It's Made Of SCIENCE: Writing Characters That Are Smarter Than You

When I was about nine or ten, I had gotten myself involved in playing the Pokemon card game at the local Books-a-Million. I remember observing a match between two boys of the same age, and one of the players whipped out a Pikachu card. This wasn't the normal Pikachu card; it was special, with unique art, abilities, and a little star logo. It was a promo card included with a magazine subscription.

But I couldn't place the word "promo." I knew it was an "-omo" word. What was a common -omo word I had heard at school?

Ah, yes.

"Is that a homo Pikachu?"

The boys laughed the cruel laughter of children. I fled the scene to the back of the store and spent the rest of the hour in tears amongst the greeting cards. Then my mom picked me up, and I lied and said that I had fun, but that I wasn't really interested in playing Pokemon with other humans anymore. And then I wrote about it on the Internet, where it will stay forever.

The problem of ignorance

The surest way of convincing readers that your character is knowledgeable is by having the character demonstrate actual knowledge.

Fiction writers have a tough job description. We're expected to create worlds out of our imagination, discover problems in this nonexistent world, and then build characters capable of solving these problems. To be successful, our readers have to find the lives of our characters more interesting than they find their own lives.

Since we are usually members of our own target audience, we shouldn't find it surprising, then, that the characters we build are often going to be stronger, smarter, braver, or all around more impressive people than we are. There's no shame in that. We aren't writing autobiographies. But obviously, writing about a character that is smarter than you creates a dilemma.

How do we, as writers, create a character that understands more about a subject than we do? More importantly (for our egos), how do we do it in such a way that we don't get laughed at by the readers who do know more about the subject than we do?

How do we write a smart book about smart people without having to hide from our audience in the greeting card section of the Books-a-Million?

Research

The surest way of convincing readers that your character is knowledgeable is by having the character demonstrate actual knowledge.

Okay, what I'm actually saying is that you have to demonstrate that knowledge, and use your character to do it.

Orson Scott Card researched the effects of time dilation at relativistic speeds in Speaker for the Dead, Steig Larsson used his in-depth knowledge of hacking for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and Mark Danielewski researched… whatever it was he happened to be interested in as he was writing House of Leaves.

Research works. People like learning things, and readers tend to recommend work that makes them feel smarter, more enlightened, or superior to those who haven't read it.

This doesn't mean you need a Ph.D in astronomy to write about an astronomer. But if your astronomer is tasked with saving the world from, say, a collision with a rogue planet, then you should do some research on rogue planets. Where do they come from? Why are they considered planets, and not asteroids or meteors? What are the chances of getting hit by one? How might we stop one that was approaching Earth?

If you don't answer these questions, and just try to deal with the "action" of saving the planet, then your astronomer doesn't look like an astronomer. He or she looks like an extremely lucky phony that manages to save the world because that's what the author wanted, not because of anything scientifically plausible. This can rip the audience out of the illusion of the fiction, and reveal that you, the author, don't know what you're talking about.

By the way, sometimes research simply means fact-checking the assumptions you’re making in your story. If you don't look at every event with a critical eye, you end up writing the climax of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which involves sinking ice caps to crush an underwater base. Somehow, the fact that ice can’t sink in water passed the writers, directors, computer animators, and everyone else involved in the film, and the result is a ridiculous evil plan that can be disproved with an ice cube.

Focus on the conclusion, not the equation

If I asked you to recite a single quote uttered by Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, my guess is that it would be this one: "But life finds a way."

The quote was Goldblumified in the film, but amidst all the discussion of chaos theory and equilibrium, that singular quote stands out. How did the dinosaurs find ways to breed in an all-female population? Because life found a way.

Translation: “Because nature, that’s why.”

What does it mean? Nothing, really. Michael Crichton established Dr. Malcolm as an arrogant mathematician, and then had his character say the above line, which was final, conclusive, and really explained nothing at all. This was completely fine, because why Jurassic Park fell apart was far less interesting than the fact that it fell apart. Crichton put in a character that simply stated that life couldn't be contained, then moved on to having dinosaurs eat his characters, because that's why most of his audience was reading the book.

So long as you aren’t avoiding something absolutely fundamental to your plot, you can usually pull this off easily enough. If your physician tells your main character that he has leukemia, you don’t necessarily have to describe the details that led the physician to this conclusion. If your engineer says that the reactor in your story is about to overload, then that’s all that needs to be said about it. Don’t try to explain more if you aren’t confident about the science behind what’s happening.

If in doubt, remember that you don’t want to be the writer who sinks the ice caps just because you need a climax for your story.

Make up your own science.

At the end of the day, the only rules you have to worry about breaking are your own. Making up rules is the basis behind fantasy, and predicting how the rules are going to change is the basis of science fiction. As long as you establish these rules and hold to them consistently, you can make your character an expert in a science that obeys your rules, because you basically invented it.

