Being Smart and Wrong at the Same Time

It’s easy to deal with a character who has to not-know something that you know when the character isn’t all that clever; there’s a lot more leeway to get away with dubious logic, missing obvious clues and other typical means of keeping the character from reaching the conclusion before the plot says so. On the other hand, when the character’s described and depicted as actually being clever, it can be difficult to not let them make those extra logic leaps that you’re not 100% sure they deserve (but also not sure that they don’t) to reach the answer—or conversely, to make them look like they’re exceedingly clever except when dealing with this one particular issue.

So how does a demonstrably clever and intelligent character still manage to completely miss the all-important conclusion? Or more simply, how can a character be smart and still be wrong?

First off, always remember what the character doesn’t know. This is one time when it might be necessary to sit down and diagram out exactly what little steps of logic the character is taking to get to her eventual conclusion: that way, you can actually look at them and see if any are based on knowledge that she shouldn’t actually have.

Take into account personal biases, within reason. An intelligent character probably isn’t going to decide that another character is an ally even when being pelted with evidence to the contrary, but she might be likelier to rationalize away minor inconsistencies in that ally’s behavior.

Have a reasonable explanation for everything. It doesn’t have to be accurate, particularly not if the point is explaining why the character isn’t taking the steps that would lead to the correct answer, but it does have to be the kind of thing that a character with the mental faculties with which your character is being depicted would not consider hopelessly illogical.

Come up with completely sound, inescapable logic—that just happens to lead in the wrong direction. There are plenty of reasons why: maybe there’s that one important detail the character is missing, so a necessary step in the right direction just wouldn’t occur to this particular character. Or they’ve got one or two of the facts wrong, but the logic flows perfectly from the information they have, bridging off of their explanations for whatever events have taken place. If there are logic errors, they’re probably minor ones, pretty easy to make, and the character would be mortified if she caught herself in retrospect.

Keep in mind the limitations of time and memory. People generally forget things, get hazy about details, even form false memories—and the longer it’s been since whatever they’re supposed to remember, the more this happens. Even the ones with eidetic memories, those who forget nothing, need to keep the relevant information in mind so that it occurs to them to try to remember; otherwise, it’s just one more peculiar object in a sea of data.

Using tricks like these means that your character doesn’t have to look like all of her much-vaunted intelligence is an informed attribute, or like she’s smart most of the time and an idiot when the plot requires it. Instead, you can depict a character who’s clearly intelligent but just happens to be taking this particular issue in the wrong direction.


  1. UZ says:

    Hm, inescapable and also incorrect… had an idea like that once, with a constructed language that had different levels of formality, not regarding social status but rather ambiguity of sentence order.

    See, it was a phonetic expression of predicate logic (a pretty funny exercise actually), and the different levels of formality basically related to the use of parentheses. The original idea was that we’d have a riddle in this language that had been incorrectly formalized from the informal (no-parentheses) origin, and all of the culturally native speakers of the language knew the incorrect version as if it were “common sense” because they’d heard it all their lives. The player would then be informed that the original version was informal and that the sentence ordering could actually be pretty much anything. Altered to a different parenthetization it would take on a different meaning that would be of help.

    You can probably guess that I never used this idea; PL sentence formalization is a bit heavy for an RPG puzzle. But, it made a cute bit of setting in any case.

  2. Ravyn says:

    Wow, I like. I’ve never done anything quite to that extent, though I did once create an entire religious schism out of a capitalization error.

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