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Quackcast 680 - Intelligence in Fiction

Ozoneocean at 12:00AM, March 26, 2024

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Today we're talking about the depiction of “intelligence” in fiction! There are a lot of ways this shows up: the genius detective who can understand any clue and uncover any lie, the amazing doctor who can understand any disease, the computer nerd who can do ANYTHING with computers, the genius savant with Asperger's, the crafty serial killer with plans within plans…

Mostly though these depictions are absolutely fictitious, simply based on tropes, like the action-man James Bond/Jason Bourne type “spy” trope which doesn't exist in reality and yet that's how we always think of spies. They're generally exaggerated to the point of silliness. The depiction of an “intelligent” person in fiction often involves wearing glasses; dropping quotes (usually Shakespeare); an obvious odd quirk that makes them not fit in well with others- being nerdy, dressing badly, talking weirdly, shyness, meanness; and they're almost always a polymath, in that they know about EVERYTHING, not just the field they specialise in.

Recently I've been binging the series Bones. It's about a group of scientists who perform special forensic tasks for the FBI. They're all super geniuses, especially the main character “Bones”, Temperance Brennan, who all the other charters frequently acknowledge as super brilliant. The dumbest person in their team is Angela, the artist, who's main role is to do sketches and reconstructions of the dead and provide an intuitive counterpoint to the cold scientists. Ironically she'd have to be by far the most intelligent person in their group and one of the most intelligent people in the world because while the others have very narrow specialties she's a genius at computer programming, mechanical engineering, code breaking, and and makes intuitive leaps that are impossible for normal people. It's a very silly show in its depiction of and understanding of intelligence, with the “smartest person” (Bones) actually being the dumbest in the group while the dumbest one (Angela) is the smartest.

Two of the main bulwarks of intelligence in fiction are Sherlock Holmes and serial killers, which are actually related. Sherlock is from a late 19th century stereotype of an intellectual superman. He's aware of the smallest detail, has a clinical, analytical mind, he drops quotes, he's classically educated, he has “no time for fools”, doesn't relate well to others, and is prone to obsession. His relationship to the modern depiction of the fictional serial killer is his rivalry with the character Moriarty, on which serial killers tend to be based- not on the character but the battle of wits. In reality serial killers and psychopaths are never very intelligent, the trope seems to be based on Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dalmer having reasonably high IQs but neither ever came up with fiendish plans or devised clever clues or plots, their crimes are simply gross, evil. and absolutely selfish, but in no way clever. This has resulted in the fictional serial killers typically matching the intelligence of detectives in an evil, dark reflection.

The trouble with depicting intelligence in fiction is usually that the writers don't know very much about it so they trick us by having other characters react to their genius character as if they're amazing, or showing the genius by having the character perform some massively exaggerated act like solving an incredibly hard puzzle, or creating one, dropping random quotes, or just telling us that the character is smart.

Some of my favourite intelligent characters are Abby from NCIS, Egon from Ghostbusters, Nero Wolfe from the Nero Wolf Mysteries, Daria, Sherlock Holmes, the Villain behind glasses from Log Horizon, John Crichton from Farscape, Doctor Who, and Mr Spock from Star Trek.
What are your faves? The characters from Big Bang Theory? House? Lisa Simpson?

This week Gunwallace has given us a theme inspired by Gamma Blue Smoldering of Creel - Heavy rocking fire. This is a hammer forging red hot steel on an anvil, rhythmically pounding it into shape, slamming into it with thunderous blows,drawing out the metal into a brutal sword of pure rock!

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Ozoneocean at 7:37PM, March 27, 2024

Whoa, lots of great comments here :D Ironically I feel too dumb to answer most of them. I lack the intellect! I will say though that the long word thing is interesting- I'm someone who often uses long words (so people tell me), NOT because I care about sounding smart, but because I want to be very clear in my meaning. One of the funny thing people don't get about language is that those "long" or rarely used words usually have very narrow, specific meanings so when you use them to can say exactly want you mean, while shorter more typical words have SOOOOO many meanings and even more in combination together that they SUPER need the correct context, tone, inflection and body language etc to be understood as intended. And that has ZERO to do with "English" either, this exists in all languages.

EssayBee at 8:55AM, March 27, 2024

I've taken a liking to Chandler's Phillip Marlowe. He's a whip-smart detective, but hides it with his laid-back and sarcastic attitude, but he knows how to play both the LA cops and the criminals he deals with.

JohnCelestri at 8:02AM, March 27, 2024

Sometimes, the most intelligent character in a story is the one who hides their intelligence under a guise of being "plodding" or "dumb", like the police detective Columbo.

PaulEberhardt at 2:03AM, March 27, 2024

One fine morning a school inspector's car broke down. Whatever he tried, he couldn't get it to start again, and he was about to miss his appointment. Just as he gave up in despair, a boy with a fishing rod came around the corner. "Problems with your car, sir?" he said. "Mind if I had a look?" - "Whatever," the old man replied. "Can't get any worse." The boy looked into the open engine compartment for a few seconds, with a sincere expert look told him something about the carburettor and a mixture too rich and much more that the man couldn't make sense of, then fiddled around for a minute. "There," the boy said, wiping his hands. "Try to start it." The car started no problem. - "That's amazing," the old inspector said, "but, young man," remembering his position, "shouldn't you be in school now?" - "Normally, yes, sir," the boy said, "but the head teacher sent me home. She said the school inspector's coming today, and I'm too dumb."

