Faking Genius

Geniuses are rare in life, but common in fiction. No offense to our writing class, but I suspect a lot of these fictional geniuses are written by smart-but-not-genius writers. But how can this be? How does a non-genius author write a genius character? If a character is smarter than the author, then their thoughts and decisions are, by definition, the kind of things the author wouldn’t think of when in that situation!

How do you fake genius? I’ve noticed three strategies authors use.

House, M.D.

The Genius Who Knows Lots of Stuff

This is the most common and, to me, most annoying strategy. It treats geniuses as little more than people who know lots of facts. I haven’t watched that much House M.D., but from what I’ve seen he’s an archetype of this format. Someone comes in with weird symptoms and House is the only one who knows about the rare disease that matches the symptoms. He is a walking storehouse of weird disease trivia (I know, I know, there’s more to him than that, it’s an illustration not a summary judgment of the show).

This is a pretty easy strategy for a writer to implement. The writer just uses google and a bookshelf to give the genius a torrent of factoids to say. But it’s also the strategy that leaves me cold, precisely because it’s easy to implement. It’s no more illuminating than flipping through an old set of Trivial Pursuit cards.

A twist on this type is the genius who knows which facts are the right ones. In this case, the author lays down the “real” clues, but then buries them under a pile of extraneous detail and red herrings. The author then makes the genius (usually a detective here) able to sniff out the real clues from the red herrings. The veracity of the “real” clues is proved when they solve the problem. Maybe they point to a villain who confesses or tries to kill the protagonist when outed. Or maybe they point to a treatment that cures the patient. Afterwards, the audience is satisfied that the real clues were there, ready to be seen, but we stand in awe of the genius’ “ability” to see what we had missed.

Geordie La Forge

The Genius Only Intelligible via Metaphor

The next type of genius is so much smarter than us that his speech is incomprehensible. We, the audience, are like dogs trying to understand humans. We recognize some of the words (frequently the word is quantum), but their connections are baffling. Frustrated, the genius then explains the gist of his idea with a simple metaphor that we can understand. Often the genius has to be prompted by someone saying “in English please!”

Star Trek’s tendency to do this was lampooned on Futurama (episode 412, “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”):

Leela: I didn’t wanna leave them either, Fry, but what are we supposed to do?
Fry: Well, usually on the show someone would come up with a complicated plan then explain it with a simple analogy.
Leela: Hmm. If we can re-route engine power through the primary weapons and reconfigure them to Melllvar’s frequency, that should overload his electro-quantum structure.
Bender: Like putting too much air in a balloon!
Fry: Of course! It’s so simple!

Star Trek is hardly the only party guilty of this trick. The Marvel movies do this when Bruce Banner and Tony Stark talk, for example. It’s not absent from more high-brow stuff either (e.g., Dr. Shevek’s explanations of his new physics in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed). This strategy seems to be used a lot in science fiction, precisely because in that genre we are dealing with technologies that haven’t been invented. If the author could explain exactly how they worked, then it wouldn’t be science fiction!

I think this method can actually be very effective. I am fond of this example, from the independent movie Travelling Salesman. In the movie, one of the protagonists has cracked the P versus NP problem. In brief, a proof related to the problem would allow allow us to solve difficult problems (like finding the factors of large numbers) at super speed. This is an open problem, so of course the writers can’t describe how it would really be solved. Instead, they use the following metaphor:

Tim: What if I took something like a quid coin, ok, and I buried it in the [desert]? It’s buried, you have no idea where it is, and I ask you to find it. How long would that take you?
Hugh: (scoffs) well-
Tim: Years, right, I mean millions of years if the desert were big enough.
Hugh: Sure
Tim: What if I melted the sand? Took all the sand in the desert and melted it. Glass. The whole desert becomes one big sheet of glass. So now finding the coin is easy, right? You just — you see it floating there. Change the sand to glass and finding the coin is trivial.

The metaphor conveys the idea that the genius has found a way to peer through all the complexity of a problem and see straight to the answer. But the writer doesn’t actually have to explain how it’s done.

This strategy is easy enough to write. You need a lot of complicated technical-scientific-literary buzzwords. You need a metaphor for the genius’ idea, but you don’t have to have the details worked out. Then you just alternate between the two modes of expression as needed. It’s kind of the empty calories of insight, because it gives the feeling of understanding without the reality, but I still prefer it to “the genius who knows lots of stuff.”

Ender Wiggins

The Handicapped Genius

A final type of genius is more satisfying, at least to me. In this case, the genius operates under a handicap so that exhibiting high (but not genius) intelligence by modern standards is itself proof of genius. A great example is Ender Wiggins, from Ender’s Game. In the book, Ender has a number of cool insights about warfare in three dimensions, and in general exhibits adult level intelligence. But he’s only six years old! A six year old exhibiting adult level reasoning is believable as a genius.

Another common twist is to put your genius in the past and have them be ahead of their time. The character of Thomasina in Arcadia is an example. In the 1800s and without the aid of computers, Thomasina discovers fractals (actually discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1970s). When the character is ahead of their time, the author has an excuse to illustrate the derivation of actually brilliant things (like fractals). But because these things have been discovered, with a bit of research, a smart author can learn how they were initially derived and then just copy that for their genius.

