Writing genius characters might seem like a daunting task, and it isn’t one to be taken lightly. If you can’t realistically convey the character’s genius, then your readers might not take your story seriously. A character that is impossibly smart isn’t interesting or practical, while a character that doesn’t properly convey how intelligent they are supposed to be isn’t going to have the right effect on your readers. How do you find a balance between those two extremes, and how do you write about a topic that you aren’t an expert in?
Contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to be a genius to write a genius character. There are many simple techniques you can utilize to convey a character’s intelligence, even if they are supposed to be an expert in something you barely understand. All it takes is a little research and clever writing to make your readers trust the brilliance of the character.
Avoid Stereotyping Your Character
The number one tip that I can give you is to avoid any stereotypes. Don’t create a character like Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. A smart person doesn’t have to be socially removed (in fact, most of them tend to have strong connections with other professionals), dorky, or obsessed with dressing well, correcting people, or listening to classical music. Smart people are still unique individuals, so your character should reflect that with unique interests and quirks.
Just like when creating any character, you should not allow any one trait, even the most dominant trait, to represent the entire character. When making an intelligent character, you should strive to make them complex and interesting, or they risk becoming just a trope to move the plot along. If you write a character that acts in a way that people are unfamiliar with just to make a point about their intelligence, then chances are your readers won’t ever connect with them emotionally.
Some common tropes are:
- The nerdy hacker
- The mysterious black-hat hacker
- The arrogant businessman
- The rude professor
- The crazy scientist
- The jaded doctor
- The criminal that’s always “one step ahead”
You get the point. The problem with these characters isn’t that they are inherently overused or to be avoided; the problem is that that short description usually covers the entire character. They are unremarkable and easily forgotten because they simply aren’t interesting or realistic enough.
If you’re making a genius character, start out with their past. How did they become the genius they are today? Were they a child prodigy, or did they work hard to learn what they know? What role did their parents play in their childhood? Did they try to exploit their child’s genius, or pressure them to do better? Is the character passionate about what they do, or did they just want to make money?
You need to think about the ways in which a character’s past influenced their development and use that to add additional aspects to their personality. Maybe they are obsessed with not disappointing people, or they feel quite proud of their accomplishments. Maybe there is something else they always wanted to do instead, like art or music. Meticulously create a character that is going to be lovable and memorable to the readers, even if they will only be in one or two scenes.
Don’t Overcompensate with Vocabulary
As a general rule, do not overdo it with the vocabulary. Most people that use large words do so as a means of overcompensating for a lack of knowledge; they do it to sound smart because they actually lack real intelligence. You will not fool your readers this way.
Instead, try to think about your personal experiences. When was the last time you communicated personally with someone you consider a genius? They could be a professor or scholar, an accomplished entrepreneur, or someone else. In most cases, except for some industry jargon or scientific terms, geniuses are going to speak like normal people.
Being intelligent is not the same as being well-spoken. Some brilliant individuals may stutter or be rather inarticulate. They may refer to objects as “thingies” or “stuff.” Regardless of their area of intelligence or expertise, a genius character is most likely going to have a pretty average vocabulary. Don’t be afraid of keeping their dialogue simple, especially if they can show their intelligence through reasoning and strategy instead.
Finally, people are people, regardless of their level of intelligence, and most people can adjust their behavior depending on their company. A scientist explaining a topic to a rag-tag group of comparatively stupid protagonists will likely explain the topic in language the group will understand, even if that differs from how they would typically communicate with their peers. Being able to explain complex ideas in simple language suggests a much higher contextual awareness than someone who drops a bunch of technical mumbo-jumbo and expects the other characters to understand.
Never Take the Easy Way
It might seem like a good idea to make the genius character seem smarter by reducing the intelligence and awareness of the other characters around them. Do not do this; it will never have the intended effect. Rather than making the genius character seem smarter by comparison, you will just make them appear as a completely average person surrounded by idiots. The conclusions they come to in this kind of scenario are never going to be satisfying to your readers.
Not only does this make the “genius” character seem unremarkable, but you will be compromising all the other characters in the story. Readers aren’t going to be able to take characters seriously if they have the reasoning abilities of children. Instead, work to improve the genius character rather than reducing the others to simpletons.
Know the Different Breeds of Intelligence
There are many different ways that intelligence can be expressed. Saying that a character is simply a “genius” is not specific enough. Additionally, being considered a genius is more about other people’s perceptions and less about an actual quantifiable level of intelligence.
So, when creating a character that you want others to perceive as a genius, you need to decide how they got that reputation. Are they witty? Strategic? Well educated? Are they an expert in a particular field, like psychology, programming, or art? Are they a scholar who has spent decades building up their skills and intellect? Do they just seem to be good at whatever they attempt? Or, are they an empathetic person with a knack for understanding other people’s emotions?
In order to write a genius character, you need to determine exactly what makes them a genius. Not every genius knows everything there is to know about everything. Once you have that decided, it will be easier to manage that character moving forward.
