Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Writing a Character Who's Smarter Than You

I was complaining earlier this week about the quaintly embarrassing nature of Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land", but there's one thing that deserves great praise: Jubal Harshaw is one of the only super-smart fictional characters who actually is super-smart.

It's famously hard/impossible to write a character who's smarter than you are. That's why smart characters in Hollywood films always seem more like a regular guy's idea of smart guys. They wear glasses and bluster, or are witheringly arrogant. They produce amazing machines, but never say anything impressive. They signify intelligence - rather than exhibit actual intelligence - because the screenwriter, like the actor reading his lines, probably just stepped away from some LA juice bar or hot yoga class.

It's an interesting question: how do you conjure up a character who's smarter than you? I think it's a matter of using the time advantage. While smart people are smart in real time, writers have the luxury of laboriously building every seemingly effortless insight. Given sufficient time, even a very slow mind can create an impression of snappy quick-wittedness. You just need to be willing to sit drooling at your keyboard, patiently/stubbornly rejecting un-brilliant impulses!

And it finally struck me (because I'm slow!) that that's exactly what’s happening right here: a slightly dim and unremarkable guy investing disproportional time and effort (have you ever seen "The Red Shoes"?) to write way over his own head (and encouraging readers to pull off the same trick by committing more and aiming higher).
I recently heard Larry Storch - the actor who played Corporal Agarn in F-Troop; a legendary comic/entertainer - on Gilbert Gottfried's podcast. Voice-wise, he sounded every one of his 91 years, yet his skills as a mimic are still uncanny. I would love to hear him try to imitate his younger self.

Sometimes it helps to pass stuff through a loop, adding some infinity to the process.

1 comment:

Display Name said...

I'll bet actors, 'specially comedians are more in touch with their younger selves. Much much easier to imagine a stupider character for me. cuz I can have my off days and be pretty damn stupid. Most of my friends play a card game I may have mentioned three or four thousand times called magic the gathering, and several are way smarter than me. I can still kick their asses sometimes though. I love hanging out with smart people. Not everyone does. I know a smart guy who had a really dumb wife and an even dumber best friend. Coincidence? I think not. Been thinking about The Secret because of my three lovely amaryllis. The white one is already blooming and the other two are getting there. I had been thinking about treating myself to some amaryllis bulbs but wasn't sure they were in my budget. I was walking my chichuaha past the dollar store when I saw a FREE sign near the curb. There were free amaryllis all in pots with protective plastic. They were just starting to bud. I rescued them and keep looking at them and murmuring "be careful what you wish for!" and grinning.

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