On Writing & Roleplaying Smart Characters
Many people misunderstand exactly how it is that smart people work. Sometimes they tend to imagine that the answers tend to just come right to them, or that they always get the right answers on the first try.
Sometimes it can seem this way, but the reality is a little different. Fortunately, it's actually a pretty simple concept, so even if you're not a brilliant supergenius, you can at least learn how these people think - which fortunately, isn't too hard or complicated! So, here's a look at how smart people often think, along with a few myths addressed.
How smart people often behave and think.
They pay attention to facts and details. "There's no such thing as useless information" would be a good mantra. They might not remember each and every detail ever, but they will at least pay attention to what's around them - and on top of that, ask themselves what ramifications or implications this information might have.
They compare and cross-reference pieces of information. Mentally cross-referencing bits of information with each other is a way to analyze the world to figure out how it works and to establish what's true and what isn't.
People trying to cross-reference information might ask themselves:
- "How does this compare with what I've seen or heard on this same subject before? Is it consistent, or are there discrepancies?"
- "Does this perhaps relate to something similar that I've heard or seen before? Is the connection meaningful, or might it just be coincidence?"
- "How does what I'm seeing right now compare with similar incidents in the past? Is it happening differently this time? If so, which elements are present, absent, or different that might account for this?"
- "Does this person's claim actually line up with how things really work or how they really are? Or is there a discrepancy here?"
- "Are this person's words and actions in congruence with each other? Or does this person's actions and behavior not actually line up with what this person says?"
They consider potentials and hypotheticals, even if they aren't necessarily important at the moment. When seeing an object or situation, or when coming across new information, they might stop and ask themselves what they might do with it - even if they don't actually need it at the moment. Or they might do the inverse - they might see a potential or hypothetical problem, and ask themselves what they could do about it. Questions they might ask include:
- "What are a few things this could be used for? And is it very practical for that, or is there something else that's more practical?"
- "Could this somehow help me get anything that I want? Is there any way I could use it/take advantage of it?"
- "Is there anything I know of that could possibly help me fix this problem here? Is it actually very practical, or do I know of anything else that might be more practical?"
They use iterative processes to get desired results. It's not always about being able to find a solution that works at first try. Sometimes, it's about coming up with ideas that might work and trying each of them out to see which (if any!) are effective, or are at least partially effective. If it turns out that the results are only partly effective, then the next step is to take those ideas and tweak them a bit to see if better results can be gotten. It's not at all unusual for a process like this to require numerous tries before something truly effective is found. Mythbusters is actually a good example of this - it often takes the team several tries before they can get the result they're after.
They run risk/reward analyses, and optimize plans accordingly. The best plans maximize the reward for potential while minimizing the potential for risk. Thus, those who are smart will try and and ask themselves whether their plans really do this - and if not, what they can do to make them do this. If it turns out to be impossible, then they might just opt for another plan entirely.
Questions that people running risk analyses might ask themselves include:
- "How and where can this go wrong? What can I do to make sure the odds of it going wrong in that way are minimized?"
- In the past, did plans similar to this one actually work, or work efficiently? If it didn't go as desired, why not? What can I do differently to change the outcome?
- "Am I out of my depth here, making it possible that I'm overlooking something? Should I consult with a specialist before making any big decisions?"
Figure out how to get the biggest reward for the least effort. And this includes "brainy" type work. Fiction often shows smart characters crunching through complicated problems and solving them at high speed, but a more realistic approach would be for the character to find a way to cut out as much of that hard work as possible. For example, where a "smart" character in fiction might read through a book at high speed and memorize the whole thing thanks to an eidetic memory, someone in real life might instead scan through the book for the most pertinent and useful information while skimming over anything irrelevant. Or rather than trying to match up pairs of socks from an enormous pile by memorizing where each and every sock is positioned, a smart person might instead sort out the socks into smaller groups of socks (EG, all white socks with colored toes and heels, all blue socks, etc.), and match them from there.
Learn from mistakes and failures. If plans don't work out as hoped, they'll take a careful look at what actually did happen and ask themselves why. Then they'll ask themselves what they could do to prevent these kinds of failures in the future, and try to do that. Likewise, if they see where others have tried something and failed, they might take note and try to work out how and why so they can avoid the same kind of failure themselves.
