How to Write About Characters Who Are Smarter Than You

My least favorite moment in all of cinema is a relatively common one. You will recognize it, I’m sure, from dozens of movies and TV shows that prominently feature scientists. You may even have laughed at it once or twice. It usually gets a quick chortle. The moment goes something like this:

Our character is a scientist of some kind. He’s a mathematician if you’re watching a drama. He’s a physicist, usually, if you’re watching a sci-fi movie. He is a biologist in a zombie movie or a coder in a techno-thriller (and he is almost invariably a man, which in and of itself is an annoyance). Our scientist character delivers a brief, relatively reasonable paragraph of technical dialogue. He explains some plot point to the other characters in the scene, which serves to explain it to the audience as well. He throws in a few obscure, jargon-y scientific words for verisimilitude, but the basic point he makes is quite clear and comprehensible. Something along the lines of: “We’re going to need to modify the warp thrusters to go through a wormhole of that size,” or, “The terrorists are using an unhackable 512-bit key to encrypt the location of the plutonium,” or even, “By traveling into the past you’ve created an alternate universe timeline in which you were never born.” Something along those lines. He describes a scientific concept that is both readily explicable and quite literally has just been explained.

But then, after our scientist has finished, the camera turns to a second character. This would be our scientist’s normal-dude buddy. He’s just a regular Joe. He is the audience’s stand-in during the scene, and the character with whom the audience most identifies. This guy makes an incredulous face in response to the scientist’s technical language. And then he says the following line:

“WHOA, Doc. Say that again in English!”

You know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve seen this moment on screen, you’ve seen it on TV, you’ve read it in novels. I find this moment to be extremely condescending to its audience. The moment essentially signals to the viewer that all of that mumbo-jumbo that this smarty pants has been blathering on about, well, we filmmakers do not understand a word of it. Moreover, we don’t care to. And we have no interest in your understanding it either.

It’s a moment of casually cynical anti-intellectualism. It’s a joke predicated on the idea that only some geeky sex-less egghead would ever bother to care about what some dotty scientist says. The moment treats neither its characters nor its audience with respect.

I would suggest that the reason moments like this keep popping up on screens small and large is quite simply that writing about an exceptionally brilliant character is terribly difficult. There is a tendency to blow off a character’s brilliance, in moments like the one I’ve described, rather than confront her genius head on. Because the latter approach is just so infernally difficult.

As a writer, how do you write about characters who are smarter than you are? How do you convey, in either prose or dialogue, the mind of a genius when you yourself are not one? How do you properly respect both the audience’s intelligence, and the near super-human intelligence of a genius character?

I spent a lot of highly caffeinated nights grappling with these questions when I started writing the script for The Imitation Game. Alan Turing, whose life story is explored in the film, was perhaps the greatest genius of his generation. I am, to put it mildly, not. Turing was not only instrumental in cracking the German Enigma code during WWII, but he also theorized what would become the modern computer. Turing was not only an accomplished botanist who made his own fertilizer, but as an idle experiment he developed an algorithm for determining how zebras got their stripes. His was a mind so constantly whirring with ideas, so endlessly churning through the information of the world and processing it into theories, conjectures, and experiments. He couldn’t stop thinking even if he wanted to, which fortunately for us he didn’t. To convey a mind like his on the page and on the screen was both a terrible challenge and a sacred responsibility.

One approach would be to render his dialogue as highly technical jargon. To have him speak in dense and impenetrable algorithms. The problem with this would be that it would end up incomprehensible to the audience. The viewer would not find herself inside the mind of Alan Turing; rather she would find herself purposefully excluded from it. She would neither learn anything about Turing’s thoughts, nor experience any of them as her own. It might convey the aesthetic impression of intelligence — what mathematical intelligence sounds like — but it wouldn’t allow the viewer into Turing’s unique and world-historical ideas. A dry recitation of mathematical concepts would not, it seemed, do artistic justice to Turing’s legacy.

Quite helpfully, however, I was far from the first person to attempt to tackle this very issue. And what I realized was that if you want to write about a genius, the best place to look for inspiration is in the work of someone who created the most definitive fictional genius of all time. Someone who, in 56 short stories and four novels, conjured a genius so unique that he’s been revived, in books and films and television and plays, for over a hundred years. Namely: I found inspiration in the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Now, four years ago, I published a novel about Conan Doyle. It was called The Sherlockian, and it was actually the piece of writing that I gave to the producers of The Imitation Game to convince them to let me come on and tackle Turing’s story (that I was willing and eager to work for free was probably also a helpful selling point). But it occurred to me that while Conan Doyle’s fictional detective was not at all like Alan Turing — the two men had completely different personalities and ways of looking at the world — Conan Doyle had nonetheless done a superlative job of conveying the impression of Holmes’ brilliance. So how did he do it?

Now, the first thing to note about the relationship between Conan Doyle and Holmes is that it was not a friendly one. Conan Doyle loathed Holmes. He regretted having created the character almost instantly after he did so. When the first Holmes story was published, Conan Doyle found himself shocked at his creation’s sudden and massive popularity. Conan Doyle’s more “serious” fiction went ignored as the public demanded more of what he felt were cheap, manipulative mysteries. But audiences kept gobbling the stories up, and Conan Doyle found himself unable to resist the sizable checks coming his way. He kept scribbling, and the public kept buying, and all the while Conan Doyle was dumbfounded. Holmes’s popularity out shown Conan Doyle’s own. It wasn’t his name on everyone’s lips; it was Holmes’s. At one point, Conan Doyle’s own mother sent him a letter, asking if he’d sign a copy of one of the books for a friend of hers. Conan Doyle wrote that he’d be happy to. To which his mother responded happily, asking if he wouldn’t mind signing it “ — Sherlock Holmes.”

