Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

13.43: Characters Who Are Smarter Than You Are

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Amal

Many of us write characters who know more than we know, and/or who think faster than we do. Writing those characters is tricky. In this episode we talk about our own tricks, and the tricks we’ve seen others use.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Time is your friend. Write a solution to one of your characters’ problems off the top of your head. Spend a week thinking about it and researching it. During that week write down all the new solutions that come to you. Compile the entire set of solutions and review them to see just how good a friend time can be.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: To write a character who is super clever, amazingly smart… Gift the character with your indecision. Show the character going through the process of thinking, then show the character making logical jumps. Clean the brain vomit off the screen, but keep the key portions. Give the reader enough clues to understand the problem and try to solve it themselves, so they participate in the intelligence of the character. Brainstorming, pacing, and cleaning it up. Letting the reader arrive at a conclusion before the character does is satisfying, but don’t overdo it. Make sure the key clues are all out there for the reader. In mysteries, the reader is one step behind the detective, but in thrillers, the reader is one step ahead. It may take the writer some time to figure out a clever answer, but if the character does it in seconds, the reader is amazed at how smart they are! Similarly, if all the other characters react as if this character is very smart, the reader will accept it, too. If the character knows they’re smart and displays that confidence on the page, the reader sees it. Also, borrow expert knowledge from other people. Sometimes, for instance in a heist novel, later revelation of how something gets done works best. But when you reveal the monster, make sure it’s horrifying! Lastly, consider Dave and the fizz buzz test.

Bits and pieces… )

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Characters Who Are Smarter Than You Are.

[Mary] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Amal] And we’re not… That… Smart? Are we smart?

[Howard] We… Okay.

[Amal] We’re pretty smart.

[Howard] We are rejoined for this episode by Amal El-Mohtar, who I personally believe is very much that smart.


[Howard] But even at that level, if she takes time… Yes?

[Mary] We should actually introduce all of ourselves.

[Howard] Oh, damn.

[Dan] He’s just demonstrating how not smart we are.


[Howard] I’m just… 


[Howard] I was so excited to be able to do something right.


[Howard] And then Mary told me I didn’t.

[Dan] You know, at some point, the opportunity might arise again.


[Howard] I’m thinking 2020…

[Mary] What’s er name?

[Howard] Amal El-Mohtar.

[Mary] What’s your name?

[Howard] My name? Or her name?

[Mary] Your name.

[Howard] My name. I couldn’t hear you. I said, “What’s her name?” I was missing like a little piece of the syllable.

[Mary] He’s Howard. I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan. 

[Howard] I was going to start again.


[Howard] Hey, you know what, we’re keeping it.

[Amal] We’re keeping this?

[Howard] We’re keeping it. I was going to pre-roll over the whole beginning again. Amal, thank you for joining us. I’m so sorry for how not smart we are. It’s so nice to have you back.

[Dan] Because you are.

[Amal] It’s a pleasure to be here.

[Howard] Thank you. One of the trickiest things to do in any of our writing is to write a character who comes up with a solution that is super clever, amazingly smart, in just seconds, and we try to write that in the same amount of time, or even in 10 times that amount of time. We try and write characters who are far cleverer than we are. What are the tricks that you use to make that happen?

[Mary] One of the things that I often use is actually gifting the character with my indecision. Because what I find is that there are two things that will make a character seem smart. One is watching them go through the process, and the other is watching the logical jump. Strangely, I often find that watching them go through the process, especially early in the piece, will make the character… Make the reader think, “Oh, this character’s smart,” because they can see all of the logical chains. So when I’m struggling, like how would you solve this problem? Having a character who is thinking, “Okay, I’m stuck in a room. How do I get out of the room? Do I try that door? No, that door has killer bees outside.


[Mary] Do I try this door? There’s someone with a drill outside it.


[Mary] Whatever it… Okay. So, I know, I will open this third door, and there’s a balcony, and I can hang glide from it. Whatever that process is, that gifting… Basically what’s happening there is I am brainstorming on the page in the voice of my character. What the reader is receiving is a character is thinking logically through the problem. Then, later in the story, I don’t have to do that. I can brainstorm off the page, and just have the character jump to that, and the reader will then assume the character has exhibited all of those smarts, because I’ve laid the groundwork earlier.

