Genius is often thought of as synonymous with “intelligent” or “smart” or “eidetic memory and know-it-all.” but that isn’t the case. True genius, or at least in terms of traits and characterization, is the ability to use what you have in ways that others won’t. Some geniuses are obviously smart, and some are geniuses in ways so subtle that the character appears deluded.
This is something I can (and have) talked about for hours at various
unfortunate people. “Genius characters” is actually an umbrella term
that covers a whole range of character Archetypes, from the Sherlock
Holmes to the Tortured Mastermind; each one is different, because the
genius of a character is inherently subjective. There are a lot of
cross-overs from archetype to archetype, and the overlap can be really
interesting to use when creating your genius character, but I’ve broken
them up as best I can by defining characteristics for simplicity.
Remember to use the archetype as a base and build on from there, to make
your genius characters as interesting as possible; they may be
geniuses, but they are also human. Flesh them out, lace nuances into
their character, make them hate reading or like videogames.
The Ignorant Intellectual
I.e, the Dirk Gently.
The Gently-esque archetype is a perfect place to start, because it really demonstrates the subjective nature of a genius character. Arguably, Dirk isn’t a genius at all— he simply follows where the universe takes him, acting on the whims and impulses it gives him, so how can he be a genius?—but the genius comes in when he joins the dots together. He hasn’t been made smart by the holistic power that the universe gave him, but he has learned to adapt and survive.
This kind of genius is defined by a lack of large quantities of knowledge, but a certain intellectual capacity. These characters are usually thrown into (or willing walk into) situations, completely ignorant, where their true genius shines through their ability to talk fast, think outside the box and learn as they go along. They are also enablers, which is what sets the Ignorant Intellectual apart from the Holmes-type genius; whereas a Holmes would have the answer before anyone else, a Gently would find an answer by helping others see it first. For example, they might make one connection that is really obscure, and that will allow others to suddenly work out the rest. As such, these types are great survivors, often through luck and clever bullshitting, but they’re at their best with others.
The Naturally Intelligent Intuit
I.e, The Sherlock Holmes
And I mean bookHolmes folks, not BBC Sherlock. The Holmes we see on the BBC TV series is better classified as a Tortured Genius; he has natural intelligence, true, but he’s cold and lacks intuition on the same level as his book counterpart.
The Holmes archtype possesses natural intelligence combined with a depth of warmth and intuition. They may often be arrogant or appear aloof, but only because they are ignorant of the superior speed that their mind can work at, or forgetful of it. The thing here is natural intelligence; anyone can learn to think intelligently, but very few are born with a natural ability to process and store information, and then apply it innovatively. However, this intelligence alone doesn’t make for a genius character: they should also possess very good intuition, which is always backed up by evidence supplied by their intelligent logic.
Holmes was a trailblazer in this area. He practically made the archetype, as a matter of fact, but there are aspects of his character that ought to be kept separate. One of these is his reliance on unhealthy coping mechanisms, and another is his tendency to be erratic or eccentric—both of these are traits that defined him as a person-character, rather than marks of his genius archetype.
The Tortured Genius
I.e, the Victor Frankenstein
Although not inherently evil, these characters are often plain nasty people—but it’s not their fault, obviously! They would say something like “It’s because I’m so smart, nobody understands me, I’m tortured by my own intelligence to the point where I am are alienated from society—!”
No, Victor, sweetie, it’s because you’re an arrogant arsehole. The archtype isn’t quite that simple, but Doctor Frankenstein is a very good example of the fundamental basics.
I like this one for its flexibility. I mentioned that BBC Sherlock is a Tortured Genius and while book Sherlock almost fits the shoe, his saving grace is his humility and warmth. On the other hand, characters like Doctor Frankenstein and BBC Sherlock are arrogant, and either refuse to acknowledge their flaws or, acknowledging them, refuse to better them. Sometimes, a character like this will actively be worse. BBC’s Sherlock is actually a pretty cheap take on the Tortured Genius, but that may also be because he isn’t a very well-substantiated interpretation of the book canon… anyway, I digress. The point here is that these characters are complex to the point where they twist themselves into knots, often shaped by tragedy or trauma.
They see themselves one way, and the world another. A tortured genius could be anything from initially mild-mannered to downright cruel; either way, their internal or first intentions are usually good. They tend to change throughout their story, as their flaws get in the way and they wrestle with the feeling that nobody is ever going to truly understand who they are. The result is a lot of internalised rage or self-hatred, until they explode or start a downwards spiral of unhealthy coping mechanisms. They often have at least three of the following:
- A fear of failure that pushes them to extremes
- Hubris (excessive pride)
- Arrogance, so much so that they think they can do the impossible (solve impossible cases, reverse death, create life etc)
- Narcissism designed to cover up serious self-esteem issues
- Put too much pressure on themselves; think they can reach unattainable goals and experience a huge drop of self-worth when they fail.
