The Smartest Hero in the Room

Mr. Fantastic

One of the hardest characters to write may be the genius hero.  This is the one who knows about everything and supplies answers to all questions.  He might not even be in the main cast, but he’s there to make sure the audience will know what is going on.  That and to genius a solution when the other heroes are in trouble.  Doesn’t seem like that big a challenge, so why did I say it was?

First, I believe a character can’t be any smarter than its creator.  This is fairly easy to counter since authors are smart enough to craft worlds, stories, and characters out of thin air.  We aren’t idiots, so we can have a cunning and smart character, especially since we’re the ones making the problems.  This is even easier in fantasy where a genius would know about magic and a world that the audience doesn’t live in.  So, you can forge the high intelligence of a character through these technicalities and manipulations.  That seems pretty easy though.

There’s a trap in the previous benefit.  Again, the author is the one who made the challenges and is making this character to be a genius.  So, the solution may come out of contrivance instead of intelligence.  This can happen once or twice, but if they are routinely solving problems in ways that are too coincidental then they’ll stop being looked at as geniuses.  They’re no longer deep characters, but a constant ‘get out of trouble’ card for the author.  It heads into that perfect, infallible character situation that can sink even the most interesting of stories.

So, you have to figure out how to make the character smart with flaws.  This leads into a common issue:


Whether it’s intentional or not, we have a habit of giving geniuses an air of superiority and smugness.  Even they don’t show it themselves, audiences might get this sense from the character’s actions.  For example, we tend to have the geniuses come up with the plans and solve the problems.  This can shift to a point where they don’t listen to anyone else and no other character is allowed to solve a problem.  The others can be shoved into ‘dumb by comparison’ categories and lose some of their dimensions.  They are nothing more than the tools of the genius character, who is now perceived as a smug elitist.  Even if they’re treating their allies well, the author’s refusal to let anyone else solve a problem will be a strike against them.

People also tend to assume that intelligent characters will never make a mistake.  They clearly are so smart that they’ve anticipated every action and have created a counter to all possibilities.  It’s the whole ‘Batman wins’ stuff, which tends to ignore that high intelligence doesn’t always mean high insight and wisdom.  There’s a reason intelligence and wisdom are different stats in Dungeons & Dragons.  The former deals with ability to memorize and recall information while the latter is about understanding situations and common sense.  I’ve met plenty of high IQ people who couldn’t common sense their way out of an open field.

That brings me to another challenge and maybe a mistake.  There’s a trend in fiction where a genius is always socially awkward.  This even goes to the trope of a genius character always having autism.  It’s always that ‘sexy autism’ where the person is simply socially awkward, talks fast, and fixates on whatever information is important.  Even removing the autism side, you have plenty of genius characters who aren’t good at communicating and are borderline outcasts.  This is kind of a romanticized version of geniuses where we want them to seem tortured and unique.  They can’t fit into our society because their minds are so advanced and focused on the future.  Personally, I find this to be a bunch of bullshit and a fairly frustrating trope.

So, what do you think about writing genius characters?  Any tricks you can think of?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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14 Responses to The Smartest Hero in the Room

  1. L. Marie says:

    I can’t help thinking of Tony Stark, Reed Richards (especially since you used that image 😊), and Victor Van Damme/Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom. Peter Parker also had a genius level IQ. But he always seemed more approachable and humble than the others. One thing writers seem to do is to give this kind of character a flaw to balance things out. Tony’s alcoholism took him down a peg. Peter Parker always seemed broke and on the run. He needed to work to make ends meet.


    • Comics really do love genius characters. They messed with Peter at some point by making him a Tony Stark with webs. Gave him a company and everything, which I think hurt the character. Made him less relatable and less believable. Geniuses having flaws are always needed, but some authors don’t seem to go that route.

      Liked by 1 person

      • L. Marie says:

        I agree. Maybe they thought people would relate to Peter by making him more like Tony. I related to Peter when he was broke because of the many years I’ve spent doing the same.


      • If I remember correctly, the guy in charge loved Iron Man. Yet, Spider-Man was more popular. So, they undid the marriage to MJ and had him gradually turn into a Web-themed Stark. No matter the reason, a horrible decision.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if authors are trying to be inclusive by having autistic geniuses in stories? Or they’re using the stereotype because they’ve seen it so often that they think it’s expected?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most go with the stereotype. It allows them to make a genius with wide-ranging knowledge because the stereotype works off the idea that autism allows one to absorb all information. It’s not a subject fixation, but a general fixation on learning. This trope also allows them to make the character socially awkward and even rude for a ‘reason’.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. All my characters have been pretty normal in terms of intelligence. I think genius characters would be fun to create.


  4. V.M.Sang says:

    I’ve not written a genius character, but you make some good points here, Charles.


  5. I hadn’t really given this much thought. I always loved these characters, and Reed was my favorite over Stark and Banner. I like your cautions about the pitfalls and will consider it.


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