How to write and develop a “smart” character?


The Strongest
Sep 3, 2015
I had this thought come up when I was watching an anime called Dr. Stone that aired on Adult Swim’s Toonami. The premise is simple: humanity was turned into stones for thousands of years until eventually, two of our main protagonists, Senku and Taiju, awaken from their slumber to bring everyone back again. Senku is an intelligent one, who constantly used scientific terminologies in his conversation daily when talking with other characters. By comparison, Taiju is dumb, but rather have brute strength.

Yet, whenever Senku speaks to other characters, the show double downs on his intellect constantly. Whenever he speaks and other characters is completely unable to understand his statements, Senku must dumb it down to explain the character again—when most of the things he said is usually basic knowledge for anyone with a high school education.

For example, in one scene, when Taiju did not understand Senku’s explanation of why they would need to collect seashells, he stops himself, calls him an idiot and explains it again simpler this time around. Essentially, falling into the whole “um, in English please?” that often-plagued western works whenever an intelligence character say something that most people in high school would know.

So, this brings back to the topic question at hand. How exactly does one write a character that’s supposedly high in intelligence? Is it actually feasible? Can a character be intelligence, or rather, simply good at certain aspects? For example, a character excels in making cars from the ground up, but when it comes to computers and medical devices, his expertise in engineering cars must not help him in this situation. What are the pitfalls that writers do that pushed themselves into a corner in terms of writing, well, smart characters?
"The Problem with Intelligent Characters"​

The problem with intelligent characters as a general concept is that often a writer will simple assume that abnormally high intelligence is all that's needed to make a character interesting. That intelligence as a primary attribute can act as the personality for a main character. This is in comparison to the frequency for main characters to be exceptionally dense or just plain dumb, and focus all of their energy into something other than studies. This primarily fails not because intelligence itself is an unimpressive or unimportant trait, but because it is handled poorly in most cases. This can be potently demonstrated in creative works that have drinking games focused around an intelligent main character. These drinking games generally involve the main character doing one the following actions on a repeated basis: showing off their intelligence in petty or boring ways, their speaking patterns simply being annoying to listen to, saying something cultured that is completely irrelevant to the current subject, speaking about a subject that the audience has no knowledge of or caring for. The increased alcohol-blood ratio for each character's drinking game, the worse the character often is. The common flaw with these characters demonstrate that writers have difficulty writing an intelligent character in an engaging manner.

There are broadly three kinds of intelligent characters. In order of easiest to most difficult to describe:

  1. The intelligent antagonists whose application of knowledge forms the core of the story.
  2. The intelligent side characters who poorly explain scientific concepts to add in exposition to the plot.
  3. The intelligent main characters whose knowledge is their primary attribute for affecting the world around them.

Intelligent antagonists are individuals of incredibly mental ability who oppose the protagonist in their desires. Intelligent antagonists are incredibly common because a protagonist needing to out think a smarter individual is a simple enough plot. These antagonists are especially common for protagonists who are either smart themselves, or incredibly strong. In both cases these protagonists need to beat someone whose intelligence exceeds theirs, challenging them to grow. At their core, an intelligent antagonist will utilize their intelligence to block or thwart the protagonist's attempts at reaching their goal, forming the primary obstacle, and giving the protagonist the goal of overcoming their opponent's intelligence.

Intelligence antagonists are often engaging because they pose this nearly invincible, unsympathetic threat to a commonly sympathetic protagonist. The incredible intelligence of these characters not only acts as an invincible defense for them, but it also tends to make them rather cold personality wise. This creates a hostile force that is both insurmountable and inhumane, the feeling of which is a regular part of life to some people and thus grounds the story in their emotions. Some of the most interesting moments for these characters are when they utilize their intelligence as a weapon, exploiting facts and history already present in the story to defeat or otherwise disable the protagonist in a way that feels organic for the story. It can instill either vigor or dread in an audience to see an antagonist's plan work based off previous knowledge of the story, gripping the audience and making the character more interesting. The same catharsis gained by seeing a protagonist work to triumph over an obstacle can come from an antagonist succeeding by creativity and planning, though perhaps inverted. This same catharsis can then be inverted once more against them, as the audience watches the protagonist beats the antagonist's planning through exploiting new knowledge or out thinking him, which makes it all the richer.

At their worst however, intelligent antagonists are little more than punching bags for protagonists. They will miss glaringly obvious things about the situation that will be turned against them, fail to properly dispose of the protagonist, or at their worst simply act as idiots when the plot calls for it. At their best they are dangerous threats that will destroy a protagonist utilizing things only previously introduced in the story. At worst they will be idiots with college degrees. A good rule of thumb for writing these characters is that any flaw in their plan or lapse in their thinking must have a suitable explanation present in the story. The explanation does not have to be stated, and it can be assumed, but it cannot be missing in it's entirety. A momentary lapse in antagonist thinking without explanation is especially bad if it results in the protagonist getting an effective free win or escape they did not earn.

Intelligent antagonists are often mad scientists or individuals in positions of power, crime bosses, politicians, military leaders, etc. Their intelligence makes them perfect for the position they occupy, their cold personality and often lack of morals means they can exercise all of the resources at their disposal to get their desires or combat the protagonist. Whatever the goal is, the antagonist will plan a way to get it. Though often persons of the sciences, intelligent antagonists are not to be confused with mad scientists. The difference is that an intelligent antagonist acting like an idiot is often a writing flaw, a mad scientist is expected to be an idiot simply because they are mad. The quintessential intelligent antagonists are Lex Luthor and James Moriarty, whose meticulous planning and mental strength gives them an edge over their respective nemesis, and their intelligence is the primary obstacle for the protagonist to beat.

