Writing characters that are smarter or more knowledgeable

Pretty much the title. Have you written characters that are far more advanced than you in certain fields or across the board? If so, how did you go about achieving this? If not or not yet, how do you suppose you would? To a certain extent, few characters will align with your personal experiences and knowledge. However, with intelligence and/or areas of study in particular, like say a genius lawyer or forensic scientist, it can be especially difficult to depict them as possessing expertise that you simply do not and that copious research cannot adequately replace. It’s smoother and convenient if you can find someone or several someones who do to review your portrayal of course, but sometimes that isn’t super feasible. So, what is if anything?

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Just a couple thoughts:

  1. At least in my experience, the more knowledgeable characters I’ve seen speak little, but when they do it is of great value. Two things about that, first it makes it easier on the writer as there is less actual dialogue you have to sound smart when writing. Secondly, it makes the character of great value to the MC as a sage/advice giver/wiseman etc.

  2. Don’t go into great lengths about what the character knows. If the situation needs someone who knows calculus, don’t start talking about fundamental theorems or L’ Hospitals rule, just give them the answer.

  3. Let the character show their knowledge through actions. Let them always have a book open, or be lost in thought, or talking to scholars. They don’t always have to be rambling about neuroscience or engineering, just show that somehow someway they are trying to get smarter.

  4. Elevated vocabulary :joy:

The most important thing in my eyes is just not going into every little detail about their expertise. Show rather than tell. Great topic! I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts

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It helps me to watch non-fiction video footage of someone similarly intelligent. There’s as much to realistic portrayal in viewable externals as researching area(s) of expertise: mannerisms, tone of voice, cadence, style of dress, etcetera. (I wouldn’t go with actors portraying fictional characters.)

It merits mentioning that there are different kinds of intelligence (Tiger Woods and Yo Yo Ma are in the genius registry) and they often come at the cost of one another, i.e. brilliant scientists are rarely brilliant orators; spatially intelligent people aren’t always the most imaginative. We’re mortal after all, and everything we do comes at the cost of not doing countless other things. When I’m deeply out of my depth on a subject, I’m careful about the POV–the closer you get to giving the reader actual access to their thoughts, the harder it is to “steal life.” I can clarify if I’m wording any of this poorly.

There are also some things which tend to be universally true of intelligent people regardless of how they are specifically intelligent. Looking into “fluid intelligence” is a good way to nail these down. Jordan Peterson speaks on the subject in an accesible way. Hope something of this helps. Cheers!

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I don’t think anything you said necessarily makes me think you’re in danger of doing this, but I guess as a general PSA from someone with a doctorate: being an expert at one thing does not make you an expert at other things, even things that seem related on the surface. Chem PhDs are not omnidisciplinary scientists. But this goes within subfields too. If you’re portraying a geneticist, they’re probably reasonably well-informed about other biology subfields compared to the average person, but not compared to people who specialize in those other things.

I apologize if this seems obvious, but it’s something I tend to see pop up now and then in portrayals of experts.

Also, I have met some e.g. scientists who are terrible at assessing the logic of arguments. Having a bunch of information and knowing how to design an experiment =/= being able to meaningfully extrapolate on the results. Now of course some people can do both, or might be experts in more than one thing, but they’re all still people. People at the cutting edge of their fields go home to their kids and cats and favorite trash television and perfectly ordinary hobbies just like everyone else. So honestly, unless you happen to be hitting something specific to their expertise, I’d say write them like anyone else.

If you are writing something where their expertise is involved, you might want to lean on who they think their audience is. I sound very different talking about stuff in my field to someone else in the field than I do to a student, or someone not in the field at all. This isn’t me assuming the student or person not in the field is dumb, but I get that they don’t have my background and are unlikely to know the kind of jargon that might be tripping you up trying to write characters of this sort, or do research.

So I would say in a vast majority of cases, as long as you can do enough research to understand the “layperson’s explanation” of something, you can write an expert, because unless they’re talking to another expert, they’re likely to use the layperson’s explanation in presenting information to their audience anyway!

That was meant to be an assurance that this is perfectly doable, heh. I hope it helps a little bit. :slight_smile:

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Indeed. It’s unlikely that if you talk to an expert (a doctor, an engineer, etc.) you’ll be bombarded with, for the lack of the words, technobabble unless you’re specifically asking for something or if they know you have basic grasp on the topic at hand.

Of course, I say “unlikely” because I know my prof would start retelling his past accounts on some projects and start showering the class with new words we never heard before, then.

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The character might be more learned than you in some fields, or might be more clever than you at figuring out solutions to sticky problems, but you have one major advantage: you’re the creator of the character’s universe and are orchestrating everything that happens to them! :slight_smile:
To have a character read as clever or learned, you can have them figure things out more quickly than the other characters when dealing with their area of expertise. You can use them to drop hints to the reader about what might actually be going on. Even if you don’t know all the kinds of things, say, a construction site manager would know, you can figure out how they think, what their priorities are, how they’ll go about solving a problem and how they’ll interact with others.
That said, it is a good idea to stick to areas you’re at least a little familiar with so you can get the characterization somewhere in the ballpark. And it never hurts to do a bit of research into what an expert in whatever it is does all day, maybe read or watch an interview or lecture from a real-life one and take notes on how they speak. If you can find them on social media, see how they speak differently in different contexts.

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I wouldn’t worry too much about that, most readers will be on your Level of knowledge or lower, since you researched the specific field at least a little. The ones that do have more knowledge tend to be forgiving little mistakes or even help you while the game is in Beta.

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If you are unsure how to make it clear to the readers that a character excels in a certain field, one easy way to get this across is simply to have a different character comment on their expertise. For example, they can say, “That guy over there, that’s Mr ___. He’s a genius when it comes to ____. Everyone who knows him says so. It’s incredible what he can do.” (Perhaps with some more natural phrasing, but that is the gist of the idea.) It’s cheating a bit, but this way the reader immediately knows, “That guy is amazing at ____”, without you actually needing to understand his skillset well enough to demonstrate it.

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