Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

The writing process, writing advice, and updates on your work in progress

Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby AnimaDictio » 29 Jul 2010, 20:02

My protagonist is a speech writer and academic. When writing his dialogue, I find myself wanting to use words that my law school professor used to use, words that I probably don't fully understand. His odd way of speaking is a part of his characterization that I'd really rather not give up. My musical-poetic ear tells me when to insert the odd words, but I'm a little concerned that if I use words in the book that I'm generally unfamiliar with, I might inadvertently connote the wrong thing.

Any of you ever have that fear? Do you write characters smarter than you? I'm sure for polymath, that'd be impossible. But the rest of you, what are your solutions?
User avatar
AnimaDictio
 
Posts: 154
Joined: 09 Jun 2010, 22:07

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby Quill » 29 Jul 2010, 20:08

I had to write a character that was wiser than me, namely a particular Indian Chief. My solution was to go to a reservation and meet an Indian Chief and explain what I was doing, and then afterward write what he said. I paraphrased right into the book a lot of what he told me. I also read a lot of background on the tribe and its customs and beliefs. Of course, this Chief was not my main character.
User avatar
Quill
 
Posts: 1058
Joined: 17 Mar 2010, 18:20
Location: Arizona

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby dios4vida » 30 Jul 2010, 08:49

Make sure you have a lot of dictionaries and thesauruses (thesauri??) around. Don't use a word unless you're absolutely, 100% sure you know what it means. A lot of people make the mistake of looking up a word they know in a thesaurus, seeing a word they don't know but sounds cool, and putting it into their novel. Always look up that word to make sure it has the connotations you're looking for.

Another thing, somewhat like Quill's method (which is awesome that you got to do that!) would be to talk to a professor or someone you know that is academic and intellectual. Tell them the basic premise and what you want your character to say and ask them how they would say it. If you have someone like that who can "filter" your words so they better fit, you'll be golden.

Good luck!
Brenda :)

Inspiration isn't about the muse. Inspiration is working until something clicks. ~Brandon Sanderson
User avatar
dios4vida
 
Posts: 1119
Joined: 22 Feb 2010, 14:08
Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby Kat » 30 Jul 2010, 08:58

The same way you write anything. 1) research 2) subject-matter experts.

1) Use a dictionary to make sure you understand every single connotation of the word you're using, and that it's the best word for the job.

2) Have someone you consider a good intellectual match for your character read over the dialogue and tell you if anything leaps out at them as wrong.

One thing I might caution you about -- if your character is a speech writer, as well as an academic, then they'll probably try to avoid any overt "academese" in their speech. Why utilize a more formal word when you can use an ordinary one that means the exact same thing? They'll be used to speaking to a general audience, not just an audience of academics/students, so they'll tailor their dialogue accordingly. Only when they're getting into very specific concepts (e.g. marginalized people or liminal spaces), or speaking to fellow academics, will they revert to academic jargon.

P.S. Another way to make your character sound intellectual-ish, without resorting to jargon, might be in the examples they use to illustrate their points. A character saying, "It was just like this one time on the SImpsons..." will give a much different impression than, "That's just like during the War of the Roses when..."
Kat
 
Posts: 3
Joined: 11 Feb 2010, 20:57

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby Emily J » 30 Jul 2010, 09:25

There have already been some great suggestions.

If I might add one more: the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).

God the OED is great, online it is awesome! A subscription is costly, but campuses and libraries often have access. I don't think I would have survived college without the OED. Don't try to read Robert Frost's "Design" without it! It gives meanings, connotations, and etymologies and at least in my opinion kicks all other dictionaries arses.
Emily J
 
Posts: 250
Joined: 31 Mar 2010, 11:20

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby AnimaDictio » 30 Jul 2010, 11:20

Thanks guys for all your suggestions. You're right on point. I'll proceed accordingly.

Well, except for one thing. Political speech writers don't always speak the way they write. The job is to assume the voice of the speaker for whom you're writing. I am a former speech writer. I know one who speaks like an academic, one who speaks like a very passionate (raving mad) activist, and one who curses like a sailor. I'm just saying.
User avatar
AnimaDictio
 
Posts: 154
Joined: 09 Jun 2010, 22:07

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby Ishta » 30 Jul 2010, 15:12

Great topic! I actually thought you meant something slightly different when I saw the title of this thread. I thought you were going to ask how people plot out stories about characters who are smarter than they are. This is something that I wonder about because sometimes I see novels about "geniuses" who really take me by surprise and I'm always one step behind them, but other times I read novels about supposed "geniuses" and I can see everything they think and do coming way before they think or do it. I hate feeling like I've got one up on an MC who is supposed to be so far ahead of everybody else!

