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Thread: Write Smart: How can I portray a character with superhuman intelligence?

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    Write Smart: How can I portray a character with superhuman intelligence?

    Title says it all.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Like this:

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    Or: you could provide a little more information.
    Last edited by DaveC426913; 2019-May-20 at 03:21 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Title says it all.
    I think it's really complicated. Because it depends on what this "superhuman intelligence" is. Normally, you might want to consider having a character that always knows what people are going to decide, not because it is able to predict the future but because it is smart and understands what they are thinking. But that doesn't really make sense, because it is unlikely that a being with "superhuman intelligence" would be attuned to human motivations and emotional signals, so it might be smarter but appear stupid, if you see what I mean. Maybe it could make extremely rapid calculations? Like when they go to the restaurant, it automatically knows who owes what with tax and tip included?
    As above, so below

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    The way I've seen super-intelligence portrayed is thus:

    The character hears some bit of information and immediately takes some startlingly bold action (like stabbing someone, or racing off to stop a crime).
    The cause effect makes no sense, until you walk through the process at a normal human pace.
    "All I said was X...
    Hm. But that means Y. And if Y is true, then Z must follow. And if Z is true, then this guy must be the villain.
    (Why?)
    Work it out. So, Z is true, and means Z' is inevitable. And THAT means - Oh. Yeah. He's got to be neutralized. RIGHT. NOW.

    Highly intelligent people get to A to Z' the same way normal people do, just exponentially faster.

    And the key is: they don't have to talk it through. They just act.

    Likewise:

    Normal guy to super-int alien: "Get on the radio and tell your people to watch that planet over there. I'm going to blow it up. I want them to know what power I wield."
    Super-alien:"No need to call them."
    Norma: "Why?"
    Super: "Words are redundant. They will see the explosion and they will know."


    And:

    Truesdale woke from his torpor, after consuming the Tree of Life Root. His mind was exponentially faster. He clapped eyes on Pssthpok, paused for a brief second, and then closed the distance between them blindingly fast, snapping Pssthpok's neck.


    It takes the rest of the chapter to explain what the new, brilliant Truesdale was thinking in that half second. All he had to go on was his own transformation and he was able to deduce from first principles what Pssthpok was doing and what the threat to the human race was. We would have come to the same conclusion, but it would have taken us hours to work out, and then more hours to convince ourselves that the only way to stop it was killing his creator before his creator figured it out too.

    The TV Series Sherlock used this a lot. Sherlock would - for no conceivable reason, take immediate, bold action. It is only in retrospect that we understand what the inconsequential trigger was, and the thought process that led him to his action. They just cut all that out. It happens in less than a second for him.
    Last edited by DaveC426913; 2019-May-20 at 03:25 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveC426913 View Post
    Or: you could provide a little more information.
    I'm not smart enough to know what questions to ask. Hence the problem.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    The character could refuse to ever get drawn into political conversations.
    Calm down, have some dip. - George Carlin

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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveC426913 View Post
    And the key is: they don't have to talk it through. They just act.
    So, they're impulsive, don't explain their actions, and follow inexplicable reasoning. Sounds like a teenager.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    I'm not smart enough to know what questions to ask. Hence the problem.
    Well, you know the context of the story/character.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    So, they're impulsive, don't explain their actions, and follow inexplicable reasoning. Sounds like a teenager.


    Except they have a consistently impressive track record of success.

    You wouldn't write it like they're quirky; you'd write it like they find (and act on) solutions to problems before others even realize they're problems.

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    So, focus on their track record, I can see doing that for any smart person.

    I just wanted to know in general cases, what such a character might be like. I mean, fast action is one thing, when appropriate. But how can I show their superiority the other 99% of the time?
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Here is my rambling reasoning. I use the analogy of height. The smarter the person, the farther that person can see, less getting blocked by surrounding trees and hills and more able to see to the horizon. But there are always clouds in the way, or a haze in the air. You cannot see or do everything. Titanic vision means a titanic struggle, and perhaps titanic failure.

    Just because a person sees farther does not mean the person acts appropriately. The person could be lazy, or frightened, or evil. Emotional maturity, impulsiveness, and a thousand other things can take over. I've personally known very smart people who wasted their lives with petty things, being self-absorbed or compulsive and unable to control it. Mental illness figures in. Rage, fear, GREED, all make a difference. How was that person raised? Who did that person associate with?

    The ability to get many lines of knowledge at once, or have them on hand for immediate use, also matters. There is the story of the hyper-intelligent boy who became depressed because he believed, from the news he was seeing, that an atomic war was imminent. It never came, of course. You can be led astray by your line of reasoning, or your failure to grasp the deeper threads of history and current events. The future changes with every second the present advances. The Soviet Union's immense intelligence service did not prevent the USSR from disintegrating.

