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The Challenge of Writing Genius

Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, March 7, 2020
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Everyone loves a genius! The character that has the answers, or makes the deductions, or solves the puzzles for the team. The guy (or gal) that will have a gift for noticing what nobody else does, sees the connections that elude everyone else. Even in stories that aren't of the fantasy genre, such a character seems magical.

Even when they are annoying or downright obnoxious, they are often highlights in the story's cast, if nothing else because we know they will come up with a way to get the rest of the team out of a rut.

However, writing a genius might be challenging for the creator because they may threaten the ever-so-precious suspension of disbelief for the audience. That can happen if the genius character is a little too brilliant. If the genius character seems to have a cheat sheet for the story's plot, if he/she seems to get the answers by pulling them out of thin air or getting one too many ‘lucky guesses’ or ‘gut instincts’, then suspension of disbelief might collapse.

That's why writing a character like, say, Sherlock Holmes can be so tricky. In the two latest (and most famous) iterations of the character, one by BBC with Benedict Cumberbach and one on the other side of the pond with Robert Downey Jr., that can be a bit apparent. Though in both versions Sherlock has an insane level of accurate guesses when puzzling out a mystery, Downey's version is a bit less believable (albeit entertaining) than Cumberbach's exactly because Downey's deductions don't feel as earned: he is written more like a demigod, a superhero rather than a human being with superior intellect because as an audience, we don't get to have a part in his process (however fantastical it may be), while in Cumberbatch's version we absolutely do.

And this is the big pivot for ‘selling’ a genius character: his/her process of arriving at the genius conclusion must be presented in such a way that the audience can partake in it, feel like they have gone through the deductive process together with the character. For example, the clues have to be in place and presented for the audience before the character pieces them together to arrive at the genius deduction. That way on a second read through or watch, the audience will be able to see them there, even if originally they overlooked them. We must see the genius character fingering things, looking pointedly at elements or doing a double take at something, even if we don't understand why, so that when they do come up with the solution, we can remember that they were actually processing information that was also available to us, but we just didn't notice it as they did.

That is what gets the sensation that the character is more clever than us, even if the whole thing is a trick by the creator's choice of angles and focus (in movies and comics) or careful descriptions (in novels) designed to make us overlook what the character doesn't.

Bottom line- you don't have to be a genius to write a genius, but you definitely must know how to set a genius up!

How do you deal with geniuses in your cast? Do you have any?

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anonymous?

EssayBee at 2:51PM, March 9, 2020

Having stated my preference for Jeremy Brett as Holmes, of the modern-day interpretations, I like Johnny Lee Miller's Homes better than Cumberbatch and RDJ. Miller's ticks strike me as truer to the charater, and he also bears a strong resemblance to the Sidney Paget illustrations in The Strand.

EssayBee at 2:44PM, March 9, 2020

Best and most-faithful Holmes--hands down--is Jeremy Brett. No comparison. As for most entertaining . . . that's open to personal preference. One of the entertaining things from some of the Cumberbatch Holmes episodes I saw was recognizing the source (e.g., substituting a phone and its charger for the pocket watch and key in Sign of the Four). For writers writing deductive geniuses, it's best to consider a problem in reverse. As the writer, you already know the correct answer/conclusion, so the puzzle is in laying a logical set of clues back to where the character/reader starts. But you have to have a defined answer to be able to do this. Much of Fusion #14 was a conversation of deductive reasoning, with some clues I had laid out in previous issues (along with the classic Holmes-type gotcha starting on page 15 of the issue).

bravo1102 at 1:31PM, March 8, 2020

So many Holmeses. Peter Cushing, Nichol Williamson, Basil Rathbone. Many played as clever and a polymath but not a genius. Conan Doyle's genius character was Professor Challenger who was a difficult to live with because he was so driven and brilliant. Think about historical genius, like yhe polymath egoist Napoleon, or the once arrogant but very humbled and wise Benjamin Franklin. How about the distant and irresponsible Thomas Jefferson? All three are good studies in genius and how it affects character without having to go for the eccentric wild haired Albert Einstein.

Tantz_Aerine at 5:52PM, March 7, 2020

I don't think we're disagreeing hushicho :) Just having them spound info and facts is not actual intelligence and that was my point. Downey definitely is entertaining, I just wasn't convinced he was clever. Cumberbatch also is unrealistic, and might be less entertaining than Downey but I think he is more convincing as a genius (rather than a superhero). That said, there are more 'canon' Holmes versions out there for sure, that do an even better job of it.

hushicho at 1:57PM, March 7, 2020

I can't agree, honestly. Both of those versions of Holmes don't really ring true, but at least Downey tried to have fun with it, which goes a lot farther in engaging an audience for entertainment. But most geniuses in fiction are poorly-done. People so often confuse being able to spout random facts and information for actual intelligence, but that isn't really the case. Regardless, I think most characters who are protagonists of a story should be exceptional and above most people in at least one major way. Most people would not have the wherewithal to accomplish anything that a hero would. In moments of need, many people would simply wait for someone else to tell them what to do, and wait for someone else to handle the problem.

usedbooks at 7:23AM, March 7, 2020

I like to make most protagonists (and main antagonists) savant at something. Seiko is described as a genius because she is very scholarly and has a great deal of knowledge of things one can learn in school. But she's not the most successful at many challenges. Yuki is more of a detective and also a fighter and a mechanic, but she can be scatterbrained and is terrible with firearms. In my own mind, Yuki is the "genius" character among the protagonists. That said, I have an antagonist who can best Seiko at booksmarts, Yuki's physical prowess, and can almost match Kaida's weapon-handling. He is older than most of the main cast, which may lend some believably. I figure you can get away with a little more over-the-topness with an antagonist. It's a little tricky making them believably defeatable when you do.

usedbooks at 7:13AM, March 7, 2020

I think the best way to write fun "talented/genus" characters is to make them savants. They don't know it all. They aren't good at everything. They just know a lot in a field where "normal people" do not. There's give and take. Being good at one thing means they fail at another. That's why detective characters come off as "quirky." They have an obsession. I don't follow all renditions of Holmes but the original Holmes was not all-knowing. Watson observed, "His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing."

KAM at 6:44AM, March 7, 2020

Is Sherlock really a genius? He has a talent for observation and deduction. He's studied fields related to crime and deduction, while neglecting others (one of the books has a list). When I think of fictional geniuses I think more of Reed Richards (Fantastic Four), Brainiac 5 (Legion of Super-Heroes) and Mind Mistress (of the self-named webcomic) who's brains are supposed to be operating on a whole other level from ordinary humans.

Tantz_Aerine at 5:17AM, March 7, 2020

Sherlock in Elementary is also pretty good! Same principles apply.

ozoneocean at 4:11AM, March 7, 2020

We did a Quackcast on that: https://www.theduckwebcomics.com/quackcast/episode-320-making-the-reader-believe You set up the situation to make the readers believe... :) You have to be careful though or they can become a bit Mary Sue or maybe a bit Deus Ex Machina...

Gunwallace at 1:00AM, March 7, 2020

I prefer the Sherlock in Elementary myself. Less masturbatory than the UK Sherlock, and far more intellectual than the Downey, Jr. version. Of course, my favourite Sherlock was Peter Cushing, before he destroyed Aldebaran, but after he was a vampire.


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