Intelligent side characters are individuals who exist to give a scientific exposition or explanation to the plot. Though the range of what these characters say ranges from flat out wrong to incredibly well researched and valid, they share similar characteristics. The most basic and fleeting of intelligent side characters are characters in a story who serve no purpose other than to give exposition to make a plot more feasible, believable, or simply understandable. While written with a negative connotation, these characters can improve a story. At their worst, they're nearly purposeless or plain unlikable individuals who spout off exposition to justify a plot or scientific inaccuracies. When used well however, they can provide explanations and make a story more believable. An intelligent side character that has personality and existence beyond exposition can be interesting for a protagonist to encounter and talk to, help make sense of confusing parts of the story, and give explanations to events that make the story seem more believable.

Some intelligent side characters exist as a part of the main cast and have a characterization that revolves around their intelligence. Often these characters will be learned scientists, doctors, etc. and their primary social interactions and character arc will be affected by that. Though they will primarily give scientific explanation to the plot, they might have a distinct worldview and character arc. They might struggle to fit into society due to their intelligence, or they might not. They might have trouble finding friends, or they might not. If they are outcasts from society, they are often kept around due to being able to figure out what is happening or analyzing the villain's plan, but then also excluded for pointing out the problems in society. A common thing is that they might be able to work on rather big issues in incredible detail, but then having difficulty recognizing small changes around them.

Most intelligent side characters are generic, forgettable scientists and other such learned individuals, from the entirety of the science officers in Star Trek to any generic learned individual in a medical or action film. Spock is a notable example for being an intelligent side character whose part of the main cast.

Intelligent main characters are protagonists whose defining trait is their mental abilities. The way that they affect the world around them and chase after their desires is through utilizing their mind. Though often persons of science, its not a requirement for be this kind of character. Since these characters utilize their minds, their problems are often either deeply intricate and personal, or large scale and complex, both of which an intelligent mind is suited to solve. Their intelligence can manifest in multiple ways, and will usually be a blend of planning, creative problem solving, and utilizing knowledge. They will either create the solution to their problems or utilize knowledge to make a plan to solve their problems.

Bad intelligent main characters simply talk smart rather than act smart. They will quote the classics and not notice they're walking into a trap. They will be playing 4d chess and pay no attention to the poison in their drink. They will suddenly have the solution to the problem with no build up and then have no idea on how to speak to someone in plain terms. These characters violate show, don't tell. The audience is told they are smart, they are shown that they are in fact idiots, and there is no connection in the story to explain this. In a comedy, an incredibly smart person would solve an advanced math problem without looking up from their task, and then slip on a banana peel simply because they weren't looking. Someone would say something to the effect of "poor ol them, they were so good with books but so bad with anything else." Bad intelligent main characters do not get such situations or remarks in a way that is convincing in the story, and instead of making a joke out of the disconnect it only gets further highlighted. In addition, intelligent main characters often attempt to copy intelligent antagonists for character design and fail at understanding what makes the antagonist engaging. A good intelligent antagonist will observe things closer than other characters and exploit knowledge the audience already has about the story. A bad intelligent antagonist will somehow and rather magically be able to shut down other characters with zero explanation or build up beyond "he's smart" which makes it forced. Bad intelligent main characters will copy bad intelligent antagonists in magically having solutions with zero build up.

There is a subset of intelligent main characters who are extreme examples. These characters gained their intelligence through hard work and utilize it in ways that require significant effort. They will look at a problem and solve it in the most optimal way for the best outcome. They will separate themselves from society for the interests of bettering that society. Their viewpoint will be radically different from their peers because their intelligence grants them the ability to see things on a different scale. They get into conflict with other characters because either the other characters simply cannot see their point of view or flat out oppose their perspective. In addition, they are obsessed with evolution and bettering themselves, constantly striving to evolve their worldview to accept more and more truths about reality. Outcasts from society not because they can't fit in, but because they believe themselves to have become better than it.
Whenever I see 'intelligent' characters in a story, it can either make-or-break it for me. I think people believe that using big words and specific terminology accounts for being smart even though most of these 'smart characters' tend to make the dumbest decisions. This leads me to the start of one of my points.

1. Smart characters making stupid decisions.

This is the biggest glaring issue I see with MANY shows nowadays. There is a character who knows a lot about a certain issue but he died because he went into an enemy base alone. People believe that if a character says a big word or 'really knows' the terminology of the topic, that makes them smart. This is not the case. Being smart doesn't mean you speak with 200 IQ level, it means you are able to take dire situations and apply them reasonably. 

For example, there is a war going on in a story. During a war, it's a matter of life or death, so making rash decisions are not very wise. Say OC 1 is our 'smart character' and OC 2 is our wise character. OC 1 babbles about how he knows all about guns and bombs and ho to build and defuse them. He goes into the enemy base alone and dies because, well, what do you think was going to happen? OC 2, is smart about guns and bombs as well, however, he chooses not to engage with the enemy because they are too powerful and more equipped. He knows that rushing in blindly will only kill himself and those around him. In the end, who is really the smarter character?

2. Big vocabulary =/= 200 IQ

Frankly put, big words do not amount for high intelligence. It's easy to Google for a Thesaurus to enhance your vocabulary, but sometimes it's not the words that make you sound smart, it is how you put them in a sentence.
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