    A hyperintelligent person could be a Sherlock Holmes but develop a drug addiction in the mistaken belief (the medical sciences of his time being undeveloped) that the cocaine is helping him think better. Sigmund Freud was a cocaine user.

    A hyperintelligent person could develop and manage a vast space industry, but have such an unforgiving drive to work as to crush those close to her, treating her employees like slaves in the belief that she must get humanity off Earth before humanity destroys itself. The goal is worth the price, she says, and maybe it will be, or maybe not.

    I tend to look toward Ozymandias, from The Watchmen, as an excellent example of a hyperintelligent, hypercapable person who faces a supreme challenge. He is hit with the stunning realization that his original crime fighting plans were futile. Fighting crime turns out to be unimportant. The Comedian is right: humanity will soon perish in a nuclear war because the United States is feared by all the world as unstoppable because of its superheroes, especially Dr. Manhattan, who aid the government and military. Ozymandias comes up with a new plan to prevent the coming nuclear war, but he will purchase world peace at a ghastly price. He acts, but he is already a superhero and accustomed to acting on his beliefs. A lesser (more moral?) person would shrink back from what had to be done--and war would come (perhaps).

    In the end, a hyperintelligent being cannot prevent chaos. Anything can go wrong, and will, no matter how many loose ends you tie up. Rorschach sends his writings to a newspaper before he is killed, possibly revealing Ozymandias's plans to all. Ozymandias himself tells everyone of his plans a half-hour after the plans go into effect and cannot be stopped, even by Dr. Manhattan.

    So, if I were to write about a hyperintelligent person, I would write up what that person means to do in life, and how that person means to go about it. The person's personality traits, emotional maturity, and mental state should be kept in mind. But you cannot think of everything. The goals and struggle must be cosmic in scope, or at least beyond the imagining of normal folk. I would also give some failure to any success, and some success to any failure. It reads better that way.
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    Quote Originally Posted by SkepticJ View Post
    The character could refuse to ever get drawn into political conversations.
    I would say instead that people might strongly wish to NOT be drawn into political conversations with the hyperintelligent person, because whatever that person's beliefs are, they sure aren't going to be YOURS. You can get a hyperintelligent communist as easily as a hyperintelligent capitalist, with a billion shades of politics between. ("Draconian is such a prejudicial term.")
    Last edited by Roger E. Moore; 2019-May-21 at 12:39 PM.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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    And always remember that if it seems like the hyperintelligent person is in full control of everything going on, but he really isn't, he should be smart enough not to let anyone know he isn't in control. Conversely, he could spread his hands and say, "Of course I'm not in control of everything," which no one will believe.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveC426913 View Post
    Except they have a consistently impressive track record of success.

    You wouldn't write it like they're quirky; you'd write it like they find (and act on) solutions to problems before others even realize they're problems.
    It is possible the hyperintelligent person's career could start out marked by impressive failures, right up to the point he gets the gravity-control machine or the death ray down pat.

    And everyone is quirky. It's just that the quirks of an extremely smart person are going to look very quirky indeed. What looks like a quirk might not be at all. In Cat's Cradle, the scientist who invents Ice-Nine spends a lot of time stacking cannonballs in a park, trying to figure out how to get water molecules to form Ice-Nine. No one suspects what he is doing, to the misery of the world.
    Last edited by Roger E. Moore; 2019-May-21 at 12:47 PM.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
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    Maybe also look at the life and career of Howard Hughes. Unquestionably brilliant, he was also a womanizer and had affairs with underage women, and so was morally corrupt. He was in numerous plane crashes, which apparently gave him a severe form of OCD that caused him to do extremely strange, repetitive things. Yet he was able in the end to overcome his severe mental illness just enough to let him run his empire even when he was incapacitated physically and emotionally. What could he have become, had the OCD been cured or prevented, had he been less corrupt? Or more corrupt? Keep in mind the Glomar Explorer, that maybe he could have taken a nuke from that Russian sub for himself.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
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    Another example: Auric Goldfinger, from 007 lore. All along you think he wants to steal the gold in Fort Knox. NO. He wants to destroy the gold in Fort Knox, because then he will control so much gold elsewhere he will effectively rule the Earth financially. He went about it in a dreadfully bad way, should have just had an armed missile go off course and land on Fort Knox instead of fight his way in to plan the bomb (duh, that was soooo dumb). Still, what you think the hyperintelligent person is going to do might be exactly what the hyperintelligent person is NOT going to do.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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    Thanks, that's a lot to unpack!

    Minor nitpick, there's no The in Watchmen.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Picky picky picky.

    I personally think one thing that will be inevitable for the hyperintelligent person is a separation from the rest of humanity. No one else sees what he sees, knows what he knows. Humanity might be loved, but not in the way we think of "love". Humanity might become a more abstract thing, resources to be moved around and used, and maybe used up. Other people, however, should not get in the way.

