How to have a massively intelligent character without alienating your audience, with Charlie Eppes

Posted: March 1, 2013 in How to... (Writing Tips), TV Shows, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Here’s the next post in this series where I discuss TV shows and movies and the knowledge that we can gain from watching them. We can apply that knowledge to our writing. As always, I never pretend to be an expert. I just like exploring my own thoughts on the matter as I write these blog posts! I welcome all comments and would love to hear what you think about this topic.

Make sure you check out my previous post, titled, “How to turn a bad guy into a good guy, with Damon Salvatore.”

Numb3rsNumb3rs is an oldie but goodie (as in, it’s not on TV anymore) that I used to watch when it was live on TV. I never saw the whole show, or even a large part of it, but seeing as it’s on Netflix Streaming in its entirety, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stare at David Krumholtz watch it from the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar, the show centers around two brothers. One is an FBI agent (Don) and the other is a brilliant mathematician (Charlie). (Don’t make that face. I don’t like math either. But this show is awesome.) Charlie consults for his brother and helps him solve cases. It’s a pretty basic plot, your typical procedural, but the writing is strong and the characters are dynamic and interesting.

I’m only through the first season in my rewatch, but I knew I wanted to write a post on Charlie and why he’s such a fantastic character.

You see, it’s easy to have a genius main character. They have all the answers. They can solve all the problems. They wrap up the plot in a neat little bow and look hella cool doing it. And that’s fine, to an extent. But what happens when that alienates your audience? What happens when the character is so smart the readers can’t follow along? It makes them feel stupid, and they end up putting down your book.

That’s what makes this show so great. Don is our second main character. He brings Charlie down to our level. He’s a good agent, but he’s not a genius, not like his brother. He often doesn’t understand what Charlie is saying when he starts spewing out all those mathematical terms that the average viewer won’t understand either. Don makes Charlie slow down and explain it in layman’s terms.

Without Don, the audience would say the show was too confusing and wouldn’t tune in every week.

Numb3rs Charlie 2The other great part about this is what Charlie does to explain the conclusions he comes to via his mathematical analysis. In one episode, he explains to Don that he can take the locations of various murders and use them to pin-point the area of origin – the area where the killer most likely lives. Instead of showing Don the equation and going through it step by step with him – which wouldn’t help, because Don (and the audience) wouldn’t understand – Charlie points to a sprinkler that’s sitting in their yard. Knowing where each drop has landed, he would be able to reverse their trajectory and find out exactly where they originated – where the sprinkler is located.

See, that I understand.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip of that scene, but here’s another one that does a good job of making math understandable and interesting:

The same thing happens in Sherlock. John Watson isn’t on Sherlock’s level, and when Sherlock has to explain something to him, he’s indirectly explaining it to us too. Sherlock by himself wouldn’t be as interesting or as engaging. He would mostly just be looking at things for a few seconds, telling the cops who did it, and walking away. At least with John there, he has to take the time to bring him into the loop, along with the audience.

So, how do you do this in your book? If you’ve got a super-intelligent character (ie. Hermione), make sure there’s another character that your audience can better relate to (ie. Harry or Ron). It’s not that your audience isn’t intelligent – and this is by no means me telling you to dumb down your story in order to make it more understandable – it’s that extremely intelligent characters often need an Average Joe to slow them down and tell them to explain their conclusions. Otherwise, you have something like:

*Sherlock walks into a room, looks around*
“Mrs. Pennyworth was killed by Mr. Jacobson with a curling iron and a box of tissues at 8:36 yesterday morning.”
*Sherlock walks out of the room*

Sure, that’s all fine and dandy, but it makes the solutions to the problems seem too easy and too obvious, even when they’re not.

Plus, let’s face it, most people don’t have an IQ equal to Sherlock’s. We need someone like John to make him talk in English.

Do you have a super intelligent main character? How do you make him or her relatable? Who’s your favorite smart person on TV? Have you ever seen Numb3rs?

  1. EM Castellan says:

    I love Sherlock! It’s a great example of a character who could be obnoxious but is not… 🙂

  2. C.Hill says:

    Sherlock obnoxious? Blasphemy!

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