The Many Faces of Super Genius

[Cross-posted to the Pen and Cape Society]

I imagine that for a lot of writers in the superhero genre… and really a lot of other genres where such a character is possible… that the super-smart character type seems a lot like easy mode at the outset.

After all, one of the most difficult problems a new writer discovers is making sure characters know only what they know and not what you know. A super-smart character solves that neatly: they are completely justified knowing everything you know. Add to that such perks as no having complicated rules or special effects tied to their powers and it’s easy to see why they look so easy to create and use.

…Except you then run into the problem that they are, in fact, smarter than you and  you’re actually going to have to put in a lot of work maintaining the illusion.

Thankfully, I’m here to help with a good ol, down-home ordered list on the internet just like my granpappy used ta post.

First thing’s first though, let’s get two things straight about intelligence in general that are gong to make this whole thing much easier for you when I break this archetype down. Thing the first:

Science Does Not Know What ‘Intelligence’ Is

It really doesn’t. And no, we can’t measure or test it either. Those of you with high IQ’s may now weep while the people who are reading this to those of you with low IQ’s should prompt them to celebrate. Because it really doesn’t matter except for one possible type of intelligence.

What we do know is that there are multiple contributing components: memory, reasoning, pattern recognition, the ability to establish causation, the ability to understand how objects relate to each other… it’s a big list and being super-good at any of them might be a decent power by itself, including the ever-popular eidetic memory.

The fact that we just don’t know despite all our most powerful scientists working on it feeds into my second point:

Super-Genius Doesn’t Equal Omniscience

This point goes out to both writers and fans in equal proportions because in every fandom I’m part of with a super-genius in it, the inevitable argument will break out along the following lines: “If Character X is so smart, how could they have made a mistake? Why didn’t they know what Character Y was going to do?”

People tend to think that at a certain level of intellect, a person can understand and then do everything. Sadly, that’s not how it works. The first big reason is that just being smart doesn’t mean you know all facts by default. In order to figure something out, a person needs data—correct data—to work with. And if that data was never given and the genius can’t get it or doesn’t know to look, they can’t arrive at the correct conclusion.

Imagine if a caveman suddenly became as smart as the world’s smartest man of today. They’re still not going to spontaneously invent the car because they still have no idea how to make an engine or tires. Same goes for geniuses. Being smart doesn’t mean they can’t have gotten bad/poor info or were simply fooled by a good actor. Mistakes and trust are not signs of stupidity.

With these in mind, we can finally talk about how to implement super-smarts as a power.

Like most powers, there are a number of directions you can go with it depending on what kind of role your smartypants is going to play, what kind of intelligence you want to portray, and how cool you think a given version are. Here are a few examples:

The Know-It-All

Arguably, the ur super-genius, the Know-It-All knows it all. Usually, the implications is that this character has read and processed all available information available on any given subject and periodically updates this knowledge. They’re usually aided in this by that eidetic memory I talked about before.

In practice, the Know-It-All is a walking exposition dump and problem-solving device more than they are usually a character with hopes, dreams and goals. At times, it will be shown that there are holes in their knowledge, or that their knowledge is no replacement for experience and practice.

Writing a genuine Know-It-All is a research challenge because the writer needs to be absolutely correct about everything the Know-It-All is shown to be correct about, or readers will call them out o it hard.

Rounding out this kind of character is also a challenge because on the one hand, it’s nice to reinforce their status as a superior intellect, but on the other, most characters have limited characterization time, meaning this character is often stuck reading books without apparent passion r just doing ‘science’ in general.

Along the same lines you have…

The Expert / Multidisciplinary Expert

Instead of knowing everything, the Expert knows everything about a certain field or group of related fields, such as robotics or biology. While the Know-It-All is the oldest type, this is the type that’s most popular right now. Not only are your quintessential Mad Scientists and Gadgeteer Heroes here, but the popular TV archetype of a hyper-competent people at the top of their field (See: Bones, House, Monk, etc).

Apropos to nothing, this is the archetype that seems to get tied to mental illness for reasons I cannot fathom. Mad Scientists have a whole unique slate of manias, Gadgeteer Heroes tend to end up paranoid about the fact that people could steal their tech, and hyper-competent professionals suffer from what I think Hollywood things is what Asperger’s Syndrome looks like.

This might be an attempt to balance out the fact that being good at what they do is (usually) part and parcel with this type of character and you can’t have them be too perfect. If you’re going to go this way, I suggest actually researching mental illnesses. Otherwise, a supporting cast and a hobby would go a long way instead.