    A brilliant scientist might be difficult to get along with because SHE knows what to do and how to do it, and everyone else quibbles about finances and zoning codes and radioactive waste and time off for vacations to Disneyland. She has daydreams of having trustworthy, uncomplaining, reliable robots do all her work for her, and then she realizes she can do exactly that with a little tinkering. She makes great domestic and industrial robots mainly to reduce her reliance on people around her, push people out of her way.

    Dr. Manhattan was infamous for his fading empathy with humanity, to the point where he wouldn't even intervene in crime situations, flying by overhead while listening to music on his Walkman. But Ozymandias had a very similar lack of empathy for humanity, despite his unbelievable efforts to save civilization. He killed a heck of a lot of people to save the world, and he never blinked once. He even killed his one-time allies to keep them from ruining his plans. Not true as a rule, but possible.

    Useful people, though, might include a team of excellent lawyers to keep the rest of the world at bay, AND to figure out clever ways of getting things done. Need a nuclear power plant? Do what Disney World did, and incorporate a city-like section of land that has its own laws and can create its own nuclear power plant under state and federal laws, perfectly legal, nothing wrong, lots of money to the lawyers and now the interplanetary teleporter works just fine.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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    Maybe, but Teela Brown turned Protector said she was able to put herself in the shoes of every one of the billions of beings she killed with her flare gun, in a way that human imagination never could. Protectors are called that for a reason after all. So maybe increased empathy can be a possible aspect of increased mental capacity? Depends on what kind of super-brain is involved and how its different from us I guess.

    I dunno. I'm still going over post 11.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Noclevername View Post
    Maybe, but Teela Brown turned Protector said she was able to put herself in the shoes of every one of the billions of beings she killed with her flare gun, in a way that human imagination never could. Protectors are called that for a reason after all. So maybe increased empathy can be a possible aspect of increased mental capacity?
    All that empathy did not stop her from killing. Maybe it's not "empathy" as we know it, maybe just an awareness of that she was doing wasn't making a lot of beings happy.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    All that empathy did not stop her from killing. Maybe it's not "empathy" as we know it, maybe just an awareness of that she was doing wasn't making a lot of beings happy.
    The dilemma of the Protector: trapped between undeniable hardwired instincts and rigid, ruthless logic.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    I gave a speech once on Archimedes, to a crowd at a GenCon long ago. The main point was that a creative life had the power to transform the entire human world. It might be imagined that a superintelligent person would, as a consequence of regular work, introduce dozens or hundreds of improvements to things we do, from tiny things like better ways to cook up to better ways to launch rockets. History is definitely affected, for good or ill.

    This is a fairly good list of Archimedes's accomplishments. Some of his inventions like the screw used to raise well water are still used today. Also note the debate about some of his alleged inventions, such as navigational computers and the heat ray. I read somewhere he was thought to have invented a flamethrower.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    I gave a speech once on Archimedes, to a crowd at a GenCon long ago. The main point was that a creative life had the power to transform the entire human world. It might be imagined that a superintelligent person would, as a consequence of regular work, introduce dozens or hundreds of improvements to things we do, from tiny things like better ways to cook up to better ways to launch rockets. History is definitely affected, for good or ill.
    People in the upper range of human abilities regularly (or irregularly) change our world. What effect could someone of an even higher level of capability have?

    But I don't want to show characters as "just" geniuses. They are going to be fundamentally different from humans, outside our range. It's like writing an alien or AI character.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    The Listverse list of fictional geniuses, below, strikes me as a fair start. You get the idea that all geniuses have limitations in that they cannot do everything and often focus exclusively on a narrow range of things. Some can be personally dangerous, some are just obnoxious, a few can be "nice". Dr. Lechter could be quite helpful if you were on his good side. Of particular interest are the geniuses who open up new worlds, such as outer space, time travel, whole new environments to explore... or new species to confront.

    I would say a key thing is that a hyperintelligent person is aware of much more in the world than everyone else is. They make mistakes but not the kind the rest of us make, mistakes that might be invisible to us. That person's goals and the plans made to achieve them, and the methods used to get them, that to me is the core of it. It takes time.

    https://listverse.com/2011/09/18/top...onal-geniuses/
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    You get the idea that all geniuses have limitations in that they cannot do everything and often focus exclusively on a narrow range of things.

    ...
    I would say a key thing is that a hyperintelligent person is aware of much more in the world than everyone else is. They make mistakes but not the kind the rest of us make, mistakes that might be invisible to us.
    Hmm. I can see why a writer, who is a non-super human, would focus on limiting the characters. Flaws make them easier to write and challenge, and more relatable or at least understandable to an audience. Not an omnicompetent chessmaster, just a human-genius-plus.