[Dan] Yeah. When you write that kind of brainstorming scene, and I do it a lot as well, I find that I almost always need to go back and clean it up a little bit, because you don’t want to have the full brain vomit all over your screen. But keeping the key portions of it, do… They set it up so your audience trusts you that the character is figuring out all the rest of the things that you don’t have to show.

[Amal] I think that… What you’re describing there too is sort of a pacing issue more than anything else. There’s a difference in demonstrating an intelligent character’s intelligence in film and television which I think we’re really used to seeing at this point with… Especially in genre with Dr. Who and with Sherlock and with all the iterations thereof, we’re used to this kind of fast-paced banter stuffed with things that you the audience can’t keep up with how smart the characters are. But on the page, I think that for that effect to be achieved, there’s a certain degree of working the readers through the situation. So what you were describing, both of you there, is that giving the reader enough cues to understand the problem and get to solving it themselves as they’re reading it is, I think, a big part of sharing in the intelligence of the character. I think part of the question here is not only how do we make our smart characters smarter than us, but how do we make our smart characters have smartness that the reader participates in in a degree that is enjoyable, and to what degree we want that joy to come in. There are… Like I think of… There are narrative level joys there where you have a kind of meta-experience of it, and there are character level joys where you’re tense and nervous and wondering how you’re going to get out of that locked room as well with this character, and a big part of that is seeing how impossible it is to do that. So it feels like… Like it’s… The pacing of it is kind of the middle of the Venn diagram between the brainstorming it in the first place and then the cleaning up of it afterwards that you just described.

[Howard] There’s also a piece that if you’re… I’m going to go back to the escaping the room. Where you have something that many savvy readers will already know. A character says… Grabs one doorknob, “Oh, that doorknob’s really hot. I’m going to need a towel. No, wait. Doorknob’s really hot, I shouldn’t open it, there might be a fire on the other side.


[Howard] Because the reader might already know that thing, and the reader arriving at the conclusion before the character does is very satisfying for the reader. This is the… That’s a quick thing that you can give them. You might not want to give them that for the whole book, because then, oh, they totally saw it coming.

[Amal] Exactly. Oh, the doorknob’s really hot, I’m going to use it to burn the ropes that are holding my hands together before I do anything else, and so on.

[Dan] I love what Amal said about characters… Or the reader participating in the character’s intelligence. That, I think, is really important. You can look at mysteries, which I think are a fantastic example of this. Because there’s always… For me, the very disappointing mysteries are the ones where the key clues that solve it are stuff we hadn’t heard before. Or something that the amazingly brilliant detective has pulled out of the air. We’re like, “Well, I didn’t know about that offshore account. I couldn’t have solve this mystery.” Conan Doyle does this really well with Sherlock. One of the reasons that Sherlock Holmes has become such an iconic character is because, for the most part, he does give us all the clues. We can look back and go, “Oh, it was all there, and I could have done this.” One of my favorites is in The Redheaded League, where he has an entire interrogation of the character, and we think that that’s important, and then, at the very end, as they’re walking away, Watson says, “Well, what did you learn?” He says, “Oh, it doesn’t matter what I learned. I was just there to look at his knees. They’re dirty.” We don’t know why that’s important, but we start to think about it… 


[Dan] And we realize his knees are dirty. He was kneeling in dirt. He was digging through into the next building.


[Dan] That’s so cool. That makes us feel smart. Which makes us think the character is smart.

[Amal] Right.

[Mary] One of the things… I’m glad you brought up mysteries, because one of the things that I often go back to is that there is a difference between the thriller and mystery, which is that in mystery, you’re one step behind the detective, in thrillers, you’re one step ahead of the character. So when you’re looking at whether or not you’re making the character smart, part of that participatory aspect is whether you let the reader figure it out before the character, or if they figure it out after. I think if you want the reader to feel like this character is supersmart, you let them figure it out one step after the character. It doesn’t have to be like pages and pages later, but if you let them figure it out just a little bit later. One of the tricks that I will do sometimes with that, I will gift them with my uncertainty, but with what Dan was talking about, about cleaning up afterwards, I’ll sometimes pull steps out. Because that allows my character to figure it out a moment before my reader does.

