24 March 2012

How to Write a Character that's Smarter than You Are

One of the most difficult challenges a writer has is writing a character that's smarter than the author. I've read many a book that advised against even attempting it, but I'm going to advise the opposite, because a smart character can be an incredible character.

Take the person of Sherlock Holmes, perhaps the most stereotypically intelligent character in literary history. His powers of deduction (and induction) are legendary, making leaps of intelligence that surprise and delight readers.

Writing a character like Sherlock requires three major advantages: the god's eye view, research, and a time differential.

The God's Eye View
The author has the god's eye view, meaning that you know objectively what's happened and happening in your world because all of its elements are created by you.

This means that you control both the events and their ultimate meaning, and can craft clever situations that seem to resolve themselves one way but which can turn out to resolve in an entirely different manner altogether. Such is virtually the premise of all Sherlock Holmes stories, to craft a situation which stymies the deductive powers of the reader, only to then makes Holmes appear brilliant by making logical inferences which turn out to be correct.

That he can do this seems incredible, and would be incredible for an average person in the real world. But, we should realize that he has help from the author, who, like god passing information to his chosen avatar, subtly helps Sherlock along when he gets stuck and ensure that no Sherlock story results in a deadlock with a missed outcome.

Taking Sherlock as our example again, we have a character who's presented as being incredibly knowledgeable about a multitude of subjects. So much so that he can make extraordinary logical leaps that probably wouldn't occur to others, and actually do so accurately. He is, in a sense, a Renaissance man, learned in various fields, who studies all sorts of knowledge simply for the pleasure of knowing, and the later application of that knowledge as well.

But you, as the writer, writing a smart character like Sherlock, will be the one that ends up doing the actual research to make your character sound like he knows what he's talking about. This can be a rewarding experience if you are personally interested in the topic as well. And, let's be honest, every writer worth their salt will end up doing a good deal of research before they publish a typical story, just as a matter of course. So, it will not be a foreign endeavor to you.

With enough research, you can make any character appear to produce extemporaneous elucidations on any topic at all, an astonishing feat.

Time Differential
But the biggest factor, I believe, is what I call a time differential. And it is the difference between how long your character has to act versus how long you, as the author, have to decide what course your character is going to take. Your character has only a moment or so. But you, as the author, have virtually unlimited time.

So, for instance, you may have a character faced with a particularly difficult situation. So difficult in fact that you have no idea how to get your own character out of that situation.

This is actually a very good place to be, don't give up and change the situation to make it easier, because it means that if you can resolve the problem that you'll come up with a solution that would not be readily thought of, and you'll make your character look like he spontaneously invented an ingenious solution exactly when needed.

When in fact it might take you a month plus some research just to come up with a plausible solution, only to make your character appear to invent it in two shakes of a lamb's tail.

Combining these three techniques, you can in theory write a character of any complexity and intelligence. Although, writing god as a character is still probably beyond anyone :P