In the spirit of character design, how does one write a genius character? I’m still learning this skill, so let’s look at a strong example, shall we. Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes is shown to be intelligent by two means that we now see often in media. First, he is shown to be highly observant and second he has high fluid and crystalline intelligence. (I’ll explain these two terms later.)
But first, observation.
Sherlock Holmes is acutely aware of his surroundings to a level of perception most of us would boggle at. We see this and can call this person intelligent because of it. Because he can both observe and more importantly process the level of information he sees around him in everyday life.
Since this is considered a sign of intelligence for a person or a character, it is the opposite of what most of us do in real life. AND the opposite of what we do in writing. In writing, the purpose is to scale the audience’s focus as close as possible on only the most important elements.
A note on observation
I noticed while reading Marcos Mateu-Mestre’s illustration book Framed Ink. The example he used about observation is to consider when talking with someone and we glance briefly at our watch before going back to the conversation. If the person asks us what time it is, we have to check our watch (or phone) again.
We need to check a second time because the first time, we weren’t observing what the time actually was. The only thing we noted was the relationship between now and whenever our next scheduled task was. We were measuring the distance, in time, before we had something else to do. We were not observing what time it actually was in that moment.
This ‘seeing’ only what we’re looking for without ‘observing’ everything is what allows most of us non-genius persons to function without being overwhelmed with useless and irrelevant information. It’s also what stops us from having Sherlock Holmes level observation.
It is one way to differentiate a character we read as being one kind of intelligent. This observational intelligence is of course, not the only type possible and not even the only type of genius, but it a popular characteristic to write to denote intelligence.
Fluid and Crystalline Intelligence
The second easy way to showcase intellect, is in having high fluid and crystalline intelligence.
First, the definitions. These are terms I learned from a psychology class years ago which have stuck with me. They refer to types of intelligence and how it changes as we age. Usually, younger people have more fluid intelligence which shifts to crystalline as we grow older. Fluid intelligence is the ability to learn. To pick up a new skill and to do so rapidly. It is easiest to learn skills when you are younger because of how the brain develops and changes.
As we get older though, we start developing better crystalline intelligence. This can be thought of as a memory bank of everything you’ve learned over the course of your life. This could be a memorization of facts or adapt skillsets.
This is where you have a seasoned mechanic who can tell you every part in every vehicle created. And the tools needed for any job, and absolutely everything about everything involving cars. High crystalline intelligence… (No, I’m not jealous… Okay, just a little)
The younger you are, the easier it is to learn, and the easier it is to make connection between what you learn. With age those connections are stronger and you are less likely to be forgot them.
This is generally how the brain grows and changes.
So coming back to the main topic, how do you write a smart character?
In media, a ‘genius’ is usually someone of any age (but often on the younger side) who has both high fluid and crystalline intelligence. Someone who can learn new skills and apply new information to old knowledge. At the same time, they have the memory of an elephant and can accurately regurgitate information on command about any topic.
(And they somehow always remember the names of everything and how to pronounce it… Am I the only one who has difficulty doing that?)
Of course this kind of person exists, but they are not the only way of showcasing high intelligence. This is just the easiest and most commonly seen in popular writing.
And in media… these are the only types of geniuses
Obviously, Holmes is the character that initially made this depiction of genius the new sexy. And one that is relatively easy to replicate.
It works great for him, but it is time we find new ways to express genius. As with many things in life, I don’t have an answer for this, just questions and a few smithereens of ideas to test. However, it is time for a new collective of writers to start creating answers all their own.