Why I No Longer Write Smart Characters

Excitement was high as I fleshed out a brand new concept. After one of the main characters came to life quickly, I moved on to exploring the other POV character. I scribbled “smart” as one of the first adjectives to describe his personality.

And my brainstorming came to a screeching halt.

What was this character like? I knew his plotline demanded intelligence, but what else? This character just stubbornly stayed one dimensional.

That’s when it struck me. I had hit a wall by lazily describing this character as “smart.”

Specificity is Key

Don’t get me wrong, I love many smart characters– Hermione Granger, Ender Wiggin, Jasnah Kholin, and Gandalf are some of my favorites. However, the reason they work is because their intelligence is specific.

Hermione is smart academically; Ender is a brilliant tactician and commander; Jasnah is well-versed in history, philosophy, and witty remarks; Gandalf is full of wisdom.

Each of them has a precise competence and avoids general, all-encompassing “smart-ness.” That is exactly what I had done wrong when approaching my character. Instead of honing in on how he was intelligent, I threw in a vague adjective that has hundreds of possible expressions. Great, he’s smart, but what does that actually look like in action?

I realized calling my characters smart had become a crutch. That word gave me the illusion of detail while having no real substance behind it. So, I decided to stop using that word to sketch a character without elaborating on its specific connotation. It’s the same concept behind shunning wishy-washy words like “good” and “nice.”

Instead of listing out descriptions, I find it far more helpful to think through how a certain adjective plays out in their character. A character may be “nice,” but does that manifest as including the new kid, striking up conversations with strangers, baking desserts for their friends, or something else entirely? Not only does this give me a better understanding of who they are, it also provides a cache of reactions and situations to draw from when I draft.

Final Thoughts

The problem isn’t having intelligent, competent characters (I’m very much in favor of those) but rather using soft adjectives that don’t bring clarity to them. Equipped with this knowledge, I’ve plunged back into the fray of writing after changing my character brainstorming to lean on defined, vivid words that are demonstrated through specific actions.

So, what vague adjectives do you find yourself relying on? What intelligent characters are some of your favorites, and how did the author make their competence specific?

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