Do Your Research
Sometimes, you just can’t avoid having to learn new things. If it’s really important for a character to display a deep understanding of folklore or something, then you will need to do some research to be able to write about the topic. That might sound daunting, but it’s okay! You have all the time in the world to learn, so don’t feel like you have to rush.
Thankfully, you don’t need to know everything that your character knows. If they show off their knowledge on a particular topic, it can be easy to imply that the character knows more about the topic than what they are immediately talking about. If your genius character is a historian, then don’t bother with trying to understand the whole history of the world. You just need to understand the parts of the topic that are going to be relevant to the story.
When it comes to doing research, there are several ways to go about it. Obviously, you can start with some basic google searches. Look for reputable sites, and try to gather a good overall knowledge of the topic you need to understand. However, once you’ve done some googling, you’re going to need to go deeper. You need to go above and beyond what any other person would bother doing.
For your next steps, consider:
- Consulting an expert on the topic
- Watching documentaries
- Reading scholarly publications
- Taking a class, either online or in-person
There are, of course, other ways of conducting research besides these options. You might also be unable to pursue some of these options, such as taking a class or consulting an expert. In the end, if you just scratch the surface of a topic, you can gather some basic information about it that the average person wouldn’t know.
However, the amount of work you put in needs to be proportionate to how important the story is to you. If your story is something you want to write just for yourself, then some basic knowledge is all you’re going to need. But if you want to get your work published, you need to put in the work and do some in-depth research.
Know the Limits of the Character’s Intelligence
No matter how smart your character is, they can’t know everything. The biggest mistake you could make when writing a genius character is to make them a “jack of all trades.” If your character is a brilliant hacker, then they probably won’t be an expert in marine biology too. Don’t be afraid to show that the character doesn’t know everything. There are limits to everyone’s intelligence.
Being a genius isn’t about knowing everything. No one has ever known everything. If a person is truly intelligent, then they can learn anything they set their mind to. They can pick up skills and retain knowledge easily, but they do not know everything. There is a difference.
When creating a genius character, keep their intellectual limitations in mind. Specialize their knowledge, and make sure to make notes about things they do not know or struggle with. A brilliant psychologist might struggle with math, while a genius composer might struggle with speaking to people. As a bonus, giving characters flaws not only makes them more realistic, it makes them relatable and interesting too.
For some extra help, I wrote more about this here: How to Write Complex Flaws for Characters.
The Intelligent Perspective
When most people use the word “genius,” they are usually referring to a person that exhibits extraordinary reasoning and observational skills. They notice things that other people miss, and they can come up with logical conclusions based on limited evidence. They observe the world differently and can find order in a chaotic situation. Utilizing this intelligent perspective is a great way to establish a genius character.
You’ve probably seen this technique used in cheesy crime shows before, where a detective is able to determine who the killer is based on details the other characters all missed. Although that is a great example of how this technique can go wrong, if utilized correctly it can be an easy way to set a genius character apart from the other characters in your story.
When setting up a scene for your genius character to shine, you have to keep a delicate balance. You will want to leave reasonable clues so that it doesn’t feel forced or unrealistic for the character to come up with a good plan, solution, or explanation. However, you also don’t want to risk making the clues so easy that the readers catch on before the character reveals their thoughts. If the answer is too obvious, your readers are going to be far from impressed.
Make the Character Smarter than Your Readers (And You)
As the writer of the story, you have a trick up your sleeve. You have as much time as you need to learn and research something. You do not have to come up with a brilliant solution on the spot like your characters do. If you need a few days to come up with the perfect solution, then you can set the story aside and take the time you need. Your readers and your characters experience the story as a linear timeline, so they do not have the same benefit of an endless amount of time to think about the situation.
This is a powerful strategy at your disposal. This allows you to grant your characters the ability to come to a conclusion that took you a tremendous amount of time to come up with—and you can have them reach that conclusion in a fraction of the time it took you. It might have taken you weeks of extensive writing, rewriting, brainstorming, and researching, and you can make them spit out the answer like they only thought about it for a few minutes. This makes your character appear to be brilliantly quick-witted, and hopefully allows them to outsmart your readers.
Convince Your Readers that Your Character is a Genius
When writing a genius character, in my experience, it is just better to not ram the fact that they’re smart down your reader’s throats. Show the character’s intelligence, instead of just having the other characters comment on it. It’s much more convincing and satisfying for readers to be awed by the character’s show of intellect, instead of being told ahead of time what to expect. Sure, everyone loves a brilliant old wizard, but I think subverting expectations and showing genius in unexpected ways creates a far more interesting character dynamic.
This last tip is especially helpful if you’re dealing with fantasy stories. If you created the world that the characters live in, including the lore, the creatures, the geography, and the history, then you know everything there is to know about the world. If you write a character that knows everything that you know about the world, then they know everything. Having a character be an expert in a topic that doesn’t exist outside of their story effectively removes all the limitations you would have if you were writing about a real topic you don’t completely understand.
When it comes to writing genius characters, you don’t have to be a genius yourself to pull it off. You just need to have a good strategy, and you need to be willing to put in the work that it requires.
Best of luck with your stories!