Friday, July 26, 2013

Science! Week, Problematic Powers Edition: Super Intelligence

As I mentioned in my previous Problematic Powers post, this series is about the difficulties involved in writing for characters with various powers; it's not a "clever" attempt to point out the infeasability of a given power, because pretty much all of them are ridiculous. However, super intelligence is one of those ones that almost seems like it could exist in the real world.  We all know that guy who is far smarter than any of his peers, and we've all heard of kids graduating college at 16 with a doctorate in Things You'll Never Understand.  That's part of what makes a superhumanly intelligent character so hard to write.

No matter how smart a writer or a reader is, he's never going to be as smart as Reed Richards, Lex Luthor, Hank Pym, or Tony Stark.  Those guys make the aforementioned 16 year old doctor look like a citizen from the film Idiocracy.  When the writer is writing for a younger audience on one of Marvel or DC's kid-friendly titles, they can get away with a bit more, but when writing for the teen and older comic book audience, there is almost certainly going to be someone reading the writer's work that lies further along that intelligence scale than the writer, and they're going to be able to pick holes in a super intelligent character's actions and speech. However, this problem can be managed, to an extent.

The Negative Zone is never
going to make sense
The first way to manage the problem is to do your research. This is a good idea in general, but with smart characters, it's especially important. If your character is a doctor, call up a doctor and say "Is this at least vaguely correct?" With super science, a certain amount of technobabble is okay, but if your character starts spouting off about "quantum," "nano," "nuclear," or some other buzzword, call up a researcher in that field read your text off to him, and ask "is this at least ballpark?"  Don't get me wrong, if you're writing about quantum nanoprocessors from an alien world or about made up technology like Stark's repulsortech, no one is going to care; however, if your smart character is trying to give the reader a minimal understanding of quantum physics, gt someone to explain it to you first, and make sure, from them, that you're getting it right.

The second kind of ties into the first: have someone else read it.  If you can, have several other people read it.  I'm not saying "have other smart people read it," either. Yes, have someone who understands the field read it to make sure you got it right, but also have regular people read it to make sure you are getting what you mean to across. Unless your goal is to make the character sound so much smarter than anyone else in the room, and your plan to convey that to the reader consists of confusing them with things that sound like science, it's as important that the readers understand both that the character is brilliant and why they're brilliant. It does no good, normally, to have all of the technobabble to go over the reader's head.

Third, apply this to other types of intelligence as well.  Cyclops' role on the X-Men was supposed to be field leader, and he was called a tactical genius all the time.  However, his plans usually came down to "Don't have our guy made of metal take on Magneto."  Thanks, Napoleon. I guarantee that you can find someone who is actually tactically smart to bounce ideas off of, even if you have to explain what Cyclops and Colossus and Magneto can do to them. Batman used to have similar problems with criminology, but the rise of CSI-style police procedurals on TV made the average reader and writer familiar enough with forensic science and other fields that they get the basic ideas of what Batman is doing and why; it still speaks to his intelligence, but now it doesn't fall into any of the traps of over-explaining, under-explaining, or just completely getting the science wrong.

He knows, for example, that this is a dead body

As I said before, even with extensive research and preparation, certain readers will know that the supposedly brilliant character isn't acting as smart as he should be.  However, the more preparation you put into writing for a smart character, the closer you can get to writing him as intelligently as he is supposed to be.  And, as a side bonus, you might learn something yourself.
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