Q&A

How Do I Portray a Smart Character?

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I have a question about writing from characters’ POV (3rd limited) – specifically from very clever characters’ POV. Like Soo-Won from “Akatsuki no Yona” or Lelouch from “Code Geass” – I really like these types of characters, and I want to have similar ones as my main POVs, but I encounter several problems.

One is that my beta readers often tell me that those characters feel too calm or emotionless, and that it’s difficult to sympathize with them because of it.

The other one, since they are clever, most of the time they’ll come up with solutions to problems rather quickly. Since it’s their POV, I feel like I should share their plan with the reader, but then I worry if I can hold tension when it comes to executing it. It’s easy to write them as side characters, since then I don’t have to disclose what they are thinking or what their true motive is, but I can’t hide these things when they’re supposed to be the MC.

Needless to say, visual media such as anime doesn’t have these problems.

So. Do you have any advice on writing such characters? Any tricks to bypass these problems? Or is there no other way but to put this archetype into a secondary role?

-Passerby

Hey there, thanks for writing in!

While I’m not familiar with either Su-Won or Lelouch, I recently went through a number of stories about an earlier example of this trope: Sherlock Holmes. You’re absolutely right that if the POV character figures out the solution to a problem, and you conceal that solution from the reader, it’ll cause problems. The reader will feel lied to and probably find the actual plan unsatisfying. That’s why the Sherlock stories are told from Watson’s POV, so that the good detective can make his clever deduction and then reveal it to the reader at his leisure.

Now, you could always use a Watsonian POV character, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This kind of setup usually makes for a main character who’s a major show-off; otherwise, they would just explain their realization when it comes to them. That kind of character was acceptable in Sherlock’s day, and it can still work on modern TV with a really charismatic actor, but in book form such a character will often come across as arrogant and annoying.

Instead, there are a couple of standard options for writing a smart character without giving away the plot too early:

  • Deny the character the critical piece of information until the moment of realization. They may have figured out that each of the victims was killed by a different kind of blade, but they won’t realize what that means until they see that the villain’s knife can change shape.
    • In this scenario you’ll need to foreshadow that such a weapon is possible, usually by establishing its tech or magic in some other context, like a new wonder-fabric that changes shape to fit any wearer.
  • Give them all the clues, but don’t have them put the clues together until the climax. This is tougher, since it requires clues that aren’t obvious to the reader but make sense when they’re all put together for the first time.
    • In situations like this, it’s helpful to research whatever topics are relevant to the clues. That way, you know what clues can stay in the background but will also make sense when the hero puts them together.

Either way, if the mystery is the main conflict of the story, the protagonist should probably figure it out in the climax. Otherwise, there’s no satisfaction for the reader. You might also find this post helpful: Six Types of Turning Points for Climaxes.

Now, to the issue of making a smart character not seem emotionally distant or detached. In this situation, I think the best advice is to remember that intelligence is not the absence of emotion. While emotions can sometimes lead us down the wrong path, they are critical for decision making. You might have a character who is motivated to find solutions by their anger at injustice or their compassion for the suffering of a close friend. You can also go the other route and have a smart character think past less productive emotions, like when they need to figure out the best way to deflect an oncoming asteroid despite the fear of what happened to their best friend on the original landing party.

Both of these options will help give your character emotional depth. You might also find this article useful: Conveying Character Emotion.

Hope that’s helpful!

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Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    Plus solving the problem doesn’t have to be the climax.
    Figuring out that over across no-man’s land is a bunker just behind the enemy trench and in that bunker is a map with the secret new enemy attack plan sketched out upon it.
    The adventure doesn’t end with that computation. No, instead the adventure is just beginning.

  2. Dave L

    The smart character being emotionless borders on cliche, starting w/ Sherlock Holmes, though Spock is the best-known example. One trick you can do in POV is to have the character ACT emotionless, while feeling and hiding strong emotion

    You might be able to get away w/ hiding things for a line or two

    One trick is to have the character write a letter or a journal, where they can deliberately hide stuff (https://mythcreants.com/blog/a-beginners-guide-to-writing-epistolary/)

    See also http://www.descendantsserial.paradoxomni.net/the-many-faces-of-super-genius/

    • Cay Reet

      A journal or diary might help, but there’s a couple of problems with that, too.

      First of all, epistolary writing is not exactly fashionable at the moment and it might put the reader off. Even Bram Stoker veered off that one with his last novel, “The Lair of the White Worm.”

