Four Questions to Ask When a Character Is Clever

Tesla didn't invent electricity all on his own, you know.

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.

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  1. Tyson Adams

    These are all great points. I love smart characters, but too often writers don’t really know what a smart character is, or rely on tropes/cliches. Big Bang Theory irks me for their reliance on nerd tropes.

    One point I’d like to raise is the Omnidisciplinarian Scientist. Every time there is a smart character they seem to be omni-knowledgable or just happen to know important things relevant to the plot. No research, no catching up on decades of papers in that field, just happen to know it off the top of their heads. A smart character should be capable of figuring stuff out more easily, but that shortcut is ridiculous – normally to save having extra characters or extending the plot timeline.

  2. Adam Reynolds

    This is also related to what TV Tropes calls the TV Genius, a character that can do all of the things that appear intelligence that don’t require the writer of the story to actually be intelligent. Things like mastery of disparate fields or mastery of a dozen languages. Real intelligence is about seeing the things that others don’t in subtle ways. There is no indication that a problem that stumps a hundred amateurs won’t be solved effortlessly by an expert.

    Another point The Game did well is that Wesley only used the transporters once. Picard immediately locked them down after the first time they were used. Having the opposing characters respond properly is an excellent way to make your characters seem smarter rather than the other way around.

    Another Star Trek example for #4 comes from the new movies. They invent a way to make spaceships obsolete and never develop it. They sort of hand wave a plot solution of having the tech become classified in the sequel, but that can’t last. It’s like saying that the airplane became classified so that characters could still sail around on battleships.

    #2 is the one that usually annoys me the most, especially when it comes to improvised use of technology. A large part of this is based on the WW2 myth that Field Marshall Rommel did exactly this in France in 1940 against British tanks. The truth is that the guns were designed to do this. Otherwise they would never have had proper ammunition for this purpose. Using flak ammo against tanks would be utterly useless. Flak bursts explode and produce shrapnel* while anti tank rounds have hard tips to penetrate the armor on tanks.

    * The distinctive puff, which I should point out produces shrapnel outside of the visible puff. Which means that Falcon in The Winter Soldier would in fact be dead and Hydra would have won.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Ever seen the Deep Space Nine episode where klingon ‘mortar rounds’ are exploding around Jake as he runs though a field? It looks like they’re shooting firecrackers at him.

      • Adam Reynolds

        There is also ‘The Siege of AR-558’ in which a Federation unit is overrun due to the fact that Federation soldiers lack any equivalent to a general purpose machine gun(the sort that has to be mounted). While it is fairly reasonable to not have much in the way of a large mechanized ground army in an era of powerful starships and transporters, not having proper infantry weapons in hard to justify. Especially when even their starships get overrun by enemies like The Borg.

        That bit about mortars is not necessarily that unrealistic if they were light enough. In reality, 60mm mortars have been known to fail to kill people after hitting mere feet away from them. Though one would think that a setting in which they have antimatter weapons they would have more powerful explosives. Not to mention the fact that something heavier than a WW2 vintage light mortar would be expected in a setting like Star Trek. Especially when Kirk actually had one.

  3. Sophie The Jedi Knight

    This is pretty great. I’m writing a TV show right now, and this website has been beyond helpful. In my show, to simplify, there are these kids who, every month (different kids), face two choices: Probable death and the wiping of their memories to give them a new life. Now, the characters I’m writing about will refuse that, but they won’t die (well, not yet). I then realized: Wait. If one group refused, wouldn’t others? It just seemed unrealistic. Thank you so much for the help!

  4. Greg S

    As you mentioned, Star Trek routinely makes the mistake of not getting the ramifications of its own technology. This didn’t really bother me as much in the original series, but it seriously impeded my ability to enjoy NextGen, because they seemed to rely more on technology as a plot solution.

  5. Dvärghundspossen

    Sort of related to this post: A scientist does NOT have a higher number of PhD:s the smarter he/she is. I’ve seen this in Marvel movies, DC TV shows and I’m pretty certain other places too – in order to emphasize how incredibly intelligent a scientist character is, it will be mentioned that he or she has this or that number of PhD:s. But that’s not how Academia works!

    You get a master’s degree, move on to grad school, write your thesis, receive a PhD, and then you CONTINUE with your career! You might have one or two post doc positions, do more research on external funding, or get a tenure track position that eventually leads to a tenured position, or maybe a senior lecturer position. It works slightly differently in different countries, but everywhere, you get your PhD and then you MOVE ON.
    SOME people have TWO PhD:s, because they went back to grad school and did another dissertation in a different area; these are usually people who end up doing pretty interdisciplinary research. But this is rare, and those people are NOT on average any more intelligent or successful than your average scientist or scholar who did one PhD and then moved on, never going back to grad school again. And NO ONE, absolutely NO ONE, has, like, five or seven PhD:s, that’s absolutely ridiculous. IF someone had that, it would mean that the person in question knew a lot about many different fields, but wasn’t a super expert in anything. Not that he/she was, like, the world’s greatest engineer or the world’s greatest physicist or anything.

    • Cay Reet

      Good point.

      If a character knows about a lot of different topics, chances are actually higher that they are not an expert in any of the fields. It takes a long time to become an expert and if you’re flitting between several fields, chances are low you’ll reach that level in one – not to mention all.

      So a renaissance person would rather be someone who dabbles in various sciences at a medium level than an expert at four different ones.

      • Dvärghundspossen

        And it’s just so LAZY. Like, the writers didn’t even bother to, IDK, call someone in Academia and just ask them how the academic world, at its most basic, works. Or even google what it means to get a PhD. They just thought: “Smart people have a PhD, so therefore, a super smart character should have multiple PhD:s”, and ran with it.

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