’s not me.

So, the only real choice I have if I want my novel to be believable is to dazzle the reader with info that he/she won’t completely understand. You know, all smoke and mirrors. Abracadabra!

Fine. But that doesn’t avoid the problem I face: Somehow I have to write like I know what I’m talking about.

Question: Can a author create something that is smarter than he is?

Hard answer: It takes a helluva lotta research and planning and … well, smarts.

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