Definition: brainy, clever, intellectual. Disclaimer #1: There are other closely-related words (such as clever or knowledgeable), but for simplicity’s sake, this entry will focus on the character who is innately intelligent.
Characters in Literature: Hermione Granger, Sherlock Holmes, Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
Common Portrayals: computer hackers, nerds and geeks, scientists, mathematicians, doctors, spies, idiot savants, child prodigies, serial killers
Clichés to Avoid: the socially-awkward genius, the know-it-all school girl always showing off what she knows, eccentric scientists, the loner computer genius who secretly yearns for a connection with others
Twists on the Traditional Intelligent Character:
▪ Your nerd doesn’t have to be greasy-haired and bespectacled. For a twist, give her an attractive physical attribute–hair, eyes, legs, dimples.
▪ Intelligent characters always seem to be surrounded by those less intelligent. How about pairing up your highly-intelligent character with people who are smarter than her? Talk about your tortured heroes…
▪ Instead of making your genius socially backward, make her deficient in another area where those of even low intelligence excel: driving a car, baking, sticking to a budget, reading
Build a worthy protagonist with a mix of unique strengths that will help him overcome obstacles and achieve meaningful goals.
This sample, along with the rest of the character trait entries, has been expanded into book form. Together, the bestselling NEGATIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER FLAWS and POSITIVE TRAIT THESAURUS: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO CHARACTER ATTRIBUTES contain over 200 traits for you to choose from when creating memorable, compelling characters. Each entry contains possible causes for the trait, as well as positive and negative aspects, traits in supporting characters that may cause conflict, and associated behaviors, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions. For more information on this bestselling book and where it can be found, please visit our bookstore.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Becca Puglisi says
That’s a good point, Brian. The really smart people that I know are very hard on themselves, but they’re still very confident. Your point illustrates that these entries aren’t true for every person all the time, and that looking at each trait from a new angle is what we need to do achieve unique and engaging characters.
Brian McKenzie says
I think this is a very helpful article, but I don’t think that intelligent people are necessarily more confident or find themselves to be more intelligent. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, people that are more knowledgeable people are more likely to recognize mistakes and shortcomings and tend to rate themselves lower in competence than people that are demonstrably less competent.
Lynda R Young says
Love the suggestions for a twist on the traditional intelligent character.
Jeff King says
I love reading your posts… they always enlighten me, and inspire me as well.
I’ll try and remeber this while writing.
Adding Millicent Min, Girl Genius, as a smart character to consider. A great, thought-provoking and very useful post. Thanks!
Lisa Gail Green says
Love it! I know it isn’t literature, but for some reason I think of Lisa Simpson. Maybe it’s the first name…
Gail Shepherd says
Thank you! My girl genius character is going to be all the better for some of these warnings and tips.
Susan Flett Swiderski says
I’ve known several extremely intelligent people who were made more likeable because of their other, shall we say… lapses. Like a brilliant medical doctor who made an all-day Big Deal extravaganza out of changing the spark plugs in his car.(Even made his poor kids watch him!) And a couple of engineers who habitually left their car running when they got to work. Would just lock the door and get out. Got so the security people kept spare keys to their cars.
Carrie Butler says
I always look forward to the twists! I’d love to see an intelligent character who can’t drive. 🙂 Great work, Becca!
Hermione is a perfect example, love it! I like your idea of giving them an attractive attribute to keep them from being clique, and pairing them up with more smart characters. Good stuff!
Angela Ackerman says
Love this one–great job with it Becca. And hello, not overly intelligent? Pu-lease! You rock!
Anne E. Johnson says
Great analysis. Regarding Laura Pauling’s comment, I think many of the great ones (including Hermione) are so fun to read because we watch them gain the experiences that really test their intelligence in meaningful ways for the first time.
Pk Hrezo says
Great food for thought! And I beg to differ… from your writing of this post alone I can tell just how intelligent you are. Don’t sell yourself short. 😉
Natalie Aguirre says
Great tips on developing this in a character. And SP’s suggestion is good too.
SP Sipal says
Great analysis, Becca. And one example of what to do with a brainy character would be what JKR did with Hermione. She gave her a crusading spirit as well, but in her desire to help liberate the house elves, she found she didn’t know everything.
Your list of character traits are just sooooo helpful! Thanks!
Laura Pauling says
Excellent. And what better picture than Hermoine? 🙂 I’d say it’s a bit of both innate intelligence and experiences. How about that? 🙂
A worthy admittance to character traits. I like to take the brainy character and drive them out of their world into new surroundings just to see how they react. It’s always unexpected.