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The Trouble with Writing (Too) Smart Characters

How do you write brilliant, Sherlockian characters? Ryan Van Loan, author of The Sin in the Steel and the upcoming sequel, The Justice in Revenge, knows the struggle, and talks about his experience writing super smart characters like his protagonist Buc.


By Ryan Van Loan

“I’m not like other people; I’m the oddity, but to my eyes it’s everyone else who’s strange.”

That’s the protagonist from my FALL OF THE GODS series, Sambucina ‘Buc’ Alhurra, prenatural genius and autodidact street rat convinced she can save the world. She’s a double-barreled blunderbuss of fun to read, but a lot harder to write. Genius-level protagonists often are. Sherlock Holmes. Hermione Granger. Locke Lamora.  Cas Russel. Kvothe. Some of the sharpest minds in genre fiction and every one of them a delight to read on the page…but how does one go about writing them? I suspect if you’re a genius it may not be all that difficult, but what about mere mortals like present company? Come take a look behind the page with me and I’ll show you some of the tips and tricks I use when writing characters who are far smarter than I am.

If books are full of magic (of course they are), then authors are the magicians (I know that sounds grand, but I also scoop up my dog’s poop, so). The base layer of our magic is this: by simply reading a line, the reader internalizes the words on the page. Once you’ve let those words burrow into you, they’re hard to get out. That’s why books are so powerful…and dangerous. They can slip thoughts, notions, ideas into your mind that you’d never have considered, let alone held closely before. This is one of my favorite feats of legerdemain when writing genius-level characters: call attention to their genius. There’s a myriad of ways to do that, from the blunt: have other characters name them a genius, to the subtle: show our would-be Einstein continually frustrated with the failure of others to keep up with their thoughts and plans. Sprinkle that in early and often and we the reader now believe, or at least are open to the belief, that this character is smarter than we are.

Now that we have the reader open to suggestion, we need to harden that belief into firm reality. A favorite trick of mine is to think about a current dilemma facing our protag (it could be something as simple as a discussion or as complex as the climactic Act 3 showdown) and list the ways they could solve the issue. Immediately discard the first several that come to mind (but don’t throw those away, we’ll come back to them) because those are what your normies would think of trying. Now comes the hard part…waiting for some really intriguing, unique solutions to surface in your mind. Be patient. Go for a walk, grab a hot shower, read a book. Eventually you’ll get one (or even two or three!) that make you sit up and chuckle to yourself. Those are the ones you want to have your genius set into motion.

Remember those earlier solutions? Those are great for feeding through the mouths of secondary characters who are just like us. They’re also wonderful to have your protag pick apart early in the story to further establish their bonafides in the brains department. Okay, so now we know what our protag wants to do, but we all know ideas are one thing, execution another. Sticking with our magician angle, when I’m putting our genius’ solution into action, I like to use misdirection whenever possible. Show just enough of the solution that the reader thinks they know where our main character is taking this and then spring the reveal on them at the climactic moment. They’ll connect the dots, get that wonderful surprising-yet-inevitable feeling, and our protagonist’s genius will be forever cemented in their mind.

Talking about or showing our character’s genius and coming up with unfathomable solutions are two great ways to create smart(er) characters. What else? Vocabulary and speech are two obvious ones. Some feel that using fewer contractions can show intelligence, which is true, but you have to watch for stilted language at that point. I do like to sprinkle in some complex words and even have another character ask what they mean, but typically I rely upon syntax and contextual clues within the speech to demonstrate smarts. Research is always your friend, both in understanding particularly erudite pieces of science that you want to use and also in looking at what historically genius-level folks have gotten up to that you can then steal *ahem* borrow, and fit into your story.

I’ll wrap this up by reminding you that the author has as long as they need to practice their sleight of hand. Especially if you’re the type of author that likes to write by the seat of your pants…revision is your friend. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed (or worse, underwhelmed) with creating a genius protagonist, I find it comforting to remind myself I can fix this all in post. You can go back and tweak language, adjust scenes, tailor the set up so that your reveal is THAT much cooler. You’re the creator, so use your power to your advantage and hold the reveal close to your vest until you’ve got it down pat.

Those are some of my tips, what are some that you’ve seen other authors do or tried yourself?

RYAN VAN LOAN (he/him) served six years in the US Army Infantry, on the front lines of Afghanistan. He now works in healthcare innovation. The Sin in the Steel was his debut novel. Van Loan and his wife live in Pennsylvania.

Pre-order The Justice in Revenge here:

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