And let me once again lament the passing of so many of the great supporting casts in mainstream superhero media. I believe I shall speak with my fellows in the Society about this. [[Vaal’s note. That is so cool that I can seriously say ‘my fellows in the Society’ now and mean it. Hmm… some of them are ladies. Ladies can be fellows, right?]]

This next one is a type of super-intellect I don’t think most people even know is intellectual:

The Mental Speedster

A mental speedster is defined not by how much they know, but how quickly they process information. It comes in many forms, but the two main forms are speed analysis, AKA the Sherlock Scan (in which Our Hero is able to observe and evaluate tons of details around them in a matter of moments, made famous of course by Sherlock Holmes) and Quick Calculation (wherein Our Hero can make observations and then perform calculations in their head to solve a problem in the same amount of time. This might not sound interesting, but this includes things like taking in an entire room around your enemies and finding a way to kick everyone’s asses simply by knocking over a chair).

Oddly enough, these types of characters (Sherlock Holmes aside) are often not even described as particularly intelligent even thought ability and speed of information processing is one of the better-accepted components of intellect. I don’t see why that would be, especially since most uses of this power require a lot of foreknowledge to start with. After all, you would need to know what bat guano looked like and where it came from the deduce that the man with some on his show spent time there.

The upshot, however, is that these characters (again, Sherlock Holmes aside) tend to get a lot more leeway in character development and diversity. The first Quick Calculation example I could think of was the 90’s CG animated series, Action Man, where said character was an extreme sports athlete—hardly the science nerd the Know-It-All always is.

That’s still not as open to interpretation as…

The Pretender

Seeing as the show is named for this exact kind of character, I feel no guilt name-checking The Pretender. It was a quality show.

In case you haven’t seen said show, a Pretender is highly emotionally intelligent plus a very quick learner. This combination allows them to swiftly adapt and blend in wherever they go, changing their entire skillset as necessary without necessarily knowing everything. A Pretender would have to still read lots of law books to become a lawyer, but they could do so in a few weeks rather than years.

The maddening thing about this kind of character is that outside of that specific show, Pretenders are usually chalked up to determination, charisma or crazy rather than being super-smart, which would be a prerequisite for these stunts.

I try not to name-check anyone from the Big Two when cross-posting to the Society, so I’ll instead name-check Adam Savage of Mythbusters thusly: A certain character, let us call him Nocturnal Echolocating Mammal Man, does this all the time. He learns a new science like most people learn to whistle a new tune poorly, he can slot in psychologically among criminals and madmen while undercover and be seamless, he has, on occasion, learned and mastered entire fighting styles over the course of one fight against someone with that style.

…and yet he is no recognized as a supergenius.

But he is. And in my opinion, more of this type of character with their genius intact, would be very welcome.

And that’s all the time we have for this week, tune in next week when we watch Green Hornet.

No. I’m not kidding. We’re going to watch an episode of the Green Hornet TV show and I’ll do my analysis thing.

I would say goodbye, but fist, some announcements:

First, I mentioned a month or so ago about the Indie Word Blanks (think Mad Libs) thing I was doing over at the eFestival of Words. A winner has been chosen and now we may all bask in the glory of the iconic ‘Ru awakens’ scene from A Girl and Her Monster done as a mad lib with an awesome narrator:

Thanks for everyone that submitted their entries!

Second, over on the Pen and Cape Society, we’re doing a fun project called the Super Choice Adventure, which is another blast from the past: Choose Your Own Adventure, but with PCS authors writing and you the readers voting on the action! I haven’t gotten a turn yet, but just ye wait, me buckos.

And finally, don’t forget (as if I would allow you to) that Rakne’s Tale: Hearing of Grievances and A MagiTech Crisis are both on sale at most ebook retailers.

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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  1. I think I’ve said this before, but mad scientists (many of whom are actually just mad engineers as they’re using science to make abominations rather than using abominations to make science) need to be mad because it frees them from the requirement of having a sane reason for their projects.

    “For science!” may seem like a solid reason the first time you bring back the dead or breed a half man half chicken supermutant, but after the first two or three have all gone on killing sprees and you’re still at it it’s pretty safe bet that you’re probably insane in some way.

    • In order for an experiment to be valid, it must be reproducible.

      • I don’t think that’s an issue. If the first experiment’s results were catastrophic and you want to repeat it anyway without any particular steps taken to at least contain the damage that’s still pretty insane even if it’s for science.

  2. You’re doing the Green Hornet?

  3. I thought all that is the reason why “Nocturnal Echolocating Mammal Man” (I like that name) is also known as the “World’s Greatest Detective” – and I suspect that in some alternate universe where he had not lost his parents, his company would be the universe equivalent to Tony Stark.

    • He should count as more thna just ‘Detective’ for all the science and stuf he does though. He’s a more functional Reed Richards.

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