      In addition, it’s more unlogical that a charcter wouldn’t note clues or information on a plan in a personal journal. Why should they keep that information from themselves, after all? If we’re talking about a file, it might be possible for someone to omit information for their own reason, but a personal journal is usually where people note it all.

      The ‘smart, but emotionless’ character actually gets pretty much on my nerves by now. I can stomach Sherlock Holmes (who is reserved, but not emotionless – in stressful situations, his emotions often come to the top in the stories), but the tendency to show intelligent characters as ‘thinking machines’ is getting annoying, because it has become so common.

  3. Hiéra

    For your issue of the smart character finding solutions too quickly, you can remember that “smart” is a rather broad and vague term. There are a lot of different kinds of “smart”. I will use myself as a very humble example^^. I’m considered smart : I’m an engineer, I have been to a rather prestigious school. I tend to understand things quite quickly, I’m very good at seeing the big picture. Also, I’m rubbish at details. I can’t ever remember specifics, like faces, names, or dates… I’m a software developper that can’t write a line of code without internet and autocompletion, i can’t be bothered to remember syntax. I make tons of small mistakes from inattention, and I can’t stand pressure. I’m “smart” but can be useless in a lot of situations. You can do the same sort of things for your character : make them “smart” but in a more specialized way that leaves room for flaws and errors… Like they totally figured the bad guy plans and they’ve just enough time to stop him… except they forgot the street name of his evil lair ! It’s a bit of a silly example, but I hope you see my point^^.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That is an excellent example, thank you for the input!

      • Richard

        In that vein, speaking of Sherlock Holmes, here’s Watson’s assessment of Holmes’ expertise (from A Study in Scarlet):

        Knowledge of Literature – nil.
        Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
        Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
        Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
        Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
        Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
        Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
        Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
        Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
        Plays the violin well.
        Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
        Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

        It seems he only knew what he needed to know to solve the cases before him. Nothing else.

        • Cay Reet

          That’s actually the point Holmes makes himself in one of the stories, when Watson calls him out on not knowing whether the earth revolves around the sun or the other way around. His brain attic (his memory, his available mental storage) is only filled with what he needs. Everything else, no matter how much society thinks it’s important (such as politics or philosophy) has no place in it. He considers that knowledge clutter which he doesn’t want to store up there.

          He does make an exception for his own interests, though, such as music and art, both areas he doesn’t need to know much about for his work, but enjoys too much to ignore.

          • greg

            I personally think Holmes was messing with Watson when he said he was unfamiliar with the heliocentric model; and his speech about his brain being a tidy attic where only pertinent information was retained.

            For one thing, humans can’t literally delete information or memories in their brain. For another, there are plenty of examples of Holmes pulling out some obscure fact that wouldn’t fit his areas of interest.

            On the other hand, if Holmes were secretly some kind of android or artificial person…

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            It’s also worth pointing out that Holmes’ lack of knowledge in certain areas never seems to hinder him, so it doesn’t come across as a real flaw. Might as well say Iron Man isn’t good at video games.

  4. JanetT

    Another approach is to have the smart character look at all the clues, but misinterpret them, or just reach the WRONG conclusion. Either they’re letting their personal bias influence their thinking (ie; Harry blaming Snape for everything in Sorcerer’s Stone because he disliked him). Or perhaps there’s a crucial piece of information they’re not getting just yet (or are drawing the wrong conclusions from, based on incomplete information). Mysteries do this all the time. It’s only when the final clue DOES fall into place, or the character realizes their interpretation of another character’s motivation has been all wrong…. then they understand the entire situation and can course-correct their plan to deal with that (which makes a great climax point, when their plan looks like it will fail up until the last minute….then finally comes together).

    • Cay Reet

      The problem with that strategy is not to overdo the wrong interpretations. Harry Potter isn’t necessarily defined by his smartness (that’s Hermione’s area of expertise), so he gets away with wrong interpretations.

      But if you have a smart character who is recognized as smart, they shouldn’t regularly interpret things wrong. I agree that it can happen once or twice (being smart isn’t being all-knowing) and, in a mystery story, that can mean not seeing the truth until the last, important clue falls into place. But in the other case (the smart character devising a plan), it definitely won’t work.

      It comes down to the question ‘how often can you be wrong and still be considered smart?’

  5. Alex McGIlvery

    I have a couple of books with brilliant characters. First thing I did is give them a problem which can’t be solved logically. (relationships are great for this). Then there is a price for their smarts. In one case her classmates ostracize her, made worse by the fact she physically looks very young. Later on we find she can’t fit in the regular word because her employers want her to focus on one thing and she wants to learn everything.
    The other book, she needs to learn command, which is not don’t by books and math. She is also a bit to much of a lone wolf, which gets her into trouble now and then.

