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Marginal Notes

Get Smart


From Hermes the trickster to Renaud the Fox to Sherlock in all his incarnations, readers have always loved stories of smart people being smart. It’s fun to watch an apparent weakling defeat someone stronger through sheer cleverness – David and Goliath became an archetype for a reason. It’s rewarding to finally see what the smart person has seen all along – to have the veil pulled back to see how the killer actually did it. And there’s always pleasure in simply watching someone doing something that they’re very good at.

The thing is, how do you create a character who’s plausibly smart?

This problem comes up most often in mysteries, where the detective has to be cleverer than both readers and everyone around him or her. But if you’ve ever had a story ruined for you because a main character pulled some boneheaded move at a critical juncture, you know that lack of smarts can do damage no matter what the genre.

The first step in creating smart characters is to remember that you can give your character the gift of discernment by stacking the deck in their favor. You’re in charge of your plot. You know what will happen, what will be important, what all the characters are doing. So your detective can find the key clues because you’re the one who planted them. Your heroine can avoid making stupid decisions because you know in advance what will happen to her.

The danger with this approach is that it can easily become obvious that you’re giving your detective a boost from behind the scenes. When your detective suddenly reveals that the solution lies in some insignificant slip someone made back before the murder took place, then your readers are going to be less than impressed. It’s much more effective to let your detective not simply see facts that no one else has noticed, but to see something new in facts that everyone else already knows. When Sherlock Holmes pointed out the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime – the classic obvious clue -- Detective Gregory knew the facts as well as he did. Gregory – and Doyle’s readers -- simply didn’t understand what they meant.

You can set up this kind of double meaning because, again, you’re in charge of what happens. When you’re structuring your mystery, you can pick some key clue that has both an obvious meaning and a more subtle, second meaning. An old friend of your main suspect gives him an alibi. The alibi could be genuine, or it could be a lie, provided out of friendship. Or – as your detective might eventually realize – it also gives an alibi to the alibi witness, who turns out to be the genuine killer.

Another way to make your main character seem smart is by contrast – to give them a “stupid friend.” In a lot of classic mysteries, stupid friends were also handy for getting information across to your readers – the detective almost always explained all the clues to the stupid friend in the end. And though the stupid friend is most often a trope used in mysteries (looking at you, Captain Hastings), mainstream novels and romances often benefit by giving the main character a sidekick to bounce ideas off of.

Note: Watson was not a stupid friend, despite the way Nigel Bruce portrayed him in the Sherlock Holmes movies of the thirties and forties. Granted, Watson wasn’t as brilliant as Sherlock, but there were times when Sherlock trusted him to gather information (and complimented him on it in The Hound of the Baskervilles) or question suspects, with nothing more than a, “You know my methods, Watson.” Doyle got his contrast for Holmes mostly from the stupidity of Lestrade.

But I digress.

Again, using a stupid friend can present dangers. If your friend is much less intelligent than your main character, then readers begin to feel that you’re stacking the deck a little too much in your genius’s favor. In fact, the smarter you can make the stupid friend, the better your main character will look in comparison.

If you read this column regularly, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, in part because Stout handles Wolfe’s genius very well. Archie Goodwin is, in his own way, absolutely brilliant – fast on his feet, with a penetrating insight into people. Sol Panzer regularly shows that he deserves his reputation as the best operative in the business. Inspector Cramer, Wolfe’s antagonist from the police force (his Lestrade) is so bright that Stout once had him star in his own mystery. And Wolfe seems all the smarter because he can out-think all the smart people who surround him. Stout does occasionally rely on Wolfe knowing information that the other characters don’t, or noticing some key clue that others have missed.

But more often than not, Wolfe demonstrates his brilliance by recognizing the significance of facts that are as well known as the behavior of the dog in the night-time. In Golden Spiders, for instance (SPOILERS AHEAD), the case centers around a young boy, a witness to a crime, who was run down in an intersection where he was washing windshields for pocket money. Everyone on the case knew that the killer had to drive by the intersection several times before he caught the boy away from the curb. Several eyewitnesses produced good descriptions of the man behind the wheel. What Wolfe recognized was that any killer intelligent enough to escape detection for so long would have realized he’d be seen and worn a disguise. Wolfe realized that she had – that the killer was a woman disguised as a man.

Bear in mind when you’re creating an intelligent character that there are different kinds of intelligence – eight, according to developmental psychologist Howard Gardener. Even back in the day, Miss Marple solved crimes less by her iron logic than by the insight into human nature she’d picked up from the characters living in St. Mary Mead. And modern mystery writers have been relying more and more on detectives who show a more complex intelligence than the classic thinking machines with their little grey cells. Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, for instance, works out the truth of the crime primarily using her psychological training and the meditation techniques she learned from her mentor. These give her an understanding of human nature buttressed by her own difficult history.

Consider the following passage, where Maisie Dobbs meets a possible witness for the first time.

The door was slightly ajar as she approached, so she could already see Harry Ashley. He was a man in his early forties, wearing dark grey corduroy trousers, a gray shirt, and a sleeveless woolen pullover in a Fair Isle pattern. He wore scuffed leather brogues, and on his desk, Maisie could see a pile of fabrics, some pieces of pottery, and a collection of books and papers. He was poring over a handwritten note.

“Mr. Ashley?”

As he turned, Maisie saw the livid scar along his jawline, a line following bone that had, at one point, been reconstructed.

“Yes?”

Maisie smiled. “May I speak to you for a few minutes? My name is Maisie Dobbs.” She extended her hand, and it seemed that he looked at it for a second before reaching forward with his own. “I am working on behalf of Mr. Pramal, the brother of Miss Usha Pramal.”

“Miss Pramal? Usha? Is she all right?”

Maisie looked at the man, at his eyes, in particular. Was he genuinely inquiring about Usha Pramal? Or was it a feigned surprise, meant to deflect her inquiry?

Note how she focuses, not facts about the case, but on details that give her insight into the man in front of her – the scar that indicates a serious wound, the hesitation in taking her hand, the behavior of his eyes while he asks after Miss Pramal. She’s interested, not in the logic underlying the case, but in the emotion driving the actors. It’s a side of things that Nero Wolfe, in his seclusion from most of humanity, usually refused to consider.

But even though more emotionally-driven detectives have largely supplanted the thinking machines of the past, readers still appreciate watching a fine brain at work. And why not? Keeping company with smart people gives all of us the pleasant sensation of being a little smarter than we are.