There’s a weird trend in fiction that I’d like to address. Smart characters–people who are primarily defined by their intelligence–don’t get the same love as their more average counterparts.

This isn’t to say that all smart characters are portrayed as evil, though there certainly are a lot of those. But when we read about the highly intelligent, for some reason they have to have enormous social failings, as if to make up for the sin of their high IQ.

Consider Sherlock Holmes. He’s awesome, right? He’s a genius. He’s suave. He does martial arts.

He’s also rude, arrogant, a drug addict, and has no social life. We only see one story from his point of view; the others are told through the eyes of his buddy, the more socially acceptable Watson. (Watson is a doctor, but it’s rare that we see him being scholarly or defining himself as primarily an intellectual.)

Now consider a more modern example. In the bestselling Divergent trilogy, society is divided into five factions, each based on one defining characteristic. Guess which faction is the evil one?

Yup, it’s Erudite. The smart ones.

There are a few Erudite people who are not inherently corrupt and prideful, but even they are portrayed as robotic when they’re being brainy. Consider page 38 of the second book, Insurgent, where the protagonist talks to her Erudite brother: “You always look like someone’s sucked the life right out of you when something fascinates you.”

How about Tony Stark? He’s a genius. He’s cool. He’s fun. But would you want to work for him? Hang out with him? Date him? Only if you want to watch him strut his ego and make fun of you. Tony may not be evil, but he’s a jerk.

Think about any given ensemble film. You’ve got the leader, the athlete, the smart kid. Which one of them is the weirdo? The one nobody can quite relate to? The most likely butt of the jokes? The one who’s the traitor, if the story needs some treachery? Usually, the one with the most active brain.

Why do we do this? Why must we portray so many smart characters as dead inside, as if cultivating your brainpower automatically drains your emotional likability or your moral compass?

My guess is, intelligence is a threat. If someone is smarter than you, they can manipulate you, and that’s an easy fear to exploit. That’s why so many villains are primarily defined as intelligent (consider the trope of the evil genius), while their heroic counterparts are just brave. Anyone can define themselves as brave. Few define themselves as “the smart one.” If the smart character manages to stay on the side of the good guys, they must be socially awkward so the average-intelligence protagonist isn’t threatened by them in the dating or inspiring-the-masses game. When a character is smart, they must also be not-quite-human, to reassure the audience that their brainpower isn’t worth their abnormal personality.

There’s one really good exception to this trend: Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. Brilliance is her primary characteristic. She does start out cold, but she quickly becomes a kind and lovable part of the team. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty or to take risks. She has a temper. She impacts the plot on a regular basis. She has hopes and fears outside the classroom. She retains her brainy side throughout the series, but she shows her heart as well. In short, she’s human.

I’d like to see more Hermione types in fiction – smart heroes who have souls. If I’m being really ambitious, I’d like to see a smart hero as the main star, not a sidekick or part of an ensemble. Such stories would champion intelligence and reassure smart kids in real life that they don’t have to be social outcasts. They can be heroes, too.

Who are your favorite smart characters? Can you think of more main characters who are primarily defined by their intelligence, but aren’t emotionally distant? On the flip side, where have you seen intelligent characters portrayed as evil or offputting?


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