This strategy is more satisfying to me than the others because it usually exhibits reasoning from A to B, illustrates the connections between ideas, and so on. The facts aren’t just a torrent, but form a web of relationships. And for characters who are ahead of their time, you might get an idea of what it’s like to be inside the mind of genius. The catch is, you are actually reading a sort of disguised biography of whatever genius discovered the thing (like fractals) we are pretending was discovered by the fictional genius.

How to Fake Genius

So that’s how I’ve seen it done. Despite the tone of the above, I actually don’t think these are bad places to start. These strategies do get at some truths about geniuses: they do know a lot of stuff and they frequently are unintelligible unless they talk down to us using simple metaphors. Read a pop-physics book for copious examples.

But I would love it if we could go further. If I could feel what it’s like to really be in the head of a first class mind, that would be great. Can we do better? I’m not a writer of fiction, a genius, or even a psychologist, but I have done some research on “innovation,” so I’m not 100% unqualified to make some suggestions. Specifically, I think a good genius character should have the following characteristics:

  1. Geniuses know many things.
  2. Geniuses think with both speed and endurance.
  3. Geniuses think clearly.
  4. Geniuses have a lot of working memory.
  5. Geniuses make unusual connections between disparate concepts.

Most of these traits are not that hard to fake with time and tools. Let’s take them in turn.

1. Geniuses know many things

This is the one nearly everyone gets right, so I’ll be brief. Google and libraries are your friend. A team of writers can pretend all their accumulated knowledge fits in one genius’ head.

2. Geniuses think with both speed and endurance

Another easy one to fake. The writer can ponder the perfect witty retort for their genius for an hour, a week, or a year. But when they put pen to paper, it will seem as if it was instantly on the genius’ lips.

Geniuses are also frequently capable of intense focus for long periods of time. The author can afford to be scatter-brained, as long as they have more time than the genius to ponder. The audience need not know that one day of focused attention by the fictional genius took the writer a few months of scattered attention.

3. Geniuses think clearly

By this, I mean that geniuses don’t make weak arguments and logical errors. Unfortunately, as laid out at length in Mercier and Sperber’s The Enigma of Reason, individuals have a hard time objectively evaluating the strength of their own arguments. This is bad news, because Mercier and Sperber also present evidence that humans are quite good at objectively evaluating the arguments of others. If the author gives their genius a bad argument, the audience is more apt to spot it than the author.

Fortunately, we can use the same trick to our advantage. A good way to ensure your genius’ arguments are strong is to find a partner (or multiple partners) who you can talk them over with. A group of debaters, each of whom is individually biased towards their own argument, can nonetheless form a very clever collective intelligence because they can objectively evaluate each other. An author can, however, bring these disparate voices into the head of a lone genius to make the actual collective mind a singular fictional one.

4. Geniuses have a lot of working memory

On average people can hold about 7 pieces of information in their head at the same time, some more and some less. Geniuses, I presume, can hold more. This is important because it’s much easier to see connections between ideas that are held in working memory. Thus, geniuses can perhaps see how larger sets of facts are connected to each other.

Now we are getting into terrain a bit harder to fake. Pen and paper are useful tools for keeping facts close to hand if not in your brain. You can work out the genius’ idea with lots of time and paper (including a lot of paper that is discarded) and then pretend it all happened in their head. Another possible technique is to “chunk” several pieces of information into a broader concept, so it can be worked with. This takes longer than it would for a genius (you have to spend time understanding the chunked concept), but it’s a price of faking genius.

5. Geniuses Make Unusual Connections Between Disparate Concepts

This is hardest to fake. One possibility is to mine your own life for the top 2 or 3 epiphanies and then to reverse engineer a scenario for them to emerge. It helps if you keep a record of your thoughts. Alternatively, you might pick a few disparate subject areas, read deeply in them, and attempt to harvest a surprising connection or two. Again, reverse engineer a setting for those connections to emerge. In either case, the goal would be to make it seem as if these kinds of realizations are ordinary events for the fictional genius.

Fake Geniuses Among Us

It’s irresistible to wonder if we can’t use similar tricks to fake genius in our real lives. I think it’s not only possible but common. Indeed, this is the kind of thing academics and scientists do all the time. We cite things we haven’t read carefully. At seminars, only one person presents, even if the work came from many. Our papers omit the missteps, dead-ends, and other frustrations of research. There’s no place in a paper’s methods section to write “then I thought about the problem off-and-on for two years.” We talk our ideas through at length with our colleagues. We use computers and paper to augment our paltry memory. And we pick and choose research questions that are well suited to the weird ideas we want to explore.

If there’s a larger point, it’s this: I am suspicious of the notion that the difference between us and geniuses is one of kind and not merely of degree. I am suspicious that they can ever be incomprehensible, so long as we give ourselves sufficient time and tools to work out their thoughts. Brainpower, time, and thinking tools are all inputs into great ideas, but to a large degree I think we can substitute the latter two for the first.