How to Show and not Tell Intelligence

Although the concept of intelligence and what exactly it means for a person to be intelligent are the subject of considerable controversy and debate, it’s widely accepted that intelligence is valued in our society. In fact, if you’re a sapiosexual, you find intelligence as the most sexually attractive feature in a prospective partner. I’m not going into the evolutionary theories for this (including that intelligent men have a higher sperm count and women intuitively understand this and so are drawn to them), so you’ll have to take my word for it. Intelligence is attractive, and a trait we see in many a hero (and villain in fact). In the landscape of writing, this is a trait you can harness to add layers to your character.

Although every psychologist who has endeavoured to define intelligence has come up with their own definition, intelligence is broadly understood as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviours within an environment. The key as a writer is to create a character who presents as intelligent in a plausible manner. Sure, you can slip in their above average IQ scores as they munch over breakfast, or point out they have seven PhD’s, but what if your character is an adolescent? Or what if they live on the planet X where IQ tests aren’t used because the sentient species have acknowledged the limitations of cognitive testing?

What if you want to show, not tell?

Well, you’ve come to the right blog post. I undertook some research, and along with my professional understanding of intelligence (IQ testing is a regular part of my practice in schools), I considered it in terms of character development. If you’re looking to craft an intelligent character, then check out the following traits (quick caveat: they don’t all have to be present for a person to be considered intelligent, but each of these traits are understood as strong indicators of above-average cognitive capacity):

High Verbal Functioning

People with a high IQ have strongly developed verbal skills. Your character is likely to be able to verbalise meaningful concepts and express themselves articulately and maybe even eloquently. This means dialogue, internal and external, is going to be important in representing an intelligent character.

Strong Reasoning Capacity

A person with high intelligence is able to detect underlying concepts and relationships, and use reasoning to identify and apply rules. Abstract thinking is a strength, as is attentiveness to detail. Many detectives in crime novels demonstrate strong reasoning capacity, and every time they solve the murder by linking the dots that seem to live in different postcodes we’re wowed by their intellect.

Good Memory

Intelligent people not only notice this nuanced information in life, but they also maintain this information in conscious awareness. This process, which requires attention and concentration, allows them to manipulate and play with said information in their mind. I’d rather not recollect the amount of times I’ve looked like I’ve lost valuable IQ points because I can’t remember the of age of my firstborn child!

Fast thinking

Smart people are fast thinkers. They can do all of the above, and they do it quickly. They are able to scan information accurately, make decisions, and implement those decision rapidly. These characters will drop one-liners in the blink of an eye, or be the first to recognise that the name of their victim isn’t on the list of missing people following the earthquake that levelled New York.

 

But it’s important to note that high intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean your character is any of the following;

Emotionally Intelligent

Emotional intelligence; the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically, is quite different to cognitive intelligence. Whilst people who do well on standardized tests of intelligence tend to be more successful in the classroom and the workplace, emotional intelligence is correlated with better social relations, better family and intimate relationships, and better psychosocial wellbeing.

Think of Sheldon in Big Bang Theory—with his borderline autistic tendencies, he’s an accomplished physicist, but he’s socially inept and emotionally naïve, which has been mined over 11 series of hilarious interactions. It’s worthwhile to consider whether your character has both of these qualities.

Wise

You’ve probably heard the saying there’s knowing that a tomato is a fruit…and understanding a tomato doesn’t belong in a fruit salad. In the same way, intelligence (knowledge of information and using it adaptively) isn’t necessarily wisdom (the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, and insight). Your character may have acquired the knowledge (impressively and quickly), but wisdom is the proper use of that knowledge. Whilst trawling the internet I found this little nugget: Intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein was the doctor. Wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein was the monster.

Nice

Just because your character is smart, it doesn’t mean they’ll be nice. In fact, intelligent people can be less trusting and less compliant with rules (think of Tony Stark in Ironman; he’s brilliant, but socially irreverent to the point of egocentrism). Intelligence can give rise to suspicion (and if were to extrapolate that, to conspiracy theories), selfishness (you just need to read Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene to know selfishness is smart), and subversiveness (which could be a good thing in your story, but also may make them unlikeable).

Emotionally Stable

Intelligence doesn’t equate with emotional stability, in fact, it’s possible that higher IQ is linked with higher incidents of some mental health diagnoses (including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia). Although the link isn’t clearly understood, it’s probably not important to our story building motivations. What is important, though, is to understand that your character may be in the top two percent of the IQ bell curve, but their physiology and environment (e.g. a traumatic childhood) will also play a factor in their emotional life.

Do you have an intelligent character in one of your stories? Did you notice any of the above qualities I’ve just discussed? Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

 

8 comments

  1. Another informative post, Tamar! I wouldn’t worry about the age of your first-born. Remembering their NAME could be more of a problem. I bet we’ve all heard of mothers who had to call out the names of ALL their children to get the attention of one. My mother did it and so did HER mother, who had TEN children!

    My WIP’s teenage protagonist shows his high intelligence and knowledge excessively at times, so much that adults nickname him ‘Jimmy the Explainer’, his first name actually being ‘Jimmy’. But his knowledge does earn their begrudging respect eventually.

    Jimmy certainly talks well, to the point where a friend suggests he swallowed the proverbial dictionary! He reasons well but within the limits of deep but somewhat narrow interests. He has a good but selective memory. He thinks fast, but sometimes TOO fast.

    Jimmy is very intelligent, but not so much emotionally, or in terms of wisdom, though he’s not stupid either. He’s nice enough, if a bit subversive at times.

    He is fairly stable, possibly because I gave him an intact and fairly stable family, just to be different! So many YA protagonists have drastic family backgrounds that whatever obstacles they encounter just seem to be a continuation of their childhoods!

    Many YA protagonists also ‘have to’ do things to escape death or the proverbial worse fate, so ‘Refusing the Call to Adventure’ may not be an option. Jimmy though SEEKS adventure and goes to great lengths to get on a huge expedition in search of a fabulous lost city. Only later does he realize what he’s let himself in for.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey John, I respect your capacity to recognise tropes and desire to challenge them – it’s sounds like you’ve created a truly fresh and engaging story 😊
      And it seems I do need to worry – I only have two children and I still mix up their names! 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post. As I consider my current protagonist, she appears to be bright but not overly so. After reading your article, I think I’ll bump up her IQ and downgrade her EQ. I think she’s been asking for this all along. Thank you for sharing your own considerable intelligence.

    Liked by 2 people

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