Jul 21, 2013


I've given in. I've become Sherlocked.

It wasn’t entirely my fault. Pinterest and my friends kept giving me perfectly logical reasons for doing so, and no one gave me a good reason not to, besides the unlikely one that my heart would be ripped out and I would be left to die on the floor. (Although, now that I have watched the last episode, I find this very nearly true.)

But Mr. Sherlock Holmes has got me thinking. He always does. I have no illusions about my powers of deduction – they’re pretty weak. But when I started reading the stories and watching the series, I would always wonder what he would see if he met me, came to our house. What he would be able to read in us that others never see.

I imagine him darting round my room, possibly studying my lifeless body crosswise across my wrinkled bedcovers with his neat little collapsible magnifying glass, looking very tall in his long black coat under our short ceilings. He’d straighten up and turn to John Watson, who’d be waiting patiently or not-so-patiently in the doorway for an explanation. “Clearly, a young writer.”

“But – how do you know that?”

Sherlock would turn back to my room, pointing his long fingers at various objects as he grudgingly clarifies things. “Dust on the shelves, the books, but not on the laptop, suggesting frequent use by a forgetful or distractible person. A large collection of music on CDs as well. An enthusiast, maybe, but there’s dust on those too; she migrated to digital music soon after the purchase of her laptop. Likewise with the notebooks. They’re well-used but dusty. From the fingerprints on the mirror – two or three younger siblings, one of whom she shared the room with. Once a horse enthusiast but she grew out of that, since most of those books are gone except her very favorites, which are on the top shelf, not easily accessible but still there to admire, but that's irrelevant. From her sedentary lifestyle, the contents of her laptop and the callus just in front of the first knuckle on her right middle finger, she’s a writer.”

In a way this relates to our characters. We always see things in them that the readers never will – little flaws that aren’t visible, pieces of backstory that aren’t really important. But Sherlock got me thinking about my characters in a different way.

As a character, Sherlock is pretty much the epitome of the trait of intelligence. He blows us away with the pure power of his brain. He’s insulted when people around him cannot see – pardon me, observe – the details his mind takes in and intersects so easily.

This is not a post about a fandom, nor about the subject of the fandom. This is a post about intelligence.

1.capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.

I was reading a post on Holy Worlds about allowing for stupidity, particularly within the field of military operations. The example the author made was one where a group of soldiers was set to march at a certain time, but decided to go earlier instead. It ruined a lot of stuff. The point she made – that we should make our characters human enough to blunder and spoil things out of stupidity or ignorance – stuck with me, combined with the opposite example of Sherlock, who uses his intelligence to fix things (well, usually.) This led to several points I thought it would be prudent to make about intelligence.

1. Intelligence is relative.
My dad is pretty much a genius. As a civil engineer, he daily processes things I can only imagine – advanced geometry, mathematical gymnastics, laws and ordinances and all the little things that make street plans work. But he’ll look at me playing the piano, shake his head, and say “That looks like magic to me.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that my dad is intelligent. Quite visibly so. But intelligence is relative depending on your location and what is happening. This is apparent in many stories just after the New World is introduced. This is the part where your hero encounters a whole world of possibility he never knew and isn’t prepared for. Imagine sending Sherlock through a portal to Middle Earth. What use would his specialized intelligence be there?

Often, intelligence is an overarching trait. It is an ability that helps your character to adapt to, learn from, and thrive in new situations. I can’t see Sherlock taking very long to figure out the new world and how it works, because he’s smart.

This point also applies to characters who are being compared to other characters. Dr. Watson is a prime example. He’s intelligent – as a doctor, he pretty much has to be – but next to Sherlock, his intellect pales. He is intelligent in a different area, and since his area is not the one being focused on, he usually only acts as a foil for Sherlock – someone on the level of the audience who is just as lost as we are.

This is another tactic commonly used for the introduction of the New World. If you have a character who is in some way equal to the audience enter the new setting, you can use him or her to explain things the other characters already know. Be careful to balance this, however, with your character’s already-existing specialty, so you don’t risk him looking stupid (something I’ve seen far too often.)

       2. Intelligence is dangerous.
Another somewhat unconventional example of intelligence is Haymitch. In this excerpt from Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta ponder how Haymitch, whom they know as a crotchety drunkard, became a victor in the Hunger Games.

