Who is the brains behind the mastermind? Me? (Uh oh!)
It can be intimidating trying to write a character who is smarter than you are. After all, it’s easy to write about a character being fast or strong. You can show that easily enough by feats of physical prowess described in your prose. How do you go about portraying someone with a brilliant mind, even of of the greatest minds, without being their intellectual equal? After all, anything they think up has to come from you, doesn’t it? How can you think of things that someone of your own intellect should be amazed at, without actually possessing the mental faculties of your genius characters?
Easy. You cheat!
Do you think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was as good a detective as Sherlock Holmes, his iconic sleuth? Of course not, and Doyle made no claims that he was. He even hints in his works that he sees himself in the character of Watson, Holmes’s tag-along doctor friend and biographer. How then does he, or you, convince the reader of the character’s superior intellect?
Writing down a litany of clues, cross-referencing them, and painstakingly working out the proper conclusion is admirable. Having a character spout off the answer almost instantly is impressive. The puzzle isn’t something insurmountable my a normal intellect, but genius characters put all the pieces together before anyone else has had a chance to get started. You get bonus points for bewildered or disbelieving onlookers who do their own verification. “By Jove, he’s right!”
Most people are quite knowledgeable on a few subjects, often related to their field of work or a hobby they have a passion for. It takes a genius character to have encyclopedic knowledge on a wide range of topics, especially obscure ones. You, as the writer, can research those obscure topics at leisure and supply them to a character. Having the precise information needed on a topic at hand gives the impression of an all-encompassing breadth of knowledge. The more obscure, the greater the impression it leaves. An in-depth knowledge of Shakespeare marks you as well-educated. Being able to quote from the works of Jippensha Ikku shows that a character has both a wide field of study and an excellent memory (of course, in a Japanese setting, reversing the names might better prove your case).
To show how this works: I googled Japanese literature to find a well-known writer from over a hundred years ago. If I didn’t tell you, would you have been able to tell I wasn’t just exceptionally well-read?
How can any one character be expected to glance at a scene and pick out all the pertinent information from the dross? It would take inhuman powers of both vision and judgment. Lucky us, we wrote all those details and know which are the vital clues. Better yet, you can have another character see the same things and draw different, more obvious, but entirely erroneous conclusions. The better the reader’s opinion of the character in error, the more impressive your genius character will seem.
This isn’t as effective a tool as some, but it combines well with the “Time” advantage. Any layman can make a ballpark estimate that is useful enough to get by. The genius’s offhand estimates and quick calculations come out with great precision (and accuracy, which isn’t the same thing). Star Trek makes good use of this characteristic; how many times do Spock (TOS) or Data (TNG) “correct” someone by adding some decimal places to clarify a calculation that was just made. This is done to develop the genius trait in the eyes of the viewer.
This works if your character lives in the past (or a fictional setting with technology from an earlier historical era). You can feed them information from our modern scientific knowledge to make your genius characters appear to be a visionary, overcoming one of the more difficult-to-cheat characteristics of a genius: creativity. You can have your genius rifle the barrel of his musket, think of using bread mold to treat an infection, or have a working steam engine sitting on his table in 1600 as a curiosity he puttered around with.
This one is a bit trickier to pull off, but like anachronism, is relies on a difference in time period – in this case, the future. Set far enough ahead, no one can say for certain what technologies exist. You can research plausible technologies and allow your character to be the one to finally develop or discover them. Warp drive, sentient AI, room-temperature superconductors. Just be careful not to get into the realm of debunked theories and mis-applied science. If you have aspirations of writing “hard” science fiction, your readers will be watching out for this sort of thing. If you’re planning on lighter sci-fi, by all means, let your genius invent FLT travel.
Conclusions From Thin Air
Well, if there was one thing that Sherlock Holmes was known for, it was taking a seemingly unrelated set of clues and piecing them all together like a savant to assembles a jigsaw puzzle by examining each piece and laying it in place even before the rest of the puzzle takes shape around it. You already know the answers, so you can make the character appear as smart as you like by revealing just how little they needed to go on, or what esoteric knowledge they drew on, to come to their conclusion. The more your reader thinks “wow, there’s no way I could have seen all that,” the better you have separated your genius characters from them, intellectually.
Nothing says “he’s always one step ahead of us” more than actually being one step ahead. This works well for villains and especially well in spy and thriller stories. Being the one who has thought through the problem to the nth degree fails when the genius character has thought of n+1. An elaborate trap turns out to be an ambush, which was just a cover for a smokescreen that disguised a triple-agent’s betrayal. The one who has that whole mess untangled ahead of time wins.
There has also been a rash of “villain lets himself be captured” ploys, in which the villain uses his capture to his advantage (which proves he’s smarter than his adversaries). Khan, Loki, Joker … I’m looking at you guys.
In The End
A believable genius character is a lot of work for writer to portray, but it can make for a truly memorable character.
Don't underestimate hand-waving. If you try to explain something and get it wrong, your readers will feel cheated and won't respect your writing. But leave out the detailed explanation, and so long as it seems reasonable, then fine. In terms of the ideas above, I cringe at the anachronisms one, because it's so easy to make it sound ridiculous. The character is a creature of his/her time. The highly intelligent character can extend the ideas of the time, take the next step, maybe even two or three steps, but not come up with something out of their century. I know it's been done, but for me, as a reader, it always feels like a children's cartoon when the writer has a character do that.
Definitely a good list of ideas--especially anachronisms and quick observations. My son reads a TON of Sherlock Holmes, and he says you never get the skinny on how Sherlock actually comes to many conclusions, so let me add, vaguety as a potential tool. Great post!
Thanks. Maybe we can have a catch-all category for general hand-waving. Magicians do it to get people to believe in their tricks, why can't authors do the same?