Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Smarty Pants

by Holly West

I posed this question on Facebook a long time ago but now I want to discuss it here:

Is it possible for writers to create characters smarter than themselves?

The obvious answer seems to be yes. Our job is to create characters of all sorts. Meaner, nicer, fatter, thinner. Characters who are more or less self-confident than we are, funnier or more somber, more charming or dull. Characters who practice completely different professions or engage in hobbies we've never put our own hands to. Since we can research or observe things that are different from our own experience and incorporate them into our characters, why wouldn't we be able to create characters smarter than ourselves?

But I'm here to argue that no, it's not possible.

First, let's define "smart." I'm not necessarily referring to characters who are more educated than we are, or characters who have more "street smarts." These things can be acquired and therefore they can be researched or even experienced for oneself--an author is only limited by the resources available to them. It's definitely possible for an author to manufacture a character who is both book smarter and street smarter than him or herself.

For example, I can create a character who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, teaches at the local university by day, and operates an illicit gambling ring by night. All it takes is some research, some imagination, and some diligent work on my part to write this character, even if I myself only have a bachelor's degree, couldn't tell you jack about Chemistry, and find it difficult to count to 21 at the blackjack table. Doesn't matter.

Note: Yesterday evening, after I'd already written this post, I read this in the introduction to Sue Grafton's recently released short story collection, Kinsey and Me:

What's stimulating about her [Kinsey's] presence in my life is that since she can only know what I know, I have to do a great deal of research and this allows me, in essence, to lead two lives--hers and mine.
In this way, I suppose that our characters can never, under any circumstances, be smarter than us, or know more. But the "smarts" I'm talking about are harder to define. It's the way a person's mind works, the level at which their brain functions. How quick they are to catch on to a concept. My argument is that our characters will always be as limited in their intellectual capacity as we are and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. We can make them Ph.D.s, we can call them geniuses and make them do and say smart things, but they will never be actually smarter than we are. They can know more and do more, but their intellectual capabilities will always be limited by our own.

Knowing this doesn't bother me all that much--in fact it kind of pushes me to explore the boundaries of my own intellect through my characters. And have you ever noticed that your characters are often "dumber" in early drafts than later on, when you're able to re-write them with the smarts they need to be interesting? So many of the characters in my first drafts just don't seem very smart until I finish the story and can go back and make them more clever.

So that's my opinion. Now I'm ready for yours. Is it possible for writers to create characters smarter than themselves?


Dana King said...

Sure it is, but they need help. I bounce plot ideas off The Beloved Spouse all the time when I'm in the outline phase, and she makes suggestions about how a character might figure something out I would not have thought of. Same thing with research. If a real cop--or even another fictional creation--figured something out in a way I might not have, there's no reason my character can't so something similar. To me, this makes him "smarter" than me, as I would not have figured it out on my own, but he did.

Scott Parker said...

Some of my writing, like Dana's, involve asking my wife questions. It's a funny question you pose. When I'm writing, *I* know how it all turns out. Thus, in draft one, I think I might intentionally try to keep the protag in the dark. Perhaps that's my way of making him dumber? It's only in Draft Two and beyond that I realize that a real person would figure out certain things out at certain stages. And, at times, new insights might impel me to realize "He would actually have figured things out way before this point and here's why" when I realize that the character might actually be smarter than I'd ever be in similar circumstances.