[Howard] Let’s pause for our book of the week. Dan?

[Dan] Yes. Our book of the week is a really fantastic nonfiction, called What If by Randall Munroe. This is the guy that does XKCD, which is a really cool science-based web comic. He did a book that I believe is subtitled Ridiculous Answers to Serious Scientific Questions. He will take… People will ask him things like, “What would happen if you had a mole of moles?” Then he will go through into exhaustive detail all of the actual science behind if you had literally millions of moles, the animal, just floating in space in a giant ball, and how would gravity affect them, and what would happen to them? And things like what would happen if a submarine went into outer space? All of these things. In the process of answering these questions, you learn so much about the science and you learn it in a very engaging way. It’s something that I have continued to go back to as I write my fiction, because there’s really good science in there, presented in a really intelligible, accessible way.

[Howard] There’s good science in it. It’s quite funny.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] What would happen if the pitcher threw the ball at the speed of light?


[Howard] He begins by telling you, “Okay. Bad things are going to happen once we’re moving at this speed. So, let’s assume that a moment after he releases the ball, it accelerates to the speed of light. Because that way, the bad things are going to happen in a more interesting way.”


[Dan] He’s got one where somebody asked if the planet in The Little Prince could actually exist, and have its own gravity, and people could live on it. In the process of exploring what would happen to a planet like that, what would it have to be like, how dense would it be, what would the gravity be like, I have gone back to that exclamation over and over as I write my outer space science fiction because of the way he explains gravity. So, What If, by Randall Munroe, is a really great resource. We recommend you look it up.

[Howard] Okay. Coming back around to our tricks for writing characters who come up with solutions that are bit more brilliant than we’ve come up with. Have there been moments where you’ve been stuck and the solution you’ve arrived at is one that you’re particularly proud of and would like to share with the class?

[Dan] I do have one. In the first Mirador book, Bluescreen, I’ve got the characters caught in the middle of a drive-by gang war. Two rival gangs are shooting at each other, the main character needs to stop them, but she does not have combat powers. She is a gamer and a hacker, and I wanted to make sure to solve that problem with intelligence, rather than her just picking up a gun and going Rambo on everybody. I had to stop and think about it for a couple of days before I figured out, “Oh, okay. I think some of those seeds that I’ve earlier put in about how pop up… Everyone has a computer in their head, and pop up ads will come and kind of intrusively come into your vision.” So she was able to use that advertising system to blind all of the gang members essentially, so they weren’t able to attack each other. It took me a few days to figure that out. She does it in seconds. I’m very proud of it.

[Howard] DDoSed with pop-up ads.


[Howard] That’s horrifying. While you guys… While you all are thinking about the answer to the question, I want to clarify something. This episode actually airs just three and a half weeks from us recording it, because it’s a replacement episode. So, Amal, you’re not appearing a season later than you appeared before, you’re appearing right in the middle of the season in which we’re already enjoying episodes with you. The thing that feels weird is that Dan and I have not had the opportunity to record with you.

[Amal] This is true. This is a delight. I have now recorded… Well, when we are done recording, I will have recorded with all the core cast of Writing Excuses.

[Dan] Hooray!

[Amal] Which is really awesome.

[Howard] Any other boasting you’d like to do?

[Mary] So, with Calculating Stars, one of the challenges… And Fated Sky… One of the challenges that I had is that I have someone who can do math, who’s a mathematician, and I am… I have dyscalcula. I like legit cannot do math. Not in the math is hard, but like I… Geometry? Fine. Absolutely. My spatial awareness, wonderful. Arithmetic and I are, wow, we are really not friends. We have not been on speaking terms for decades…


[Mary] At this point. I have this character who is a computer, who is a calculator. What she does is she does math. So my problem was I don’t. I’m not actually that interested in it. So what I did was I treated it like a magic system. Rather than having her do all of the math that I need her to do in these books, I laid the groundwork ready early that Elma can do math. Then I decided that Elma can do math in her head and that she visualized it. Which is the same thing that they do in the television Sherlock Holmes films, series, that the BBC series. Where you get to see… Things whipping around him, that’s the visualization. Because that way, rather than having to explain the logical leaps, it’s like, “Oh. Magic system happens. Math is magic.”