    That person's goals and the plans made to achieve them, and the methods used to get them, that to me is the core of it.
    Agreed. How they interact with others, their activities, are describable. Their thoughts and viewpoint probably aren't. That's why as you said, writers try to show them in dramatic "action".
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    I was once a published writer and also a fanfic writer. Writing about extremely intelligent people was hard, but less difficult than writing about giant floating squids on Jupiter. It was easier to limit geniuses, to write about them showing flashes of genius but not so much sustained genius. It is a pickle. You have to do a lot of work on their background, personalities, etc., really flesh them out, then put it aside and go back to it later to see what you missed.

    In a way it was easier also to write about smart people saying things or doing things, but not about what they were thinking, exactly as you said. Keep the remoteness from the rest of humanity that hyperintelligent people would feel. We can see and hear and touch them, but we cannot look inside them.

    Hannibal reveals a very interesting aspect of Dr. Lechter, that he had mastered the art of memory and had a fully functioning memory palace in his head, by which he could store any memory or any bit of knowledge and retrieve it in a moment. I've read books about memory palaces and must say that a super-genius should have enormous memory storage and super-effective retrieval.

    The super-smart person should also have a looooooong life to better learn wisdom and common sense to aid the intelligence, making good decisions and knowing what isn't really important and can, usually, be ignored.

    Hyperintelligent people might also view risk differently than the rest of us. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan has some amazing sections that give clues as to how a hyperintelligent person might assess risk. The biggest threat to plans is not where everyone else is looking. You cannot predict black swans, which by definition cannot be predicted, but you can design a robust and redundant defense to reduce the damage you take from them and recover quickly, perhaps even taking advantage of the black swan after it happens.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    I was once a published writer and also a fanfic writer. Writing about extremely intelligent people was hard, but less difficult than writing about giant floating squids on Jupiter. It was easier to limit geniuses, to write about them showing flashes of genius but not so much sustained genius. It is a pickle. You have to do a lot of work on their background, personalities, etc., really flesh them out, then put it aside and go back to it later to see what you missed.

    In a way it was easier also to write about smart people saying things or doing things, but not about what they were thinking, exactly as you said. Keep the remoteness from the rest of humanity that hyperintelligent people would feel. We can see and hear and touch them, but we cannot look inside them.

    Hannibal reveals a very interesting aspect of Dr. Lechter, that he had mastered the art of memory and had a fully functioning memory palace in his head, by which he could store any memory or any bit of knowledge and retrieve it in a moment. I've read books about memory palaces and must say that a super-genius should have enormous memory storage and super-effective retrieval.

    The super-smart person should also have a looooooong life to better learn wisdom and common sense to aid the intelligence, making good decisions and knowing what isn't really important and can, usually, be ignored.

    Hyperintelligent people might also view risk differently than the rest of us. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan has some amazing sections that give clues as to how a hyperintelligent person might assess risk. The biggest threat to plans is not where everyone else is looking. You cannot predict black swans, which by definition cannot be predicted, but you can design a robust and redundant defense to reduce the damage you take from them and recover quickly, perhaps even taking advantage of the black swan after it happens.
    Thanks for that. It helps. I'm going to take some time to process all this info.
    "I'm planning to live forever. So far, that's working perfectly." Steven Wright

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    Quote Originally Posted by Roger E. Moore View Post
    All that empathy did not stop her from killing. Maybe it's not "empathy" as we know it, maybe just an awareness of that she was doing wasn't making a lot of beings happy.
    ??

    But it did stop her. (Or am I completely mis-remembering?)
    She couldn't do it. She couldn't kill 5% of the pop to save the other 95%.

    That's why she deliberately got herself killed - so Louis could do The Hard Thing that she couldn't.

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    Quote Originally Posted by DaveC426913 View Post
    ?? But it did stop her. (Or am I completely mis-remembering?) She couldn't do it. She couldn't kill 5% of the pop to save the other 95%. That's why she deliberately got herself killed - so Louis could do The Hard Thing that she couldn't.
    In a sense, yes, but it was completely planned out by her. She identified how to stabilize the Ringworld, which would bring about the deaths of billions, by taking herself out of the equation (because she would actively stop it) and getting someone else to do the work for her. So she did let 5% die by indirect action. I know, it's arguable and tricky.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
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    I guess it's worth saying that when you finish writing about a super-smart character, go back over the work and ask yourself if there was a better, smarter way to do things. Don't make the Teela Brown error (questionable whether she would have let anyone die, even indirectly) or the Goldfinger error (he wouldn't go to Fort Knox himself to do it, that would be stupid).

    And find a list of things that no super-villain (or hero) would ever do. Those can be helpful as well as funny.
    There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
    Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)

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