            Finally Peeta says, “That force field at the bottom of the cliff, it was like the one on the roof of the Training Center. The one that throws you back if you try to jump off and commit suicide. Haymitch found a way to turn it into a weapon.”
            “Not just against the other tributes, but the Capitol, too,” I say. “You know they didn’t expect that to happen. It wasn’t meant to be part of the arena. They never planned on anyone using it as a weapon… It’s almost as bad as us and the berries!”

It’s the same kind of intelligence that brought Katniss and Peeta out of the arena alive the first time. Quick adaptation to their position, then use of the available resources. And that’s part of what makes them so dangerous to the Capitol.

It’s not only the Powers That Be who are threatened by intelligence. The villains fear it too. A quick-thinking army captain with a small force can trounce, slow down, or harry a larger force with relative ease. A sharp commoner can cause trouble for the noblemen. And a brilliant detective can catch even the most furtive criminal. Fellow allies may be threatened as well - the intelligent character may make them feel incompetent, unimportant, or downright useless. Alienated allies are almost as dangerous as the baddies your hero is working to take down.

       3. Intelligence is exclusive.
The title of this point makes it sound like there’s some kind of club or something that no one can get into but exceptionally intelligent people. There’s a sense in which that’s true, but my real point is this: Intelligence excludes.

Think of how many intelligent people and characters you’ve heard of who are incredibly lonely. The artists, the geeks, the weirdos. The freaks. It also seems that the level of intelligence is relative to the level of exclusion. The ones who can pretend that they’re normal often pass themselves off as such, but the further up the scale you go, the harder it is to pretend.

            There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none.

One of my favorite things about the movie The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is how smart Eustace is. He keeps beetles in jars and has the mindset of a lawyer and speaks with a remarkable vocabulary. He also has no friends, not unlike a certain detective we all know and love. There is one stark difference between Eustace’s story and Sherlock’s, however. Eustace gains friends because he changes; even though he’s still smart, he’s less arrogant and superior. Sherlock gains friends (or a friend, singular) not because he changes, but because John comes to see him for who he is.

I’d like to draw another example, from a couple of my own characters. Iri and Fairivel. Father and son. Both are very intelligent. They're about as different as they could be. Fairivel is the ruler of Laecla, land of the elves, and he is known to be a fair man, an excellent ruler, and a superb diplomat. Iri is restless, always chasing after what will excite him next, extremely charming, and uses people shamelessly to get what he wants. Both are using their intelligence in a different way, but both have distanced themselves with it. Neither of them have many, if any, people who genuinely care about them for who they are.

     4. Intelligence is blinding.

How could I write a post about intelligent characters without mentioning a few of their faults? The blinding aspect of the title is meant to apply to other players in the story - and to the character themselves.

Think of Watson when he first met Holmes. He couldn't stop complimenting Holmes on his genius. But that wears off pretty quickly and we, through John, start seeing some of Sherlock's faults. He's arrogant, has no idea how to behave around people, and lacks basic knowledge of the solar system, among other things.

Then there's how the intelligent character views himself, especially in relation to other people. With a superior view of themselves, they may treat ordinary people with impatience or even scorn. (For a more complete list of intelligent characters and their positives and negatives, refer to this post over at The Bookshelf Muse.)

There's a more complicated type, for which I'm going to use yet another Sherlock example. When we meet the villain of the first episode, he is a singularly disappointing middle-aged cabby. But as the writers expound on him, his personality, his methods, you forget his exterior. You begin to see the mind behind it. By the time the episode ended, I'd forgotten how disappointed I was that the villain turned out that way. I was utterly fascinated by the twists of his mind. His intelligence had blinded me.

5. Intelligence is underused.

Before I stopped reading dystopian and the like, a friend recommended an interesting little book called Variant. Beyond the mysterious plot and the intriguing setting (an experiment disguised as a walled school where, once the students were in, they never got out and had no contact with the outside world) I remember that the main character, Benson Fisher, set himself apart from other heroes in YA literature in my mind. Because he was smart.
            The whole time we sat there I kept an eye on the trees. There were Society kids out there. One was at the tree line, patrolling on the back of a four-wheeler. I could hear a second one, but couldn’t see it.
            What would make them act like that? Why wouldn’t they just make a break for it?
            As I watched them I thought about what they’d need to have to keep the four-wheelers running: gasoline, oil, tools. All of that could help my escape.
As soon as he learned what was happening, he did exactly what I would have done. He started plotting to escape. I connected firmly with him through the book. He tried to break the other students free of their lethargy. He never missed an opportunity to gather supplies and investigate the terrain for his escape. I wanted to cheer for him.

