To anyone who doesn’t write this is going to sound profoundly strange, but I’ve loved to write my whole life and sometimes I need to write characters who have powerful intellects, master schemers and magnificent bastards. The problem with that is, I am none of those things. I am not a master strategist, I don’t have a history of warfare or science and I have never had the need to plot to destroy someone’s life but I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it.
Pretty sure. Don’t test me, but still.
Yet somehow, I still have to write all of those things and make them convincing, I have to figure out the plans and plots that are going to unravel. So, here’s my advice on writing brilliant characters despite maybe only being semi brilliant yourself.
Research Research Research
Try not to be wrong. Being wrong will undermine your character’s ability to seem intelligent. I’m not saying you need to be a genius at whatever subject you’re working on but not making obvious mistakes would help. I’ve been dragged out of some of the better stories of my life because a character who’s supposed to be a master got some obvious thing wrong. You don’t need to be an expert, just know your stuff. If you’re writing a master strategist, at least get familiar with some of the classic manoeuvres. If you’re writing a brilliant scientist know something about the field so you don’t end up with a ‘hacking scene’ that involves two people typing on the same keyboard.
Yes, that actually happened.
No, I didn’t ever take those characters seriously again. Shame too, I liked them.
Manage How the World Makes Them Right
This is a bit of a challenge for some writers, including myself. See, you’d think it’d be easy, you can just make their decisions the correct ones, can’t you? Well yes and no. The problem with making your character right, is that you have to make them believably right and to do that you have to determine why they’re right. Is it because they realised something about other characters no one else did? Because they planned for this exact situation? Because they have a secret no one else knows? Have they just read more books or do they have sharper instincts?
The worst thing they can be is right just because they’re a genius. The question is what does that genius mean? What does the fact they’re brilliant mean they can figure out before anyone else? You can make their leaps of logic correct, but there needs to be a clear reason why they made them.
Don’t Make Everything Go Right.
One of the best quotes I heard form a character who I actually believed as a master strategist was ‘being a good strategist doesn’t mean having master plan, it means having a bunch of plans, and fall-back plans, and contingencies. We try things, sometimes they even work.’ One of the most believably intelligent things you can have a character do is respond well when things go wrong. Yes, it’s much easier for your character to have a master plan from the start where everything goes right, but to your smarter readers that’s going to come off as contrived. It can be so much cooler for a reader to watch your character react like a genius than act like one.
Deal With Their Frustrations
This is the part that’s going to seem weird to some people, but characters have a level of autonomy in your head, and yes, sometimes the smarter ones are going to get upset with you. If they planned some master manoeuvre that you just couldn’t figure out they’re going to get annoyed with you, which is going to seem a little strange as the process continues. This might hurt your brain a little in the early stages, but it’s something you’re just going to have to deal with. Like every other annoying little issue remember that this is something you can go back and fix later, so quiet the voices in your head and keep working. Like everything else, you can fix it in editing.
It’s a surreal experience the first time you realise you might not be clever enough to properly write a character that you thought up, but if you know your stuff and are willing to put in the effort, you’ll have them about their dastardly or benevolent brilliance soon enough.
Robert is the author of the Laughing Man Chronicles
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