Monday, April 12, 2010

How Wise Can Our Characters Be?

Today in my writer's group, I was very impressed by something my friend Sue wrote. It was an excerpt about two young people, a girl in high school and a slightly older boy. What astounded me was that these two characters seemed to have two completely different life experiences, and thus two completely different wisdoms. As I was reading about their interaction, I couldn't believe that both of these characters came from a single writer.

This has been something I've tried to do lately in my own writing. I love the idea of having a wise character, or a really intelligent one, but since I'm not all that wise or intelligent myself, I sometimes feel like it's impossible to write about anyone better than I am in a convincing way. Could I, for example, write about a math genius? Probably not. Yet, I hate the idea that all of my characters must by default be less than or equal to myself in those departments.

Is it possible to write about a character wiser or more intelligent than yourself? If you've done it, how did you manage it?

Note added later: As so often happens, one of the comments made my point far better than I did. I think along with the question of the wisdom of a character being greater than the writer's, I wonder if a writer can write about two different wise people and have them actually be different. Take a look at Judith Mercado's comment.


  1. Was Orson Scott Card a genius? I mean, Ender was a highly intelligent, capable character. Is Ender actually Orson Scott Card, or is Ender, and his intelligence level, purely a work of fiction? I mean, why can't you write about a math genius? Is the character going to be working complex formulas that save the world? Or, is his math ability just a general part of the story? I really think you can write about people more intelligent than you because it's fiction.

    I'm not saying it's easy, just possible.

    I mean, heck, my piano playing skills are very limited, and yet I've written about a character that is a virtuoso.

  2. I mention the following only because I am in the middle of an edit which is trying to capture this. One of my characters is bookish; the other, equally intelligent but anything but bookish. As a way of communicating the awkward formality of the bookish character, I have eliminated most contractions in his speech. The other character uses them lavishly. I mention this only to point out how language itself, not just actions, physical description et al., frame a character.

  3. To a degree, but ultimately our own experience/wisdom/intelligence is the rate limiting factor. Hopefully we're good enough to be convincing, or at least good enough to create the illusion (Enron style, pre-bankruptcy).

  4. You can make characters appear to be wiser than you by using the way other characters react to them. They don't actually have to say anything exceptionally wise, but if they're perceived by the other characters as particularly wise, or intelligent, or musically gifted, or [insert genius here], then the reader will perceive them as such too, right? Right.

    (This was a total guess. I think it's a good one, though.)

  5. Davin, good questions! I don't know if it's possible for me to do that. This is one of the reasons I took on Monarch and a character so unlike me - to see if I could do it. I'm not sure I succeeded very well, but it was worth a shot.

    I think the comments given so far are good. I think our own intelligence comes with limiting factors, but there is also such a thing as research and different lenses with which we present our characters. Convincing our readers is usually always possible - unless, of course, you're trying to convince a math genius reader that your math genius character is 100% genuine. That can present a problem. :)

  6. Ha! I agree with Lady Glamis that a lot depends on your reader. I know doctors who are appalled at the medical dramas on TV because the science is all wrong. But the shows are not targeted at doctors, they're targeted at the general public. So the writers don't need to be doctors, they just need to do enough research to make it believable to the target audience.

  7. I'm sure I've tried to imply intelligence in my characters that is way beyond my own. I can't think up specific examples from my own writing right now, but here are some others:

    Sherlock Holmes is an expert in examining tobacco ash; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle didn't have to be such an expert to create the character that was.

    Hannibal Lector could smell Clarice's per fume (or was it lotion?). Thomas Harris didn't need to be able to do this too, he just had to think up the character with the intellect that could have such a sensitivity to smell, and show it to us.

    In Good Will Hunting, Will Hunter solved a seemingly insolvable math equation, but Ben Affleck and Matt Damon never had to reveal the solution.

  8. Scott, If I had to guess, I'd say the same thing. And, you're right that I think it's just a difficult challenge. I was so impressed by my friend's work, and it seemed like something I'd never be able to do.

    Judith, Your example is right up the alley of what I was getting at. With two intelligent characters, I think it takes a skilled writer to make them seem different without diminishing them. Language is definitely one of the tools we have in our arsenal.

    Bane, er, Enron...good example. :) It does feel like a limit, though, doesn't it? Sometimes, I think I can BS my way out of it, write a character that says enigmatic things that I hope readers will mistake for wisdom greater than my own.