They avoid making things more complicated than they have to be. Fiction often tries to demonstrate a character's intelligence by having that character orchestrate and carry out some highly complex and convoluted plan. In reality, a truly savvy person is going to recognize that more complication means more opportunity for things to go wrong, and so avoid making things more complicated than necessary.
They use testable predictions and thought experiments to determine what's true or most probable. This is an area where knowledge definitely comes in handy. Here are a few simple examples to demonstrate how this can work:
- "I wonder if Richard baked the cake yet. Now, I know from prior experience that if Richard bakes, I can smell it from here. So, can I smell it? No, I can't. So he must not have baked the cake yet."
- "If Anne came home, the car should be in the garage. Is it in the garage? No. So she didn't come home, unless for some reason she didn't come home in the car. Now how can I find out whether she came home without taking the car, to be sure that she isn't home?"
- "They tell me that the story is perfect and can't be improved - but, is that really true? If it's really as perfect and flawless as they say it is, then I shouldn't find any plotholes, inconsistencies, confusing prose, or grammatical errors. Is that in fact what I find?"
They use Occam's Razor. Occam's Razor is a principle that essentially states that one ought not try to explain a given scenario or phenomena with elements that aren't actually required to explain it, nor are actually in evidence. For example, if one came home and found a potted plant knocked on the floor, it would be more reasonable to suppose that the cat knocked it over, rather than a goblin materialized out of nowhere and knocked it over before vanishing back into nothing again.
They think horses, not zebras. Or in other words, a smart person will first consider a common (if boring) cause behind something, rather than assuming an outlandish, but more exciting one. Before the outlandish cause should be considered, the more common ones should first be ruled out.
They always bear equifinality in mind. Equifinality is a principle that states that the same result or end state can be reached through multiple means. For a simple example, someone wearing a t-shirt with a picture the Space Needle on it might have taken a vacation to Seattle and bought the shirt there, but it's also possible that the wearer bought the shirt second-hand, got it as a gift, or borrowed it from someone else.
They question their own assumptions and suspicions. Rather than just jumping to conclusions and running with then, they'll stop and ask themselves whether there's any actual evidence for what they initially believe or suspect, or whether they're just assuming facts not yet in evidence. They'll ask themselves why they believe or suspect this - is the evidence really there, or are they making too big an inference from too little information, or did they jump to conclusions because they wanted them to be true?
Myths to watch out for.
They never have to study or practice, or only need to study and practice for a tiny fraction of time compared to everyone else. Completely unrealistic! Even naturally gifted people have to study and practice just like anyone else. (And yes, the "use it or lose it" factor applies to them, too.)
They're all snobby know-it-alls. Sure, they can be, but so can anyone. And when you're constantly surrounded by people who brush off what you've worked hard to learn just because they can't personally understand it, it's understandable that you'd get frustrated sometimes!
They remember each and every little detail with perfect accuracy all the time. Nope. Everyone eventually forgets information that they don't make an effort to use or remember. People also don't tend to retain information that they consider irrelevant for very long, and let's face it - the color of the shirt worn by the cashier at the store yesterday is not exactly relevant to most people.
Eidetic memory, or "photographic" memory, can enable people to remember everything perfectly. Eidetic memory is not photographic memory, let alone something that can enable someone to recall something seen with photographic accuracy. As for photographic memory, it's doubtful whether it even exists.
Being smart = being good at math or programming. Sure, a lot of smart people can be good at math and/or programming, but it's not always the case. There are many ways to be smart, and not every smart person is going to necessarily be good at math or programming, let alone have a special talent for it.
Being smart means that the answers just pop into your head. This can happen sometimes, but it's not as common as one might think. If anything, smart people often rely on problem-solving processes that look like flowcharts or checklists.
Most people only use 10% of their brain. Someone who "unlocked" the rest would become a supergenius. This isn't how it works. Humans use all of their brains - maybe not each and every part at the same time, but they use every part at some time.
You might like these pages:
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Competent Tacticians
Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material