In stories it isn’t always the smartest or the strongest who become heroes — it is often the character who perseveres or works hardest. The villain is often smarter and stronger than the hero.
What about really smart characters? Ironically in storytelling, the genius character is often the underdog. Their genius is also their weakness, or they have another big weakness which undermines their intelligence. Oftentimes their genius ostracises them as loners. It’s common for a genius character to also be supremely lonely or depressed or pessimistic.
Because of the cultural fascination with genius, it remains a supreme object of desire, despite its associations with tragic oddity.
The character arc for a genius character is often to show the world how smart they really are. (The “I’ll show them!” wish fulfilment of many stories for adults), or to win friends and lovers.
In life, there may be many different choices one can make to accomplish a goal. In films, there is often only one, and the hero gets to show how smart s/he is by figuring out what it is.
Contrast the genius character with the Every(wo)man. Even an highly relatable character must respond in surprising ways in a story, otherwise they’re not sufficiently interesting to engage our attention. One way an Every Character can respond surprisingly is by being smarter than the regular person. Or, in Northrop Frye’s terminology, we’re talking about the romantic hero.
This is one of the few with a girl math nerd. That makes me like it.
This is one of these stories about a really nice guy who turns bad for a while but is ultimately redeemed. I think the end goes on for about five minutes too long. You also sort of know how it’s going to end, but the journey is great. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.
Oh and the story weaves together so well I don’t believe for a moment that this movie has much to do with the true story upon which it is based.
3. The Social Network
Another kind of protagonist is incredibly smart, irritatingly aware of it, and these people are driven to go beyond themselves, which often leads to spectacular failures. Or, in this case, win out in the end with lots of money if not one hundred per cent pure happiness in what he has achieved.
The Social Network was voted the number two film of 2010 according to Margaret and David’s viewers’ poll (after Inception).
When I saw it, I doubted the authenticity of the strippers and the Asian fangirls. Mark Zuckerberg has said himself that in reality it was just a bunch of guys cutting code. It’s interesting, though, that toilet cubicle sex and nightclub stripper scenes are now ‘obligatory’ in any coming of age/success story, even when those things don’t really fit the story.
Are viewers so hungry for those done-before scenes that we’ll refuse to sit through any film which refuses to include them for the sake of authenticity?
4. Good Will Hunting
I didn’t really buy Matt Damon as a nerd. I watched it recently and that bowl haircut looks suitably nerdy, but only because it’s dated. Robin Williams played another inspirational teacher figure.
The phrase, “I’m going to see about a girl” felt cheesy. Mainly because it reminded me of the well-known phrase (at least around these parts “I’m going to see a man about a dog.” And last impressions last.
ps ‘Has a critic ever commented on the fact that Matt Damon clearly ripped off the interview scene in Trainspotting for Good Will Hunting?- courtesy of @sarahlapolla
5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Lisbeth Sander is appealing because she is first and foremost a trickster:
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.
– Maria Tatar
Part of what makes this book a page turner or a movie suspenseful is that extreme wrong is dished out to this young woman, and many of us have to keep reading because we know she’s going to exact revenge. There is something very sweet about being underestimated. It’s so much more satisfying than being overestimated.
Suspense in the crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We’re rooting for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one.
6. 17 Again
Ned Gold is the classic fantasy and SF loving nerd into cosplay and learning Elvish who is tortured through high school then makes it big after high school by inventing software that prevented people from pirating music. He also invented the thing that allowed people to pirate music, but ‘that was a happy coincidence’.
As the main star of this movie goes through torture in his life life, it’s apparent to me that nerds are the happiest sort of person in life, and in fiction, because their interests and obsessions never let them down.
This was described in the TV Guide as ‘uplifting’, so I knew I could watch it with the three year old hanging about. Sure enough, she took an interest, then went over to the piano and banged out a few tunes. Well, I should really put ‘tunes’ in the quote marks they deserve. This was a good family film for a rainy day, as long as your family doesn’t mind reading subtitles.
The screenwriter of Arrival talks about the difficulties in writing smart characters here:
The script itself was a challenge like no other. I was writing for characters much smarter than myself, facing their own greatest challenges. Ted’s story offered me some groundwork, but I had to find drama and conflict within the linguistic theory to sustain something for a feature film. And a linguist and theoretical physicist couldn’t talk like I do, or else it felt like they were talking down to me. I had to let the smartest people in the room act like it, even if it meant I couldn’t always keep up.
— Eric Heisserer, LA Times
The other thing is, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel smart.
9. The Breaking Bad Movie
- Gendering Intelligence and Sexuality on The Big Bang Theory from Flow TV
- The Learning Secrets of Polyglots and Savants from 99 Percent
- Are Smart People Getting Smarter?, from Wired
- The genius who lives downstairs – extract, from The Guardian.
- For an example of a smart protagonist in TV see Freaks and Geeks.
- The Curse of Genius from The Economist
- Someone else’s list at TV Over Mind