    Simon, I think to an extent you're right. But, I think this approach also runs the risk of having a reader think all of the other characters are dumb too. For me personally, I'd gotten turned off when I'm reading a story where I feel like everyone is being driven by some fundamentally flawed logic. Then I lose respect for everyone. You bring up a really great point about character responses, though. That's something I keep meaning to post about because I think it is a fantastic tool. I wrote a lecture about this for one of my online classes a couple of years ago.

    Michelle, very well said. Although I hadn't been thinking of your character Nick when I wrote this, he's also a great example of someone who is very much outside of the writer (unless you're a spy and just haven't told me yet.)

    Genie, Yes, you're right. I often feel that way when samples are taken to crime labs and weeks of work is done within minutes.

    Rick, those are great examples! Yes, you're absolutely right. I suppose in those cases it comes down to doing the proper research and revealing the research you've done at the right moment. A writer doesn't have to know everything, just those key bits of information that are revealed in the story.

  9. Judith, I think you said what I wanted to say better than I did. I hope you don't mind if I mention your comment in the main post.

  10. I think whether or not a character is 'wise' has more to do with the perception of the other characters than the character themselves. Some of the most effective characters I have read about have an almost contrary combination of extreme vulnerability and strength or 'wisdom'. What they appear to the other characters is not necessarily how they see themselves. Wisdom is a hard thing to gage by more than./less than/equal to. It's usually just different and I'm not sure that it is really a helpful question to ask when developing a character.

    Unless its only a matter of skill like music or math then so long as you do enough research and don't assume your readers know less than you and therefore cheat on the facts (no, I am not a fan of TV drama) it can be done.

  11. Most of my characters are more or less the sum of the parts of me. Some people say I'm a genius, others say, not so much.

    To try and convince a reader one character is smarter than the other one only has to look at who we are. I, for one, can't do math. AT ALL. But my character handles a million dollar restaurant and all that goes with it. And the only reason she does it successfully is because I've been in the business all my life. Just another part of me. Albeit exaggerated.

  12. One of my characters is an RN, one is an architect. I know nothing of either of these careers, but I think they have to both be highly talented and intelligent to accomplish success. Both characters are highly successful.

    I spent a long time researching their professions - the educational degrees needed, types of internships, employment opportunities, what specific mind set and skills they would need, what kind of income they earned.

    Then I adapted my characters to the environment (setting) I needed. I can't tell you the radius of pi or where the ulna is located, but I did create circumstances where they can show off their skills in a realistic situation using laymen terms.

    Especially with the architect. One of his skills needed to be in art, so I frequently had him doodling landscapes (occasional line art portraits); referencing magazine articles that showed models of his proposed buildings (he's partial to skyscrapers) and even some completed structures.

    So, I didn't actually have to know all the technical terms or how to go about submitting/accepting project bids, but I did show that he knew what he was an expert in his field.

    So yeah, I believe you can make your characters more intelligent or gifted than yourself with the proper research. I also talked to some people in these career fields to know what a typical work day looks like to them.

    I think this also goes back to the "write what you know" question. There is always a way to get your story across if you are passionate about the subject matter.


  13. This is an interesting topic, and I think that the answer is going to vary depending on who the reader is, because we'll have different ideas as to what makes someone smart/wise. First, though, I'll agree with everyone who suggests that the best way to show that a character is brilliant at what he does is by showing them being brilliant at it. And it's doubly effective if that brilliance solves a story problem or has some relevance to the plot.

    You can also just have them think through the lens of their expertise. For example, my character Horatio is an astronomer, and he knows a lot about the stars and planets. He's also an astrologer, so he knows a lot of esoterica and uses a complex mathematical system all the time. So I have written passages like this, where he's just idly thinking about stuff:

    "I estimated the aspect between the moon and my father's house, with me at the crux of the angle. Sesqisquare, I thought, or within an orb of ten degrees or so."

    He gets to use his specialized vocabulary and, though it's mostly just smoke and mirrors from me, looks to be able to do complex math in his head. So vocabulary figures highly into this, as it does for all of my characters. Horatio is much smarter than I am, and while I worry that holes in Horatio's reasoning/education will be apparent to readers who are smarter than I am, there's nothing I can do about that so I just don't think about it.

  14. "I hope you don't mind if I mention your comment in the main post."

    Not at all. I'm flattered.

  15. I love what Taryn said about the characters perspective factoring in...I think that is key


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