Writing the Fictional Genius
No mystery is too complex for the fictional genius. In fact, they enjoy the challenge. The world of fiction is littered with them. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Gregory House (who happens to be based on the former), or boy genius Artemis Fowl from the series of novels by Eoin Colfer. Even Harry Potter relies on Hermione Granger’s extensive wits.
The genius remains a fictional favourite. But how do you write one yourself? Let’s take a closer look at this character type.
The Genius Character Defined
Officially, a ‘genius’ has an IQ score of over 140. But modern psychology has admitted that IQ scores can be harder to define than first thought. These days, definitions refer to many types of genius, from intellectual through musical to sports. It’s safe to say that the genius is innately outstanding in at least one field, whether they are doctors, violinists, or sprinters (or cannibals).
Often, the genius (whether hero or antagonist) is a polymath—they show exceptional abilities in various fields instead of just one. If you think of most genial characters, they not only have exceptional abilities in their own fields, but also happen to speak several languages and have talents elsewhere—art, music, literature—choose what you will, as long as you’re getting the details right.
Keep in mind that genius might be artificially induced, such as by the drug NZT in Limitless.
Geniuses often see the world in a different way, which makes their methods unorthodox, sometimes with complete disregard for the rules or the socially acceptable. (They often get away with it, too, because when it comes to the bottom line they happen to be right.)
The stereotypical genius often shows a disregard for social convention – sometimes because they just don’t understand them, or because they simply don’t give a damn.
Their worldview might seem callous or abrasive. They often consider wits as the ultimate virtue, and other virtues, like sensitivity and emotional mindfulness, as inferior. The latter often happens because such virtues may be beyond their reach.
Most fictional geniuses find it difficult to maintain a personal relationship based on trust and reciprocity. That might be to help balance their intelligence and make their character more human. Don’t skimp on the genius’s private, human, almost fragile moments. They are the gems that make the character shine.
A recurring theme among genius characters is their lack of social skills. You can use this to comic effect—Dr. Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory is an excellent example—or give it a more serious spin, like with Dr. Gregory House. Or you can reverse the trope and write the charming genius, much like Bruce Wayne’s public face, or the brazen Tony Stark (Iron Man).
The stereotypical genius is almost always known for being a little bit weird, though some would prefer to say eccentric.
Geniuses are selective of those they let into their inner circle. They might also have some kind of tic or habit that they themselves are not aware of.
Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption displayed his eccentricity by being isolated and seemingly on a quest of his own (and, of course, his odd rock carving habit). Hermione Granger is a bit of a teacher’s pet. Lincoln Rhyme is eccentric for his thought process – which makes him excellent at solving crimes.
Add quirks and flair: How do they dress? Do they have any peculiar habits? What makes them appear weird and interesting to other characters and your readers? And how does each quirk tie into their genius?
Sometimes the genius character is portrayed as an outright savant.
The quickest example of a savant is the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1998 movie Rain Man, but there are other examples too—including Christopher from Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Internal Conflict and Character Flaws
Character flaws give characters a measure of humanity. Nobody in real life is perfect; why should they be so in fiction?
The stereotypical problem-solving genius almost always presents with some type of character flaw. It can be something they were born with or something they developed over time. It is the cause of their core internal conflict, and may often hamper their progress.
In real life, people with high levels of IQ sometimes battle with addictive behaviour, obsessive or compulsive compulsion, perfectionism, or sometimes its polar opposite (think of the typical Mad Professor archetype).
Gregory House has what he calls a bum leg and chronic pain which he blames for his depression, anti-socialism, and drug addiction. He saves lives, so he obviously wants to do good; but due to his flaws, he becomes snappy, isolated and heavily addicted to painkillers.
Sherlock Holmes is known for his love of pharmaceuticals. This places him at a point where he needs it to function – here, we have a sense of urgency and intense sympathy for him, even in a time where most pharmaceuticals were legal.
Hannibal Lecter’s internal conflict, on the other hand, comes from his severely tortured past. Hannibal is orphaned by war, captured with his sister and – horrifying as this might be – made to consume her in a broth by famished and sadistic soldiers driven to the point of cannibalism. This, only fully explored in Hannibal Rising, added much to explain his motivations and psychological break.
Such flaws often make the character a great read, but not someone you’ll want to befriend in real life.
Researching Your Hero’s History
Your genius is an expert in their field and when writing one, the devil does indeed hide in the details. It’s vital that you as an author familiarize yourself with your character’s field of expertise. A genius gets details right, and it’s vital that the author manages to do the same. The easiest way to do this—and how you stay away from making mistakes—is to get in touch with a real expert to look the details over and to research, research, research.
Not all geniuses fight for the side of light. Sometimes a genius is cast as the villain, which presents a unique challenge to your protagonist, who may (or may not) be a genius themselves.
For example, think Hannibal Lecter, think the Jigsaw Killer, Voldemort, or even Lex Luthor and the Joker. There’s something daunting (or thrilling) in fighting an enemy who always seems to be twenty steps ahead of you. Does your protagonist has what it takes to triumph?
When the genius is a villain, their character flaws, rather than proving inner conflict, provide the one chink in their armour that the protagonist can exploit. Don’t neglect to develop these flaws in the villain, too, or you might end up stuck in your quest to defeat him.
Creating a Puzzle Worthy of a Genius
Most of the fun to be had with the genial character is the puzzles presented to them to solve; these puzzles usually baffle everyone else in your storyline to the point where they have no choice but to call in the expertise of your stereotypical genius. Here, we can think of characters like Dr Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan or Hermione Granger. Your genius finds the answer when everyone else is completely stumped.
- Remember that great puzzles are actually simple and logical once you know the truth behind them. It’s only the way that they are presented and mixed in with some false leads that makes them seem complex.
- Start with the straight truth of what happened. Then think how you can reveal it to the reader in bits and pieces, out of order, to create suspense and complexity. Add false leads (a.k.a. “red herrings”) to confuse the genius and your reader. Make them convincing.
- The twist in your story must be something that only your genius can think of. It should tie in to the core of the special way your genius sees the world.
- Outlining will save your story. Refer back to this outline when you, your hero, or your villain gets stuck on a plot point. This will also help you spot obvious plot holes.
- Often the puzzle has some kind of time-limit attached to it, and dire consequences in store in case it isn’t solved.
- Give your puzzle the necessary flair. Remember that it does, after all, need to be solved by a genius!
The genial character is fun but complex to write, and it presents a unique challenge to the writer. But the rewards of writing a successful such character often justify the difficulties. Warm up your brain, plot like a genius, and write!