[Mary] So I am particularly proud of that, because it allows me to get around my own weakness in this area. While at the same time, because early on, I have every other character treating her as if she can do amazing calculations. Actually, through the entire book, everyone is like, “Oh, yeah. No one is faster at math than Elma. She can do amazing math in her head.” Everyone reacts to her as if this is a truth in the world. Which means that I can just put the conclusions on the page. I don’t, in that case, have to step through the process to get there.

[Amal] Similarly, so I have this novella, which… I’ve talked about it… No, I haven’t talked about it yet. Oh, no. Sorry.

[Howard] You will have talked about it…

[Amal] I will have talked about it.

[Howard] In an episode previously recorded.

[Amal] That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it.


[Amal] I wish I could… I wish I were smart enough to make that seem like something that I just know from understanding times…

[Howard] It’s happened to us enough times, that I already have all those parts of speech.

[Mary] They are used to our time travel.


[Amal] So, Max Gladstone and I have co-written a novella that is coming out in probably… I think it’s… Probably, I think it’s July 2019. It’s a book of two dueling time traveling super spies. One written by Max and one written by me. I have a number of insecurities in this regard because, first of all, I mean, they’re time traveling super spies, they have all of time and space at their disposal, they are the best there… They are the best there are at what they do. But Wolverine quote, “And what they do is not very nice.” Etc. So, they’re brilliant, and they’re constantly outsmarting each other and one upping each other. I am not a time traveling superspy.

[Howard] Probably.

[Mary] What!

[Amal] Probably not. But… The thing was, the insecurity I had around this, is I also haven’t read a time of spy fiction. Like, there are, I think, a lot of protocols around this genre, that I only feel glancingly familiar with. So what I started to do, I realized, was writing this character… And especially because Max has a lot more of those protocols than I do. He is far more savvy with all of the kind of… Especially Cold War era stuff. He’s literally writing a serial for Bookburners… Not for Bookburners. A serial for Serial Box, which is not Bookburners. Which is the spy… The witch that came in from the cold. Anyway, it’s literally Soviet era spy stuff. So what I found myself doing was kind of the opposite of what you described at first, Mary Robinette, of the… Of giving… Gifting the character the uncertainty. I had my character strike constant confident poses. That confidence, like that maintaining of I know I’m a brilliant superspy. I know that I can outsmart you. And stuff. And to just kind of dwell in the affect of knowing that she is that brilliant helps to overcome those hurdles. So I feel like it was like a sustained thing across the whole project, to just find the confidence to display that confidence on the page was the [fall] for me in that situation.

[Mary] One of the other things, like that confidence and the I don’t know this thing, that I also find that I use is expert knowledge from other people.


[Amal] Ah. Yes.

[Mary] Which I have talked about in other places. That I am totally comfortable with going to someone and just leaving blanks in my manuscript, and going to someone who actually is an expert in this field, and then having them fill in my blanks, so that my character is literally smarter than I am, because they’re talking about things that I know nothing about.

[Amal] Right.

[Mary] Whether or not that’s one of my astronaut friends.


[Amal] Wait, wait. Do you have astronaut friends, Mary?

[Mary] I do. I know, I know, it’s shocking to everyone.

[Howard] You want to know something funny?


[Howard] This episode airs immediately after Writing Excuses interviews an astronaut.


[Amal] That’s so great.

[Howard] We couldn’t will have timed this better.


[Mary] Well, that was exactly why we did this. Will have done this.

[Amal] There is one quick thing I wanted to say, too, just about things that we’ve been discussing. It occurs to me that some of the things that we’ve touched on are kind of generic distinctions between… In ways to talk about… To convey the smartness of characters who are smarter than we are. Because I think of… So we’ve talked about mystery, we’ve talked about other stuff, but I… If you’re writing a heist novel, for instance. I have to assume that part of the way you display the smartness of the character is by revealing afterwards how a thing was done. What you’re doing, instead of showing how smart they are, is showing how impeded they are throughout, in order to then kind of just reveal at the end the way that those things fell together. It feels like writing kind of backwards the things that we were initially talking about.

