"Smart" Characters & Multiple Intelligence Theory

| Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Today's Tune: Thinkin Bout You

When you write a "smart" character, what does that mean? How do we define "smart?"

Writers often fall back on the idea of the "genius" character -- a character with a ridiculously high IQ who can solve any puzzle and store libraries of data inside their skull. They're the characters who are years ahead of the rest of their peers in book knowledge, but are still taking Algebra and basic English for some bizarre reason. You know... "Mr. Collins was talking about Shakespeare, so I tuned out. I'd already read Shakespeare's entire body of work in the fifth grade. I needed to focus on figuring out the cypher so I could help my love interest build a rocket ship to the moon later."

It seems "intelligence" is often confused with "knows a bunch of facts and stuff." This isn't necessarily true. A character can know LOTS of things and still be a fool. Knowledge and applied knowledge are not the same thing. It's no good to have a character who's incredibly well-read and already took honors biology if there's no real applied use for that knowledge beyond proving that they're a smarty-pants. So they know how to divide by zero. So what? How does that enrich the character?

Just like writing a character who's too perfect, writing a character who's too uniformly and stereotypically intelligent stretches the boundaries of belief and often becomes tiresome. Which is not to say that teenage characters can't or shouldn't be smart. I very much approve of intelligent teen characters. I write them. However, just as it isn't realistic for someone to be beautiful AND a sports whiz AND valedictorian AND a musical prodigy AND the center of the social scene, it's not realistic for a person to be intelligent in all possible areas.

This is where the Theory of Multiple Intelligences comes in. If you'd like to read about it in depth, here's the Wikipedia entry. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that people are intelligent in different areas of cognitive ability, and that excelling in one area doesn't necessarily mean someone is more or less intelligent than someone who excels in a different area. It's basically exactly what it sounds like: the theory that you can be different kinds of "smart."

It's extraordinarily rare (maybe impossible) for someone's brain to function at optimal intelligence in every possible area. Someone who's brilliant at math might be crap at communication skills. A gifted public speaker may be be very perceptive when it comes to other people, but terrible at understanding themselves. This sort of thing also applies to the variety of ways we learn. Some of us learn better by doing, others by watching, and still others by listening.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences lists some particular areas of intelligence -- logical-mathmatical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic. We see some of this already in stereotypical characters, like the nerd who's really good at science but really bad at anything physical. However, there are even more areas of intelligence to consider. Emotional intelligence -- the ability to understand people and gauge their emotional responses appropriately, similar to empathy. The ability to think abstractly about situations, approaching from a different angle to see what others missed. "Common sense." One could even argue for extrasensory intelligence -- the ability to perceive things beyond the normal human senses.

This approach to intelligence is important for character development because it makes you really consider where your character is strong and where they're weak. This humanizes the character, making them more relateable and believable. It also creates built-in conflict. If your character is really good at logic but really bad at social interaction, how does that play out in the story? If they have a knack for understanding people but very poor empathy/emotional intelligence, what does that mean? (It means they're Sherlock Holmes, is what that means).

Consider your super-duper smart character again. Where do they excel? What is the opposing quality to that? Don't go for the easy out (again, stereotypical science geek who's bad at sports). If they're really intelligent in one area, where can they falter that will make for the most conflict in the story? Stop thinking of intelligence as only book smarts and start thinking of the other ways people display intellect. As with anything in characterization, it's all about striking the right balance.

When you think of a "smart" character, who do you think of, and why? Do you feel that they're balanced?


{ Magan } at: July 11, 2012 at 6:35 AM said...

Thought provoking post. It is really annoying to get the uber smart character and have them be stereotyped all the time as just the 'genius.'

I try to change up my characters in that way like that there is a girl, Jen, in How to Date an Alien who is blonde and pretty, but a wizard in biochemistry. She can tell the difference in alien and human cells AND spot a knock-off Coach bag.

{ prerna pickett } at: July 11, 2012 at 8:19 AM said...

I like reading about a highly intelligent character (good with facts and stuff) who sucks in social aspects, or vise versa.

{ Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina } at: July 11, 2012 at 9:59 AM said...

