Friday, January 17, 2014

Stupid Genius

I like stories with a smart protagonist and a smart antagonist, but there's a risk.

Recently, I had occasion to see The Bletchley Circle on Instant Netflix. The premise is that a quartet of female boffins, who used to break Nazi codes, have gone on to civilian lives, BUT one of them notices a pattern in the news of a series of murders.

And she gets the band back together to do some sleuthing.

Great premise.

I love working with smart people and I never worked with a smarter bunch than when I was part of the Puzzle Palace. So, the prospect of seeing these brainiacs in action was most appealing. I was even able to ignore the RELENTLESS ANTI-MALE SEXISM of the story. (The only males who aren't rapists, murderers or both in this story are father-figures representing the benevolent Socialist government.)

It was an absolute joy to see the alpha geek chick giggling about figuring something out, but in the context of a horrible crime. Not an appropriate time for giggling, but that's what geeks do. My delight with this story started very high and it suffered a monotonic decline as the story left off the mathy bits and delved into the psychology.

But what got me to write this down was an instance of something I saw that has been often repeated in stories with smart protagonists. Let's suppose you have Sherlock or his smarter brother Mycroft in a confrontation with a bad-guy, the hero can't do something stupid. The hero has to see what the reader sees before the reader sees it.

In Bletchley Circle, the girl meets the killer alone in a darkened building. She doesn't know the guy is a killer, but every viewer who's paying attention realizes everything about him fits the profile she's just assembled of the killer. Eventually, he's shown smoking the same brand of cigarettes as were found at the murder scene, and even the slow members of the audience put two and two together. And a little bit after that she reacts so that the viewer sees she realizes what most of the audience already knows.

She's supposed to be smarter than you are. Smarter people don't take longer to figure out things than the audience. If you're going for the suspense thing where the audience feels jeopardy while the protagonist is blithely waltzing into danger, you've got to have a reason for it that's better than your super-genius didn't think of it. She could be setting a trap or she could have a gun in her purse aimed at his heart unbeknownst to the audience.

Conversely, when you have an normal-intelligence protagonist and a stupid villain, this risk goes away. Raylan Givens doesn't wear his star because he breaks Nazi codes: it's because he can pull his weapon faster than the other guy. Boyd Crowder isn't a criminal mastermind because he's three chess-moves ahead of the Detroit crowd. It's because he makes things blow up and people die.

With normal-intelligence characters minds move at a pace where you can see them come to realizations. Low-intelligence characters are useful in villains because their violent impulses can be expressed unpredictably.

Though it is is tempting to make your characters super-intelligent, you have to be very smart to not write them doing something stupid when the story needs it.


  1. Martin L. ShoemakerJanuary 17, 2014 at 9:24 PM

    I was formulating a related point earlier this week, but never got around to posting it. I think you've hit on a major reason why I grow tired of predictable hazards in space travel stories (I.e., vacuum, cosmic rays, etc.): if I'm smart enough to foresee these hazards, so are the uber-smart engineers who design the spacecraft and the mission planners who plan the missions in my stories.

    Some of these risks can never be fully eliminated, of course, they're just part of the reality of space travel. And it's all right if they're a little more prevalent in fiction than in real life, because we don't see a whole lot of fiction about non-risky events. More planes crash in the movies than in real life because planes that land safely make for a short, boring story.

    But I think a good rule of thumb is: if Heinlein, Asimov, or Clarke wrote about it 70 years ago... or Bova or Niven 40 years ago, or Steele 20 years ago... then the engineers and planners in your story are aware of this hazard and have done everything in their power to eliminate the risk. If the risk is high, then the ship won't launch.

    You need one of the following:

    1. A novel hazard.

    2. A plausible reason why their precautions broke down and a predictable hazard caught them by surprise. (And "sometimes these things just happen" is plausible, but only if you don't overuse it.)

    3. A reason your smart characters are unexpectedly stupid. (And as you point out, this ain't easy!)

    Or 4. A reason why the stakes are so high, they'll take on a high risk even though they know better.

    Honestly, if a trained, professional crew runs short of air on a routine mission with no mitigating circumstances, let them breathe vacuum. It'll be a mercy killing.

  2. Repeated coincidences gets very tiresome too. Like a universe with 100 settled worlds, and characters on different planets keep "accidentally" meeting.


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