[Mary] I think that gets into that thing we were talking about earlier, about whether or not you want the reader to be ahead of or behind the character. You were going to say something, Dan?

[Dan] Yeah. The more that Amal is talking about this, I’m kind of coming to this epiphany, that a lot of this intelligence that we see in characters follows the same principles of a horror movie when you finally reveal the monster.


[Dan] Right. It’s the monster…

[Mary] I’m shocked that you refer to this as…

[Dan] I know. Isn’t that weird that I would go there?


[Dan] If you’ve been building up the monster as something horrible, and then you finally show it and it doesn’t live up to our expectations, then it feels very disappointing. It feels so much worse than if we’d never seen the monster at all. If you’re doing this, if you’re building up your character’s confidence or intelligence or capability, and then we finally get to the point where we see them, for example, do some math and it’s like super simple math…


[Dan] Then that’s not going to impress us, and we’re going to be like, “Really? That’s the math that Elma’s so good at?” So that’s one of the things I thought, for example, that Elma did really well, that you did well with Elma, was when we finally saw the monster, so to speak, when we finally revealed that capability that we’d been hearing so much about, it lived up to, if not superseded, our expectations.

[Mary] And because… The reason it did that was because I was using someone else’s math. The one scene in the novel where I actually have her talking at length about a formula is when she is at the Congressional hearing, and there is a formula, and she is explaining it to the Congressman. That formula comes out of Wernher von Braun’s Mars, A Technical Project. Wernher von Braun was the father of modern rocketry.

[Dan] Modern rocketry.

[Mary] So… And that formula, by the way, is ridonkulous.


[Mary] It is so long. So she explains the first maybe 16th of the formula. It is that… Again, it’s like I don’t give the reader everything. But I give them… It is competence porn, is basically what we’re dealing with.

[Dan] Well, one of the reasons, again, that that particular scene works well is that she is presenting it to a group of very smart, very capable, very competent people, and they can’t follow it. So we’re seeing not only her own intelligence, but her comparative intelligence.

[Howard] There is a… A test, a quiz, that’s often administered to people who are hiring for programming jobs. It’s called the fizz buzz test, which is write a program that prints the numbers one through 100, that if it’s a multiple of three, you substitute the number with fizz, if it’s a multiple of five, it’s buzz, and if it’s a multiple of both three and five, do fizz and buzz. Write a computer program that will do that. Elegant is good, writing it quickly is good, writing it so it is tight is good. Solve this problem for me, let me see what kind of a problem solver you are. My friend Dave had an interview in which the guy asked this question. Dave said, “Well, first thing I’d do is I’d write a program that says call FizzBuzz.lib from whatever this hub is because somebody else has already solved it.”


[Howard] The guy laughed and laughed and laughed. Then Dave provided his solution. Then, that night, Dave went home, wrote a very elegant, over the course of about four hours, fizz buzz program that he uploaded to the library, so that when his boss to be came in the next morning to look it up, he found it and saw who wrote it.


[Mary] That is…


[Mary] That is smart.

[Howard] That is brilliant and beautiful and kind of hilarious.

[Howard] On that note, I would like to offer our listeners some homework.

[Mary] Yes, please.

[Howard] Time. Is. Your. Friend. Your character might not have a lot of time, but you do. Write a solution, off of the top of your head, to a character problem that you are currently facing. First thing you can think of. Now, over the next couple of days, it might be two days, it might be a week, it might be longer, spend time researching on the Internet, in books, from friends, anything even tangentially related to that problem. Maybe it’s math, maybe it’s science, maybe it’s climate, maybe it’s geography, maybe it’s pop up ads. Research these things and as you are doing the research, write down the solutions that come to you. Then, after you’ve done all this, order these solutions in a list of what you think is dumbest to smartest, and see how much smarter you are able to get with time. You are out of excuses. Now go write. Because this is Writing Excuses. And I got those out of order. I’m terrible at this.