In Brave New World, the first chapter of the book is spent following some aspiring scientists around as they are introduced to the foundational technology to Aldous Huxley’s futuristic society. A cloning technique called “Bokanovsky's Process” is described in great detail as a means of cloning humans outside the womb. Oh, and by the way, DNA wasn’t even isolated as genetic material until 1944, twelve years after Brave New World was published. At the time, the study of genetics was mainly based on selective breeding (eugenics), so Huxley just came up with his own science, based roughly off of what we knew at the time.

His characters, then, were able to discuss the philosophical and scientific effects of Bokanovsky’s Process with impunity, because nobody in the audience at the time could possibly contradict the science that Huxley was using. It was his own creation, and it was consistent, and his society responded realistically to it. Hence, it worked beautifully.

This method is usually going to be limited to certain genres, and the main danger here is losing track of your own rules. If you violate your own system, or create a rule with profound consequences that are never fully utilized in the story (such as Hermione’s time-traveling pocket watch in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), then you’re going to frustrate the audience and ruin the illusion. Unless you're going for an especially risky twist, establish your rules, and stick to them.

Ignore it

Yes, sometimes you can simply get away with saying, “Screw science” and writing the story you want to write. Nobody can force you to obey the rules, so if you’re bound and determined to send your cosmonaut through a black hole unharmed, then you’re welcome to do so, and let the audience decide your fate.

To be fair, there are some scientific tropes that will allow you to ignore realism more easily than others. For instance, achieving “faster-than-light speed” in a spaceship is likely to be scientifically impossible, but it’s been so deeply established in science fiction that the kinds of people who are going to criticize you on it are probably not science fiction fans anyway.

Just as well, lasers that move slower than bullets, spaceships that move like airplanes, and toxic waste giving your character superpowers is unlikely to be challenged by your audience, even the nerdier ones like me. We may blog about it with an arrogant smirk on our face, but just ignore us.

However, expect no mercy if you try to sink icebergs into the ocean. We don't put up with that poppycock.

Image of Jurassic Park: A Novel
Author: Michael Crichton
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Ballantine Books (1991)
Binding: Mass Market Paperback, 416 pages
Image of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Manufacturer: Alliance Entertainment
Part Number:
Price:
Image of Brave New World
Author: Aldous Huxley
Price: $12.91
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics (1998)
Binding: Paperback, 268 pages
Nathan Scalia

Column by Nathan Scalia

Nathan Scalia is LitReactor's community manager and science columnist. He earned a degree in psychology and considered medical school long enough to realize that he missed reading real books. After writing reviews and essays for several websites, he decided to step into the big leagues and is working to finish his first book. He currently resides in Kansas, and has definitely heard every single Oz joke.

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Comments

Aubrey's picture
Aubrey from where the wind comes right behind the rain is reading Memoirs Of A Woman Of Pleasure by John Clelland July 26, 2013 - 9:59am

Thank you for this... writing about a time traveller and reading Kaku's Blackholes, Wormholes, and the Tenth Dimension, and Toomey's The New Time Travelers to try and wrap my head around the scientific plausibility..... I have to put Kaku down after every few pages and rest my brain. Even though my character doesn't have scientific knowledge about what he's doing I want to use the science of time travel in the explanation of how it looks, feels, etc. I was suddenly relieved when I read Make Up Your Own Science.

Nathan Scalia's picture
Nathan Scalia from Kansas is reading so many things July 26, 2013 - 11:47am

I think if there is any place you are permitted freedom in interpreting science, it would be time travel. That stuff is crazy.

Perhaps I'll cover the subject in a future article...

Murasaki_Ducky's picture
Murasaki_Ducky from Austin is reading The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice July 26, 2013 - 1:47pm

Yes, thank you! I'm writing an action/sci-fi comic and have been stumped on how to explain the technological advancements in the story so that they make sense to the reader. I will be researching and applying the facts that I find and making up whatever doesn't work scientifically.

(Within reason, of course. The world doesn't need any more sinking iceburgs.)

mascalia's picture
mascalia from Kansas is reading Rereading the Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever August 1, 2013 - 8:14am

What are your thoughts about stories that blend technology and fantasy?  Marion Zimmer-Bradley's "Darkover" series comes to mind.  The premise being that a Terran colony ship crashes on a planet where the native people and fauna have powers that would be considered fantasy by most people - psy powers.

The book series progresses through the history of the planet Darkover, starting with the devolution of technology-based society and the emergence of a completely new society based on psy talents.  At it's apex, psy powers rival (or surpass) most of the things Terran engineering and science could perform.

The crux of the entire series, though, is that the Terrans eventually "rediscover" their lost colony, and the story is steeped in the culture clash between two different societies based on completely different social and technological structures.

I've always been amazed by how MZB could blend completely believable science and technology elements with equally believable fantasy elements.  It's the clash of the two in both cultures - Terran and Darkover - that makes the series so good. 

I don't know that I have a point to make, other than I think it must have been exceedingly difficult to create an excellent storyline that combines technology and fantasy elements in ways that don't stretch the limits of believability (for either subject).