Character Trait Entry: Intelligent

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.

Love working online and having your favorite description resources in one place? We’ve got you covered. The entries from the Positive Trait Thesaurus book have been integrated into our online library at One Stop For Writers. Now you can search and cross-reference between all our thesaurus collections quickly and easily. Interested in viewing a free sample? Register at One Stop and see all that this intuitive library for writers has to offer.

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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. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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Becca Puglisi
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

Love the suggestions for a twist on the traditional intelligent character.

Jeff King
9 years ago

I love reading your posts… they always enlighten me, and inspire me as well.

I’ll try and remeber this while writing.

9 years ago

Adding Millicent Min, Girl Genius, as a smart character to consider. A great, thought-provoking and very useful post. Thanks!

Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

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
Gail Shepherd
9 years ago

Thank you! My girl genius character is going to be all the better for some of these warnings and tips.

Susan Flett Swiderski
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

I always look forward to the twists! I’d love to see an intelligent character who can’t drive. 🙂 Great work, Becca!

9 years ago

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
9 years ago

Love this one–great job with it Becca. And hello, not overly intelligent? Pu-lease! You rock!


Anne E. Johnson
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

Great tips on developing this in a character. And SP’s suggestion is good too.

SP Sipal
9 years ago

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
9 years ago

Excellent. And what better picture than Hermoine? 🙂 I’d say it’s a bit of both innate intelligence and experiences. How about that? 🙂

9 years ago

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.