    Both these characters have a full healthy range of emotions and aren’t (mostly) afraid to show it. Like anything else, make them a person first, figure out where their smarts fit into the plot and away you go.

    • Michael Campbell

      “I have a couple of books with brilliant characters. First thing I did is give them a problem which can’t be solved logically.”
      I recognise that a lot of people hate the Star Trek Animated Series episode:- Magicks Of Megas-Tu, but Spock’s rationality is quite on-the-ball.
      https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0832424/?ref_=ttep_ep8
      Yes the episode has a level of morally questionable choices, but at least Spock is consistent.

  6. Adam Reynolds

    Another thing to consider is to not write a smart character in a manner that feels intelligent but actually causes the reader to feel that the writer is actually less intelligent themselves. Generally this comes down to not considering reasonable counters to their clever idea or the obvious question of why no one has tried this before.

    This post has a nice overview of these sort of issues: https://mythcreants.com/blog/four-questions-to-ask-when-a-character-is-clever/

  7. Passerby

    So many great answers. Thank you all!

  8. Alverant

    One other suggestion is to bring up events in the character’s past. If they call a person for information, have them recognize the character from an earlier case. A person who is well known for their work can be viewed as being smart. You can also give them hobbies that require some intelligence like sabermetrics. Perhaps they have a side job of sports betting or helping to set the odds, something that can be used to complicate the plot later. Maybe they’re an avid reader as well.

  9. Quill

    I may be in the minority here, but I also don’t think that you need to reveal the character’s plan immediately, even if you’re in their head. It’s definitely possible to keep the readers in the dark without frustrating them (though it’s definitely easy to screw it up as well).

    If you want to write the kind of mind games you see in Code Geass, there’ll probably be a point where the MC *has* to outsmart their opponent. My advice for doing that is to choose one (or more) of the below:

    1. Don’t keep them in the dark for long
    2. Reveal bits of information as they become relevant, but don’t describe the plan in its entirety
    3. Avoid anything that emphasizes the missing information

    For example, if you end the chapter with the MC announcing that they have a plan then jump straight into the characters putting this plan into action, the readers get to see the plan unfold in real time before they have a chance to be annoyed over not knowing it.

    Or for a plan that stretches for more time, maybe we know that the MC plans to lure the villain’s army to a specific place, but we don’t know what they plan to do when the army arrives. Parts of the plan start to come together as the MC prepares, but they never actually explain what’s going to happen step-by-step.

    I think that the way to make this work is to make it seem natural to keep these parts out, and to skim over anything that the readers can’t know. “MC explained the plan to the others, and they all agreed that it was their best hope” will go over better than a thousand words of the MC explaining the plan to their friends without actually revealing anything to the readers. And once the plan has been decided, it makes sense that the MC would only think about the parts that are currently relevant.

    Obviously some people might still be annoyed, but that’s writing. You can’t please everybody.

    (Or failing all of this, you could describe the MC’s plan and then have it fall apart immediately.)

    • American Charioteer

      I think you are right that it is doable but difficult to hide from the readers a plan that a viewpoint character knows. It is probably easier to do if there are multiple viewpoint characters.

    • Cay Reet

      It’s a viable stragety, but a very difficult one which can come crashing down on you, if you make the slightest mistake. Keeping the audience willingly in the dark and keeping important information from them is always playing with fire – in most cases, you will burn yourself doing so.

  10. Gwen

    You could also make a character who’s smart enough to figure things out, but doesn’t have the ability to fix solutions themselves.
    For example, one of my characters is a doctor who’s very intelligent and rationally minded, but needs to rely on her teammates to get the job done. whether that be through the tank of the group’s strength, or certain skills possessed by other members like stealth or engineering.
    This plays into her arc as a lone wolf learning to trust, and also adds tension because the team can be surly and generally irritating to one another. Sure, she might have a great plan, but it takes coordination and compromise to make it succeed.

    • Cay Reet

      That idea also works good for heist stories. The mastermind can devise an extremely complicated plan, but it takes a group of specialists to pull through with it.

  11. Bryony

    You can always add in a vital climax element that can’t be solved by intelect – perhaps it needs emotional or interpersonal skills or physical strength. The character could know the solution but be unsure if they are capable of carrying it out. That could be super relatable too.

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