Benson also lacked another common element of fictional heroes. He had no clever mentor hovering over him, pointing out his every flaw. While this is an effective way to introduce the reader to the world (a tactic often linked with the one I mentioned in the first section) I wish I saw more characters who could interact with the mentor on their own terms.

I'm not sure why I perceive a severe lack of intelligent YA characters. Maybe it's a result of the watered-down literature of our day and age. Maybe no one wants to write an intelligent character because they're simply hard to write. But implementing an intelligent character doesn't mean you have to write a superhero. You just need to do your research.

(I also compiled a list of characters I wanted to use for examples, but didn't get to. Since I didn't want to waste it, here they are:
            Kieran from The Restorer’s Son by Sharon Hinck
            Temeraire from His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
            Claire from Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
            Kelsier from Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson)

So what about you? Who's your most intelligent character? Do you recognize or use any of the methods I've mentioned here? Do you have anything to add?


Katie said...

I love intelligent characters! I despise stupid ones. This goes for people too. REally, everyone has the capability to be intelligent, they just have to want to be able to use their brains. Are some going to be more perceptive than others? (like Sherlock) sure! But it doesn't mean we all have to blunder around like complete idiots!

Intelligent characters I know and love mostly come from the classics. The Scarlet Pimpernel, for one. The Three Musketeers may come off as foolish at first, but they're quite brilliant strategists. Scaramouche. Some modern examples are Shawn Spencer, from Psych. (Who also acts like a complete idiot in spite of his genius.) the MC from the movie adaption of I, Robot. Every character in the Korean drama "Faith." (I could go on about that for a very, very long time... about how most TV characters are painfully stupid at times, and that's why I like the aforementioned K-drama so much, but I'll spare you.)

Alexandra C said...

Good post, lots to think about. I especially like the section on Eustace vs. Sherlock.

When reading this I was thinking about my character Thalian. He's a genius, but he's also arrogant. Another example is Alastar. Also smart, but pretty unapproachable. Both of them are loners with a very small circle of friends.

Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist is also an example, I think. It's interesting to see the difference between he and his brother, Alphonse.Both of them are smart, but those around them have an easier time liking Alphonse then Edward - who has a very brash and fiery personality that scares people away.

Anonymous said...


Victoria Grace Howell said...

Great post! I have two particularly intelligent characters. One is nine and the other fifteen. The nine year old taught himself to read at three and the latter built an AI car. Both have them have similar traits as you described. The nine year old has trouble relating with children his age and the teenager has trouble making friends too. Thanks for sharing. :)

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Sandra said...

Wonderfully post! Starts me thinking about my own characters.

Brendan H said...

This post is utter brilliance. I linked back to it on my blog :)


David Ward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Meaghan Ward said...

Need I say... Kieran rocks! You should have included him.

Err... I mean... yes, elementary post there, Miss Sherlocked. I'd expound on it's greatness, but others have beaten me too the punch...

...Perhaps I'll make a mad dash for the coffee instead.

Sarah Ellen said...

Wow. My mind was racing and jumping all over the place while reading this post...in a *nice* way ;) You have such a firm grip on characters, both on your own and fictional, and your insight is invaluable. Just by reading this post you showed your own highly-tuned intelligence, and now I feel motivated and encouraged to start taking a deeper look into the characters I love. (And "Sherlock's" assessment of you made me, forgive me, giggle with delight over hearing the observation of a fellow writer and want to write my own little deduction on myself ;) )

My most intelligent character is a "Robin Hood" figure in my book, though the character is female. She has a great power of observation, I took inspiration from the old ways of Native Americans in tracking and hunting, and she sees the world for what it is, though her thoughts are a little cynical due to a rough past. Her counterbalancing character is a man who appears a bit simple in comparison to her, at times foolish in her eyes, but I avoid making him look dumb by his calmer attitude and "words of wisdom," by which I mean he shows her the other side of a situation that makes her reevaluate. Now that I think about it, there is an element of Sherlock/Watson shining through them, though that was never my intention.