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.

Causes: natural predisposition. Disclaimer #2: The debate rages as to whether or not intelligence is a fixed trait, as opposed to one that can change over time. For instance, some would say that the child who is exposed to many experiences has a chance of higher intelligence than a sheltered child, and therefore, experience contributes to intelligence. Others would argue that the innate intelligence is there regardless of experience. I'm clearly not highly intelligent myself, or I'd be able to ferret the truth out of this tangle. For simplicity's sake, I'm sticking with the former argument. Please don't fling flaming bags o' poo at me.

Characters in Literature:  Hermione Granger, Sherlock Holmes, Ender Wiggin (Ender's Game)

Positives: Highly intelligent people have a lot of knowledge, and can therefore offer information when it's needed. Most are also good problem-solvers, which is always helpful in a pinch. Really smart people have a lot of experience researching and therefore are good at getting to the root of things. They aren't often led astray by slant or biased viewpoints. Intelligence is a highly-respected trait, so intelligent people will often be admired and emulated despite their many negative characteristics.

Negatives: Because intelligent people are able to think quickly, they often become frustrated with those who can't keep up. The range of emotions they feel for those less smart can range from impatience to contempt and scorn. Smart people know they're smart; for a person who just wants to fit in, this can lead to negative behaviors such as hiding their intelligence, underachieving, and settling for mediocrity. Intelligent people are often exceptional in a certain area; this can lead to an underdevelopment in other areas, causing an imbalance.

Common Portrayals: computer hackers, nerds and geeks, scientists, mathematicians, doctors, spies, idiot savants, child prodigies, serial killers

Cliches 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
Conflicting Characteristics to make your intelligent character unique or more interesting: adventurous, sweet, angry, athletic, humble, subservient, domestic

17 comments:

tracikenworth said...

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.

Laura Pauling said...

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

SP Sipal said...

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!

Natalie Aguirre said...

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

Pk Hrezo said...

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. ;)

Anne E. Johnson said...

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.

Angela Ackerman said...

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

Angela

Heather said...

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!

Carrie Butler said...

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

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

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.

Gail Shepherd said...

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

Lisa Gail Green said...

Love it! I know it isn't literature, but for some reason I think of Lisa Simpson. Maybe it's the first name...

Stasia said...

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

Jeff King said...

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

I'll try and remeber this while writing.

Lynda R Young said...

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

Brian McKenzie said...

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.

Becca Puglisi said...

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.

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