Even his mother seemed to appreciate Holmes more than she appreciated him.

Which only magnified Conan Doyle’s antipathy towards the audience of gullible rubes who were purchasing these tales. Didn’t they know that it was just a trick? Holmes wasn’t a real genius — he was made up!

So Conan Doyle wrote a very short piece in which he tried to make plain the “trick” of the Holmes stories. He composed a parody of his own work, as if to show that at least he was in on the joke of Holmes, even if no one else was. The story is actually called “How Watson Learned the Trick,” and it’s not usually published as part of the Holmes canon (you can find it yourself here). Some scholars find the story to be a gentle and affectionate ribbing of the character of Holmes, but to my mind it seems a full-throated mockery of the literary techniques used to create him. It reads as if it was tailor-made to annoy fans. The only thing I can compare it to is the end of The Sopranos, perhaps, in the way that it meta-narratively castigates its audience for enjoying the very work that they are in the act of enjoying.

The story begins with Watson and Holmes sitting down to one of their usual breakfasts. Watson gives Holmes a curious look. “I was thinking how superficial are these tricks of yours,” Watson says, “and how wonderful it is that the public should continue to show interest in them.”

Holmes agrees with Watson’s assessment. “Your methods,” says Watson, “are really easily acquired.”

“No doubt!” responds Holmes, and then he dares Watson to try.

Watson takes the bait. He looks Holmes up and down, and he makes a series of Holmesian deductions about what the good Sherlock has been up to. He can tell that Holmes was very preoccupied when he woke up; that he was unsuccessful on a recent case; and that he had recently dabbled in the financial markets. Watson determines all this from the state of Holmes’s shave, an envelope glimpsed upon the breakfast table, and the condition of the morning’s newspaper, respectively. It’s a perfectly rendered Holmesian moment: Watson glances over a bunch of small details, which the reader would naturally ignore, and from these unrelated morsels of information makes a series of brilliant deductions.

Only, in this story, there is a twist: Watson is completely wrong about each of his inferences. So to shame both Watson and the reader, Holmes shows how each of the details Watson has observed might be explained by entirely different means. The fact that Holmes hasn’t shaved doesn’t mean that he was preoccupied; it means that he’d lost his razor. And so forth. The same set of mundane observations can be spun an infinite number of ways, to create an infinite number of deductions. So which one is right?

The point of the story, I would suggest, is that it’s totally random. Conan Doyle has stacked the deck in Holmes’s favor, so to speak. Anyone in Holmes’ shoes — any reader, even someone just as brilliant as Holmes — could make any number of similar inferences that have equal chances of being correct. All Conan Doyle has to do, as the God of this fictional universe, is to slip Holmes the right ones underneath the table.

So what can we learn from Doyle’s mocking explication of his own methods? How should we apply them, as Holmes might say? I’d suggest that the lesson here is openness: Give the audience all of the information. Don’t hold anything back.

Doyle’s great discovery is that intelligence is not about the accumulation of data — it’s about deciding what that data means. Holmes has the same tools at his disposal that you do; he almost never possesses information that you don’t. It’s only that he looks at the shared information and sees things that you never could. An analogy might be found in the poker game Texas Hold ’Em, for any reader who plays (I play a lot.) The trick of the game is in some sense that you’re not playing your opponent’s cards — you’re playing the community cards. The real game isn’t in what she knows that you don’t, or what you know that she doesn’t. It’s in what you both know, but you simply deploy to greater affect.

Doyle does not portray genius in the say-that-again-in-English way. His moment of genius does not make you think: “Only some crazy egghead would ever think of that!” Doyle makes the reader go: “God, why didn’t I think of that?”

And this is one of the things that I found so rewarding in writing about Alan Turing: that trying to convey his intelligence on screen was a democratizing act. That opening his one-of-a-kind mind up on screen was about letting other people in; not about shutting them out. That genius is conveyed by sharing intelligence, not by hoarding it. We’re all in this smart business together, in a sense.

Like many stories, this one ends with a funny circularity.

My first book had been about a genius novelist: Arthur Conan Doyle. I then wrote a movie about a genius mathematician: Alan Turing. In doing so I used Conan Doyle’s genius for inspiration. And then — after five years and lots of Hollywood twists and turns that could be the subject of another article or two — we finally got to make our Turing film. And who was the actor who gamely strode in the front of the cameras to bring Turing to vivid, passionate life? It was Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who had just come from playing Sherlock Holmes.

One day we were all on set. We were shooting a relatively technical scene, involving a bit of business with an Enigma machine and some quick dialogue about mathematics. Right before the cameras started rolling, Benedict called me over and told me that he thought I’d made a mistake. I was embarrassed, of course, and I asked him what the mistake was. He then went on a long and highly technical monologue about the mathematics behind Enigma machines, and how the machine’s rotors were connected. Were we describing a three-rotor Enigma, or a five-rotor Enigma? How many plugboard cables was the German navy using at that point in the war? Should the very large number referenced in the line of dialogue have eighteen zeroes or nineteen zeroes? Was there a mistake in my multiplication?

The two of us went back and forth a little, each trying to do the math in our heads. Finally, as he was explaining his reasoning — which incidentally turned out to be correct — I had to stop him for a second as I struggled to keep up. I blurted out:

“Wait. Ben. Say that again.”


Graham Moore is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Imitation Game​.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Graham Moore’s story.