Has anybody here written a genius successfully? How did you do it?
User avatar
Ishta
 
Posts: 167
Joined: 22 Feb 2010, 01:31

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby AnimaDictio » 30 Jul 2010, 15:52

There is nothing new under the sun. I would go for historical ingenious gambits that impress me. Copy from that.
Last edited by AnimaDictio on 31 Jul 2010, 20:00, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
AnimaDictio
 
Posts: 154
Joined: 09 Jun 2010, 22:07

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby angusbearn » 31 Jul 2010, 04:52

Be concise.
angusbearn
 
Posts: 2
Joined: 31 Jul 2010, 04:44

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby johndavid » 31 Jul 2010, 08:06

For what it's worth (hey Buffalo Springfield (I wonder if anyone will get that refrence?)) iTunes has a lot of free lectures on iTune U. They can be kind of dry to listen to but maybe that is what you are looking for? They might help get your characters speech patterns down, they may even have some that relate to what your character would say?
johndavid
 
Posts: 29
Joined: 26 Jul 2010, 20:19

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby ronempress » 31 Jul 2010, 08:52

Ishta wrote:Great topic! I actually thought you meant something slightly different when I saw the title of this thread. I thought you were going to ask how people plot out stories about characters who are smarter than they are. This is something that I wonder about because sometimes I see novels about "geniuses" who really take me by surprise and I'm always one step behind them, but other times I read novels about supposed "geniuses" and I can see everything they think and do coming way before they think or do it. I hate feeling like I've got one up on an MC who is supposed to be so far ahead of everybody else!

Has anybody here written a genius successfully? How did you do it?


Hi, Ishta. This was what I'd expected/hoped for, too. This is a hard one because you're likely to have readers who see farther ahead than others. It's just a fact of life. I can tell you Guy Gavriel Kay pulls this sort of character off well and he does it consistently in his books. One thing you can try doing is demonstrate that your character either is or has considered multiple alternative outcomes. He's played chess with the situation and thought out several moves ahead, if you will. You don't want to do this with each and every decision, of course. Just let the reader know one time that he thinks like that naturally and we'll get the idea and be impressed. Also, you can have the character taking into account issues like, villain's character, how does he think and how must I react to counter actions he'd take based on his probable choices? Just a thought.
ronempress
 
Posts: 3
Joined: 05 Mar 2010, 17:50

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby Emily J » 31 Jul 2010, 10:23

I have a manuscript in which the main character is smarter than me (better SATs scores than me too, curse her!). Although the story is fantasy, there is a significant mystery/detective element. While I would have eventually come to the same conclusions as my MC, she figures things out a lot faster than I ever could have and reacts much faster.

I asked my beta readers if they came to the conclusions faster than my MC, and if they were able to follow her logic. The response was unanimous, they were one step behind the MC but could understand the reasoning, but sometimes not until after she had taken action. I considered this a success. I am sick of reading stories with supposedly genius characters when I have been way ahead of them. But I think it all comes down to pacing, how much information you give to the reader, how long it takes your characters to reach the right conclusion etc etc. I don't like mystery novels in which key elements or clues have been withheld to make the MC SEEM smarter, seem quicker on the uptake.

I think the best way though, to see if your MC is quick enough and smart enough is to get reaction from beta readers. It is hard, being so immersed in your own work, to see how obvious or subtle clues can be. Some things I thought were obvious ended up being the sort of thing readers did not pick up on and vice versa. And of course, everyone reads a little differently so the more beta readers who give you feedback the more you can safely infer how your work/MC are being interpreted.
Emily J
 
Posts: 250
Joined: 31 Mar 2010, 11:20

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby arbraun » 31 Jul 2010, 21:07

Hmm. I'm leery about this subject because of what Stephen King said in On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft about learning your words through reading. Otherwise, also according to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, it's like "dressing up your pet in human clothes." I've learned from critiques never to use a word unless I know what it means by heart. Yes, the reader can tell. I'm all for doing research by going and talking to someone who's just like your character, and I think we've all written characters smarter than us. Yet I think it's because maybe we're smarter than we thought we were.
User avatar
arbraun
 
Posts: 67
Joined: 17 Jul 2010, 19:01
Location: Pekin, Illinois

Re: Writing a Character Who is Smarter Than You

Postby DamH » 02 Aug 2010, 07:55

I researched a thriller set amongst the world's ultra high IQ societies a couple of years ago, and found it incredibly helpful to read through the groups' online forums (there's a good directory at http://www.iqsocieties.com/ ). I also found members very helpful in answering research questions, but whilst that's great for how they see themselves (which may well be something you're after in certain kinds of thriller where readers lap it up) that's not the way to get right inside the way they ACT (show don't tell and all). By spending time looking through their publications, and the way they interact amongst themselves, you soon get a feel for how they present themselves to the world and to others.
DamH
 
Posts: 1
Joined: 02 Aug 2010, 07:48


Return to All Things Writing

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 3 guests

cron