PaulEberhardt at 1:32AM, March 27, 2024

@memo333: This is what I meant. Sometimes there's five types, sometimes there's nine, other times there's anything in between, but the core ones are always similar and the concept itself is sound. And professional writers always wilfully ignore them to their loss. Not to be confused with learning types, by the way, which were proven not to exist. //// @J_Scarbrough and @bravo1102: The everyman character is important as a foil for these types. The big words type from the city is a staple character in Plattdütsch jokes, often to be outwitted by a farm hand or something. I'm fond of that trope, too, particularly as a way to send up the way people confuse a big vocabulary with intelligence, as if it wasn't the content that really matters. There's a short story I wrote one or two years ago (in what's English on a purely technical level) where I shot such a mismatch of vocab and content through the roof to make a point; guess I'll have to find a proper place to post it some day.

memo333 at 1:11PM, March 26, 2024

bravo1102 at 11:56AM, March 26, 2024

@j Scarbrough: and there's always an everyman character to tell them to "speak English would ya!" "use smaller woids next time, he's not very bright" and so on. I've used the gag often enough. 🤣 XD

usedbooks at 9:59AM, March 26, 2024

Sheldon, Frasier and MacGyver are three very different kinds of intelligent who would not excel in each others' worlds.

J_Scarbrough at 9:29AM, March 26, 2024

And then of course, there's also those insufferable intelligent types who you know to be intelligent because their vocabulary consists of much bigger and scientific words, that make anything they say, even in casual conversation, sound like Greek to everyone else.

PaulEberhardt at 9:26AM, March 26, 2024

Actually, my first impulse was to make a silly comment like: "According to fiction, everyone who is not good at math is, by inference, dumb, because all the intelligent characters know formulas and stuff. That's of course wrong, becos everyone knoes the dumb ones are those who are bad at speling." Did it anyway now, because it has just occurred to me that it does highlight one or two things about how classic portrayals of stupidity are clichéd and misguided in just the same way. There may be a link somewhere, like for want of other ideas just turning the stupid clichés on their head in the hope it makes the character look intelligent, or the other way round. Btw. IRL I know quite a number of people with dyslexia, and many of them are amazingly clever - no wonder, as they have to use their intelligence all the time to compensate, and that's as good a way of getting practice as can be.

PaulEberhardt at 9:18AM, March 26, 2024

Not to mention that writers generally haven't got a clue about intelligence having different types, favouring the logical-analytical type over others, which in turn discredits everyone else as dumb. Point in case: Bones and Angela, whose problem-solving intelligence seems to be extremely developed, while I'm not sure about the rest because it's been years since I last watched an episode of it.

bravo1102 at 9:00AM, March 26, 2024

It should be mentioned that another actor who played Holmes was especially good at portraying aloof intelligent characters. That was Peter Cushing who played Dr. Frankenstein the similarly but brought out the obsessive darkness of Frankenstein's intellect. He also did Van Helsing who was another polymath genius character (difficult to get along with) especially in the book as opposed to the avuncular character seen in many adaptations. Horror and science fiction are full of hyper intelligent characters as well as detective fiction.

bravo1102 at 8:45AM, March 26, 2024

Some writers have trouble writing intelligence because they're reaching for something a bit outside their experience and even beyond their own intelligence. It's been said that Arthur Conan Doyle could write Sherlock Holmes so well was that HE identified with him. Though told through the relatable everyman Watson, Conan Doyle really was Holmes and his other polymath character Professor Challenger who was sort of a wish fulfillment being the difficult irascible curmudgeon that Conan Doyle occasionally wished he could be in his life. But that was one version of it. What is remarkable is how much Basil Rathbone made Holmes identifiable and human as opposed to other dramatic portrayals of him. Which is ironic because Rathbone was otherwise typecast as unsympathetic villains so he very far into humanizing the one hero he did play; Sherlock Holmes.

marcorossi at 5:14AM, March 26, 2024

Apart in those dases where "intelligence" is treated as a sort of superpower[*], IMHO it mostly is a matter of point of view: the story world exists only in the mind of the writer, and the reader only knows what the writer let him/her know. So a character that reacts to the story world on the basis of the same knowledge the reader has will look normal and relatable, one who act as if s/he had less knowledge will look stupid, and one who acts on the basis of a greater knowledge will look wise/intelligent. [*] intelligence as a superpower is when a character can heal any illness because they are good doctors, can program everything etc.; it is mostly a matter of "skill" but all skills in stories are really disguised powers.

usedbooks at 4:47AM, March 26, 2024

Oh, and I love the humble genius that just quietly fixes things for those around him/her. There is an entire genre of fiction about a main protagonist who is all show and someone else who does the brainwork (usually because the genius is someone others wouldn't listen to, like a child, an animal, or a woman). Moonlighting, Remington Steele, Inspector Gadget, Detective Conan.

usedbooks at 4:40AM, March 26, 2024

*mind her business

usedbooks at 4:39AM, March 26, 2024

I do love a polymath. I think two issues arise when writing them. One is that they are the opposite of the everyman, so it's hard for readers/viewers to relate and empathize. The other is that they usually suffer some failing in another one of their "stats" like social skills or physical prowess. (If they don't, they are exceedingly boring characters.) An everyman sidekick can compensate. But often the sidekick becomes the one the audience relates to, and the polymath is like a gimmick or a plot device. This is especially true of genius detectives like Poirot and Monk. They are fun but not relatable. J.B. Fletcher is a more relatable kind of genius detective because she's very human and doesn't actually set out to be clever. No prattling on about gray cells. She just realized things and tries to be helpful. She tries to kind her business but gets drawn into things because she's smart. If she has a sidekick, they are the less relatable one (usually a semi-antagonistic, police officer).

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