7 Ways Your Characters Can Be Smart

When you’re only one person and you’re trying to come up with an entire cast of characters, it’s hard to make sure they don’t all end up being clones of each other. Trust me, sometimes I look back at the “books” I wrote when I was eleven years old and I realize that all of my characters are the same people with different names.

When we think of a “smart” character, we usually think of the stereotypical maladjusted nerd, always spouting facts but is generally pretty useless. However, this isn’t the case in real life – people are smart in all kinds of different ways, not just in terms of what they learned (or didn’t learn) in school.

How do you write a cast of characters that are smart, but also unique? Based on books I’ve read and movies/TV shows I’ve watched, I’ve compiled a short list of different ways your characters can be smart. It’s not an exact science, but hopefully this gives you a place to start.

1) Bookishly Smart

Let’s just get this one out of the way first. This is probably the type of character you think of when you think “smart” – they gained a lot of knowledge through formal education, and they’re good at retaining and using that information. They’re your nerds and geeks. While they can be kind of a cliché, it doesn’t hurt to have a book-smart character around to equip your other characters with important information.

Examples: Prince Alek (Leviathan), Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), Liz Sutton (Gallagher Girls)

hermione 1

2) Strategically Smart

AKA the Mastermind. The strategically smart character is skilled at seeing the “big picture” and putting different pieces together to accomplish a goal. They’re typically the ones who make plans and delegate roles to the other characters. They can sometimes come off as overly secretive or arrogant, but you can trust them to balance everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to win the game.

Examples: Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows), Annabeth Chase (Percy Jackson), Sokka (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

sokka's plan

3) Relationally Smart

Relationally smart characters often (though not always) have a charismatic personality and can connect with other people naturally. They are strong in forming and maintaining relationships, and they can understand others easily. If your band of misfits needs outside help, chances are, these characters are the ones with the connections.

Examples: Macey McHenry (Gallagher Girls), Sodapop Curtis (The Outsiders), Kai (The Lunar Chronicles)

Nine Hello

4) Artistically Smart

These are your creative characters: the artists, writers, musicians, dancers, and other creators. They know what makes a beautiful work of art, whether that be a song or painting or story. They tend to be detail-oriented, as well – they pick up on the minute elements that make something feel the way it does. You can trust them to find the little things that make something work or not work.

Examples: Eliza Mirk (Eliza and Her Monsters), Creel (Dragon Slippers), Daniel (The Sun is Also A Star)


5) Emotionally Smart

Emotionally smart characters are very in-tune with their feelings and the feelings of others. They’re very good at managing their own emotions in a productive manner, and they can use their feelings to guide their decisions without being overrun by them (balance is key). These types of characters are also skilled at distinguishing between emotions and are often empathetic individuals. They can be great morale support for your characters and provide a good balance for the analytical strategic thinkers.

Examples: Ponyboy Curtis (The Outsiders), Yellow (Pokémon Adventures manga), Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender)


6) Instinctively Smart

These are the intuitive characters. Above all else, they trust in their instincts when it comes to making decisions. They know themselves well, and believe that they can overcome most obstacles. These characters often see patterns in situations and behaviors, and they can make judgments cased on that. They may not always be able to explain to others why they believe an idea will work, since they just know it instinctively. Despite this, their contributions are always valuable.

Examples: Moana (Moana), Steve Rogers (Marvel Cinematic Universe), Sage (The False Prince)


7) Spontaneously Smart

These types of characters are the problem solvers – when they encounter an unexpected issue, they can come up with a creative solution on the fly. Unlike the strategic thinkers, who prefer to plan ahead, these types of characters are better at thinking on their feet.  They’re great at balancing the masterminds, who might freeze when things don’t go according to plan.

Examples: Hiccup (How To Train Your Dragon), David Charleston (The Reckoners), Emika Chen (Warcross)


Let’s talk!

What kind of “smarts” do your characters have? What are your favorite examples of these categories? Have you struggled with creating different types of intelligent characters in the past?

Until next time!

3 thoughts on “7 Ways Your Characters Can Be Smart

  1. Somewhat off-topic, but one device I’ve seen (from a writer’s perspective) is to introduce the characters one or two at a time. This not only allows the reader / viewer to acclimate to each new character and understand his/her role in the plot, but allows the writer to determine when a complementary skill is needed and develop a character to that role, rather than attempt to shoehorn an existing character into a role that has arisen in the course of plot development (ie “it helped that Joe [who we met in chapter 1] was also a Karate black belt [when the cast was accosted by a drunken street vendor in chapter 9]”).

    Thus, your central character can be someone whose bookishly smart, who then meets someone who is instinctively smart, and after they interact they perhaps meet someone who is emotionally smart, etc., to face the next challenge. Also, in developing your story this way, you may learn that you DON’T need to fill every role — ie perhaps the spontaneously smart character isn’t needed in this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, I always love it when characters are introduced gradually. I know when I get introduced to a full cast of characters right off the bat, it can be hard to keep track of all of them. I can think of a few TV shows where a trio of main characters were introduced at first, but other characters with different skills were introduced and developed in later seasons in order to overcome the challenges those story arcs had.

      I find it’s rare to see every single one of these roles fulfilled in a single story, though I suppose it’s not unheard of… more often than not, I see that a character might actually fit two or more of these roles (i.e. an emotionally smart character may also be relationally smart).

      Thanks so much for your feedback!


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