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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Character Traits: Intelligence

Photo of astronomical clock in Prague
found on Free Stock Photos.biz
I was thinking the other day about how I view intelligence. While I value it highly in those I choose to associate with, I don't go by IQ scores, and I'm always surprised to be compared favorably to another person's intelligence. I pride myself on my creativity and grasp of grammar, and I carry around a lot of random trivia, but I don't consider myself particularly smart.

There are different types of intelligence, of course, and there's the famous quote about judging a fish by whether it can climb a tree. But that's not it. Intelligence isn't a mastery of many different facets of knowledge, nor is it having the right answers. To me, curiosity about the world around you is what separates a smart person from one I'll look down on for a lack of intelligence. Deciding you have all the answers, refusing to listen to contrary evidence, being convinced you're right, putting down others' intelligence before you've given them a chance to show their strengths, all point to a lack of intelligence, in my mind.

The way I see it, I don't have all the answers. The more I learn, the more I find things I want to know more about. The world changes every day, and it's a big place. A lifetime isn't long enough to learn everything there is to know. Even if I spent the next thousand years reading and researching and testing hypotheses and exploring the world, there would still be things I wouldn't know.


It's an overwhelming notion. Luckily, I take comfort in what I can learn, and in the lives I can explore within the pages of books. I find, however, that I have a hard time enjoying perspective characters I find unintelligent. Characters who don't learn anything, or who take too much hammering-away by the authorial hand to get the point, annoy me. So do characters who are too stupid to live, mostly because it shows a certain unwillingness to have learned from one's past mistakes. Also, it taxes my suspension of disbelief; I have a hard time believing the character has survived that long in the first place.

When I write my own characters, if they're supposed to be intelligent, I use the above philosophy. The bad guy in my trilogy wants to keep the status quo as it is, while the good guys' quests are driven by finding out more about how the world works. The main character in the epic fantasy I'm still mentally mapping knows very little about how the world works, and it's her curiosity to find out that ropes her into the adventure. I've never considered her stupid; she has an innocence to her that makes her a character I really want to write.

I hope my approach to intelligence makes my smart characters easier to relate to. I hadn't even realized I'd been doing that until I articulated my view of intelligence, in the first place. Now, I intend to use it to my advantage.

Feel free to do the same. Or drop me a comment about how you characterize intelligence when you're writing.