I enjoyed this post. I think most readers like a smart character who is balanced with some real flaws. But I like your reminder.

{ Seabrooke } at: July 11, 2012 at 10:23 AM said...

My sisters and I have talked about this from time to time. Something else we've observed is that few people have only one type of smart, or only one area of weakness - there are seven or eight identified smarts, after all.

We've also talked about how society puts more of an emphasis/value on book smarts than street smarts, even though there are many jobs and situations where book smarts won't do you a lick of good without a whole lot of street smarts.

I really liked this post; very insightful and useful for story/character development.

{ Sarah Nicolas } at: July 11, 2012 at 1:52 PM said...

It's funny, this post made me think about the show Alphas on Syfy. If you havne't seen it, it's about people who have extraordinary abilites. I realized while reading your post that all of them (at least of the main characters) represent one "intelligence." The writers also do a pretty good job of crippling the character in another area of intelligence.

Huh. You know how sometimes you love how something is done but you don't know how the writer did it? I think you just helped me figure out why I love the Alphas characters so much.

{ Andrew Leon } at: July 11, 2012 at 2:01 PM said...

Great topic. It's a bit tiresome that we, in the US, tend to only think of people as smart if they are good at math/science and remember a bunch of stuff.
This is actually an area I've been interested in since college psych, so it's good to see someone else bring it up.

Btw, the three mains in book totally went through this evaluation of what each one is good at.

{ Yael } at: July 11, 2012 at 8:21 PM said...

As someone who went through life as an "honor student," I never understood the one-dimensional portrayal of intelligence shown so often in fiction. Even among "book smart" people, there is such a huge variety of skills and characteristics. And it's definitely something I try to reflect in my own writing.

Both of my protagonists are in the top 3 of their high school class (or were, I should say, since I write portal fantasy). One is very good at math and other straightforward topics. She has a high vocabulary, reads fast, and speaks eloquently, but she has very little patience for English-y subjects. If you ever sat down to analyze her papers, you might notice that all she does is use eloquent language to regurgitate what the teacher said in class (and it probably works most of the time). Although she's good at school and learning, she sees them more as a means to an end: grades, college, career, other practical necessities.

The other character, meanwhile, is more introspective. She loves to read and puts a lot of thought into her papers. She's good at memorization, and while she doesn't have a lot of the first character's natural skill at math and science, the amount of work she puts into studying makes up for the difference. She is very open-minded and loves learning for its own sake, though that doesn't mean she's not ambitious.

Since I'm not writing a school story, a lot of this information won't be directly incorporated into the novel. It does, however, help me understand the way my characters think.

{ linda } at: July 12, 2012 at 1:27 AM said...

Hm. I think your main point is that all characters should have both strengths and weaknesses, and in that case I'd agree. I also agree that intelligence is not book smarts.

But where I disagree would be calling all those strengths you listed "intelligence." I absolutely think they're all extremely valuable skills and that different situations call for different strengths. But I'd refer to them as musical talent, social skills, fighting ability, a great memory, a way with words -- not as intelligence. I tend to think of intelligence the way it's usually defined: an ability to understand concepts and information, to reason, to find connections, to recognize patterns, to react to change, and to solve problems. It can certainly be applied to different fields, but being good in a given area is not the same as being intelligent in that area.

I see talents as talents, and intelligence as being able to quickly grasp a situation and leverage your talents and resources in a way that gets you what you want, whether it's by making the most of your physical strength, esoteric knowledge, powers of persuasion, or even wealth. I mean honestly, if the protagonist of a book is frequently unable to grasp new concepts, misses obvious connections between observations she makes, is unable to arrive at logical conclusions from a set of facts, and/or is exceedingly helpless due to an inability to solve basic problems or think for herself in general, I'm not going to think of her as a smart or intelligent character even if she IS a unicorn-riding champion, ESP prodigy, and underwater basket-weaving genius who can speak twenty languages (five of which are extinct and three of which are fictional).

I also think that talents, abilities, and intelligence are not the only areas in which a protagonist can have strengths and weaknesses. I think it's possible for someone who gets good grades, is popular, plays a varsity sport, sings in choir, and dresses well to still have character flaws or inner demons that balance her more easily observable strengths.

But anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post! As you can see I've kind of brain-dumped all over your blog... haha.

{ Stephanie Sinkhorn } at: July 12, 2012 at 7:38 AM said...

Haha, no worries, Linda, I encourage brain-dumping ;)

I completely see your point, but I do tend to disagree a little on multiple intelligence being just a skill. Some of the "intelligences" certainly sound like skills -- bodily-kinesthetic, for example -- but there's more to it than just "good at sports." It's actually more like they're very aware of their body and how they move through space, and they have the ability to react quickly and make their body do what they want it to. As you mentioned, intelligence is understanding concepts, react, and solve problems. For a bodily-kinesthetic person, the concept happens to be their own physical body and how much it can do, their reaction time, and the ability to make it do what they want.

Similarly, musically-inclined people are often able to detect patterns and rhythm, which is why they're so good at picking up music. It's beyond just "she's really good at playing piano" and more "her brain functions in such a way that she can listen to a piece of music and break down and detect its pattern easily."

But I'm very inclined to agree that it doesn't matter how superficially "smart" you make a character if they can't put together simple clues to reach a reasonable outcome!

{ linda } at: July 12, 2012 at 9:24 AM said...

Actually, I don't think we disagree about that point at all! I had a paragraph about the exact point you made (using music and athleticism as examples as well, great minds think alike :P) but deleted it since I thought my comment was too long, haha.

For the music example, my point is that yes, sometimes a talent takes intelligence and sometimes it doesn't. If someone has a beautiful voice, that's a great talent but doesn't take any musical intelligence. In order for me to think of it as intelligence, that person would have to do exactly what you describe -- recognizing patterns, grasping musical concepts, being able to improvise by applying musical theory appropriately. Same with sports; being strong or fast doesn't take intelligence, but being able to think strategy and make the right moves and known your own limits, that takes smarts. So I think of musical/athletic intelligence as the same as regular knowledge, just applied in a specific field, but I don't think that being talented is in itself an indicator of intelligence.

Anyway, thanks for your response and for discussing this with me! :)

{ Emy Shin } at: July 12, 2012 at 2:22 PM said...

Interesting topic. This is something I've thought long and hard about because both of my main characters are incredibly "intelligent" in entirely different ways.

Aside from weaknesses, which all characters must have, something I think makes an "intelligent" character more sympathetic is a moment where his/her intelligence fails him/her -- because it just isn't suspenseful when the main character's intelligence always saves the day.

{ Blair B. Burke } at: July 12, 2012 at 2:39 PM said...

First off, you CAN'T divide by zero. At best, you can divide by a number approaching zero, but only if the numerator is approaching faster...

I agree that by thinking of different areas of intelligence you get a more layered character. And along with that it's also important to understand why the differences exist in people. I think most intelligences are more of a learned trait than an inherited one. People get street smarts from living on the street (or at least having to deal with tough life situations). A rich, pampered genius might have the capacity for street smarts but no occasion or reason to develop them. A person with book smarts might gravitate towards the sciences because their parent is a doctor. Or conversely, they might gravitate towards art b/c their parent is a doctor. The true way to avoid stereotypes is depth, to give a reason for the strengths and weaknesses of the character. They might follow the stereotypical pattern (lots of folks do, that's why stereotypes exist) but if there is a reason and explanation for it then the reader will accept that character as a real person.

{ We Heart YA } at: July 12, 2012 at 3:58 PM said...

Great post, and great discussion in the comments!

"A character can know LOTS of things and still be a fool."

In fact, those are some of the most interesting characters. ;)

Another danger with writing super smart characters: YOU HAVE TO BE SMART ENOUGH TO WRITE THEM! If you aren't, believe us, readers will notice.

{ Krispy } at: July 13, 2012 at 11:39 AM said...

Love this post and the discussion in the comments, especially the discussion about what makes intelligence different from talent. I also have to agree with We Heart YA on their last point about having to be smart enough to write super smart characters. I hate it when a character is supposed to be a prodigy, but nothing they do comes across as especially prodigious to me.

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