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Either actively shun others or are shunned because they make no effort to include others that they deem less intelligent.
- Equate worth to intelligence (see above point)
Something to be wary of is the mental health aspect of a tortured genius. It’s true that these characters are usually depressed or considered insane, but the poor mental health is always caused by their actions, rather than their mental health issues causing them to be a tortured genius. Remember, this archetype is never a very nice person which leads to them being miserable; however, if you had a person with Schizophrenia and they were also a genius when their plot began, they would struggle, yes, but it isn’t the same thing. Anyone with a pre-existing mental health condition would.
Don’t use mental health issues to drive a character like this, because they never excuse the sort of behaviour that the archetype calls for and this only strengthens the stereotype of people with mental health issues being dangerous.
The Accidental Pedant
I.e, the Spencer Reid.
I like to call this one the soft genius. They’re the most genuine, kind-hearted of the lot. Half of the time, they don’t even realise their own genius until it’s pointed out to them, and the other half of the time they’re aware of it but don’t consider this aspect of their personality as anything other than a cool way to store information. Usually, their genius is a byproduct, or in combination with, an eidetic memory, incredibly high IQ, asperger’s (although this one is a dicy area, as it can perpetuate harmful stereotypes) or savaunt syndrome. In other words, it’s a passive sort of genius that comes naturally to them because of something out of their control.
These types of geniuses have oodles of information stored in their brains, and love to share it. It’s just that… not everyone wants to hear it. They spontaneously blurt out facts, but it doesn’t seperate them from others. Unlike the majority of genius archetypes, the Accidental Pedant is still loveable, kind, thoroughly sincere and usually gets classified as a dork. In short: all round goodness stuffed full of knowledge.
Some things to avoid in this archetype are Autistic Spectrum Condition-coding (if your genius is on the autistic spectrum, then they’re on the autistic spectrum. Make it explicit and don’t try to use the fact to negate the value of their intelligence) and infantilization. Too often, the Accidental Pedant is shown to be like a big baby with adult intelligence. In the case of Spencer Reid, you can be mistaken to think that at first as the other members of his team call him “kid”; but as the seasons continue it becomes clear that he is a valued, equal member of the group respected for more than his eidetic memory.
I.e, the Loki (of Norse mythology)
As with Sherlock
Holmes, I’m talking about the archetype seen in mythological figures,
like Anansi or Loki, rather than modern popular media. (But I couldn’t
resist the marvel Loki gif).
As with the Tortured Genius, the
Trickster isn’t inherently evil but is still… questionable. They
think first and foremost of themselves before others, and have no
problem with causing chaos to meet their ends. Their genius is one of
wit and wily charm, a smooth tongue and all the cunning of a high-flying
conman. In other words, some might kill or endanger others for their own
delight (I’m looking right at you, Loki) but others would steal,
cheat and lie but never kill. And sometimes pay back those that they
have robbed, in due course.
Usually a jack-of-all-trades, with their trickster-ness ranging from harmless pranks to full-scale chaos to simply being very cunning; they walk the line between evil mastermind and trickster, but they have two defining traits that set them apart:
- Often feel remorse and know the limits that they should stay within. Leaving these limits usually leads to their downfall. More often than not, they have no desire to exceed the limits.
- Their motivations are skewed, but not truly evil, and usually small. They would endanger their family to get some satisfaction after a petty slight, but wouldn’t harm their family in order to take over the world or exceed their station (mythological Loki being the former and MCU the latter)
The Evil Mastermind
i.e, The Moriarty
Immoral, chaotic, cruel; this genius is one who channels all of their creative energy into wrongdoings. Unlike the Trickster, these wrongdoings are pure horrors; they are intended to cause harm and are based on larger ambitions than brief amusement or emotional satsfaction. They are usually intelligent in all forms, and deeply selfish (or they believe that they are helping their family or a loved one, but actually they’re just hurting a lot of people). The ends will always justify the means, and nothing else matters after that.
Some like to have people do their foul play for them, and others like to get their hands dirty themselves. This is the sort of genius who carries themselves with class, style and sophistication; they are fully aware of their own intelligence, but are usually careful to avoid a downwards spiral.
You may want to keep in mind that not every antagonist is an evil mastermind. Macbeth would probably more accurately be described as a tortured genius, as would Theon Greyjoy and Ryzek Noavek.
Each of these genius archetypes can fall into the role of either antagonist or protagonist
; say, an evil mastermind becomes a highly immoral protagonist for personal gain. It would be heckin awesome to see an Accidental Pedant as an antagonist, if the cards were played right.