Everyone loves a character who solves their problems with brains instead of brawn. We want our characters to figure out the solution to an intractable problem at the most dramatic possible moment! Favorites like Sherlock Holmes, Hermione Granger, even the magical badass Harry Dresden all solve their problems by thinking through them. But if you’re not careful, your solution might come off as cheap or unrealistic. Ask yourself these questions to make sure your characters stay on the right side of the line.
1. What Obstacles Does Your Character Face?
In the Star Trek episode, The Naked Now, Wesley Crusher takes over the ship by recording Picard’s voice and then playing it back to give the computer commands. Trekkies watched that episode with one eyebrow raised in disbelief. No one believed this “clever trick” would actually work. Are there no access codes required to control the ship’s vital systems, no override the adult characters can use to get control back? These obvious but missing obstacles set the stage for all the Wesley hate that was to come.
Think over similar scenarios in your head a few times. Consider what safeguards would be in place to prevent the protagonist from doing what they’re trying to do. How would their enemies stop them? Imagine the actions of each character from their own point of view and not as the creator trying to move the story forward.
In The Game, Wesley again takes on the adult characters with his intelligence, but this time it’s believable. Instead of taking over the ship, he avoids being captured by brainwashed officers. He uses phaser decoys to confuse the internal sensors and emergency transporters to escape pursuit—technology that’s already established. His goal is different as well: he’s buying time rather than taking over the ship.
With The Game, the writers thought about how Wesley would overcome the obstacles before him and created credible ways for him to do so. If that had been our introduction to Wesley’s cleverness, maybe he wouldn’t be so hated.
2. Why Hasn’t Anyone Done This Before?
Think of all the “life hacks” you see on the internet. They promise that your life will be easier or more productive with a simple trick. We all know that if those hacks actually worked as advertised, everyone would use them.*
Apply the same thought process to your character’s clever actions. Remember that they aren’t the only person in your world with a brain.* If something occurs to them, it’s probably occurred to someone else at some point in history. What makes your character able to take advantage of the situation when others couldn’t?
The otherwise excellent Caliban’s War* stumbles in this step. Toward the halfway point, the characters turn their search for a missing child into an appeal for funds. Solar system-wide investigations aren’t cheap, it turns out. In the process, the characters essentially invent crowdfunding. It’s treated as a novelty, as if someone with a worthy cause appealing to the masses is unusual.
That stretches believability past the breaking point. Humanity’s population in this story is past the 35 billion mark, all connected by robust interplanetary networks. Just by the law of averages, many, many people with equally heart-wrenching claims will appeal for help. Since the book was published in 2012, the authors were likely well aware of crowdfunding as a concept. Their desire for the protagonist to do something new and clever overrode what made sense for the story.
You must show what makes your clever character different from all the others who’ve tried the same thing. Ironically, the pieces were all there in Caliban’s War, but the authors didn’t use them properly. Instead of going for novelty, they could have described how the characters’ unusual situation set them apart from others. Not only are they looking for a missing child, but that child’s home colony is dying, thrown into collapse by war. System-wide news networks make her the disaster’s poster child. This boosts her online presence, because no other appeal has that kind of political dimension. When people donate, they’ve giving to the larger conflict, not just one missing person.
3. What Changed to Make This Possible?
Once you’ve figured out why no one else has performed a clever trick, you need to know what makes your character able to do it. “Because they’re awesome” isn’t a good enough answer. Something must have happened to create a new opportunity. Your character’s intelligence manifests when they recognizes that change and take advantage of it.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko and Sokka break into the Fire Nation’s highest security prison so they can bust their friends out. Without context, this might sound unbelievable. If it was so easy that one firebender and one Water Tribe warrior could do it, why are there still any prisoners left inside? However, this time the writers knew what they were doing. Zuko and Sokka sneak in using a hot air balloon, technology that’s only been around for a few months and entirely in Fire Nation hands. As such, the prison isn’t built to defend against them.
If your character is a hacker looking to access Evil Corporation Inc.’s files, have them discover a zero-day bug that bypasses security. They might find it on a black market auction or be friends with the original security programmer. If your kingdom’s merchant class has been recently liberated, then the rebel princess can be the first to overcome ingrained prejudice and approach them for aid in overthrowing her corrupt mother. The trick is for your character to take advantage of something that others haven’t, because it’s rare or restricted.
4. What Consequences Will This Have?
When someone discovers a new, better way to do things, it rarely goes unnoticed. After Apple demonstrated that touchscreen phones were unbelievably profitable, a bunch of other companies jumped on the smartphone bandwagon. Humans are culturally adaptive, which is a fancy way of saying we copy what works. If a blacksmith in your story discovers how to forge a sharper sword, it’s only a matter of time before other weapon makers adopt the same trick.
When you introduce something for a clever character to take advantage of, be it technology or magic, think about how others in the world will use it. If it’s a capitalist society, they’ll try to make money with it. If it’s an authoritarian society, the government will try to use it. If you’re a GM, roleplaying games are a great tool for exploring possible outcomes. Give your players access to something new and see how they run with it. If any of their ideas sound world breaking, make changes.
The scale of consequences depends on the original trick. In the webcomic Schlock Mercenary, one character invents instantaneous teleportation. For a time, this is a nearly godlike advantage. But soon, others figure out how it’s done. It changes everything, revolutionizing travel, commerce, warfare, and just about everything else. For something smaller, a character in your story could wear a foreign outfit to the king’s ball, drawing praise and admiration. Soon, every noble in the court will be clothed in the new fashion.
On the other hand, Star Trek is notorious for having characters solve problems in ways that should change everything but are never addressed. In the episode Call to Arms, Rom invents self-replicating replicators, which should have revolutionized every aspect of the setting, but instead they are used to make a minefield more effective. If anyone without the cultural clout of Star Trek tried that, they’d be laughed out of town.
Solving problems with intelligence and wit is great. In fact, it’s essential. Any character who brute forces through all their problems is boring in the extreme. That said, clever solutions are more involved than just telling the audience a character is smart. You have to make sure they’re credible. Unless you’re a super genius, that takes work, but it’s work that’ll pay off in the long run.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.