I recently got into another rant with fellow Low Fiver Billy about how to write characters that are smarter than you. The reason I harp on this issue lately is twofold:
First, I recently watched an anime called No Game No Life that’s been widely regarded as one of the best anime of the last say five years or so. And I was kind of into it until in retrospect I realized that the characters, more specifically their level of intelligence, were poorly written.
Superhuman intelligence is a thing in fiction that I’m entirely okay with. I’m also perfectly okay with omniscience, that is, arbitrarily knowing everything (Everything). What I dislike is getting the two confused.
For example – and if you don’t want No Game No Life spoiled, turn away now – there’s an episode fairly late in the series in which the following scenario is presented:
Two people, Player A and Player B, are playing a game of Reversi (Sometimes known as Othello). They get most of the way through the game and then because reasons, the game is required to pause in such a way that prevents Player A from making his final three moves.
In practice this is impossible.
And not “Teaching a five year old calculus,” impossible either. Teaching a five year old calculus is extremely unlikely. Eating the sun is impossible. Let me explain.
There exists a number known as the Shannon number which is a conservative estimate for how many unique possible board states there are for a game of chess. This number, according to Wikipedia, is 10120. For perspective, that same article lists the number of atoms in the observable universe at around 4×1079, which without getting into, y’know, actual math, is a lot smaller. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Reversi is a less complex game than chess, but this comparison explains how board states can get out of control in terms of possibilities.
So in NGNL we watch Player C reconstruct the exact order of moves in a game of Reversi that she has never seen. A game that could very well have more possible board states than there are atoms in the observable universe. That is impossible, whether your IQ is fifty or two hundred fifty. This is also not the only time writing like this appears in NGNL, although it is the most egregious example.
What Player C demonstrates is omniscience, which again, is a fancy way of saying that Player C has a Godlike knowledge of events past, present, and future. She knows how many fingers you’re holding up behind your back. She knows what the winning lottery numbers will be next week. She knows what your grandchild will name her daughter, and you haven’t even had sex for the first time yet. And if your character is a god that’s fine. There are plenty of very compelling stories about characters who are gods. But if you’re writing a character that is operating within the box that is “human capability” then you cannot give them the ability to discern one correct option from a bordering-on-infinite number of options.
The second reason I have been thinking of smarter-than-their-writers characters is that Billy is an enormous Batman fan. And for that reason I’m going to lay off of Batman in this article, but you should know that he very much embodies this second problem.
What problem, you ask? Why, the phrase, “That was my plan all along.”
This is the most annoying phrase that anyone has ever committed to paper. If you try to type that phrase on a laptop it should be legal for me to snap your screen closed unexpectedly in an attempt to break your fingers.
Writers tend to fall into a trap of making their characters seem smart by making their plan complicated. And then they’ll sit by a TV screen playing cat’s cradle or running a coin across their knuckles and watching the whole thing play out exactly as they had planned, no matter how improbable the order of events required to get the plot from point A to point B. The reason for this is because a lot of writers think a character that can predict is a smart character, when in reality a smart character is one who can prepare.
Smart people do not build an elaborate plan that hinges on a coin flip coming up heads unless there is an equally elaborate plan for if it comes up tails. And this is why “That was my plan all along” is the dumbest thing that can be written, because no single plan has ever survived longer than about fifteen seconds.
So what happens when something sends plan A off the tracks? If these characters were really smart, they’d move on to plan B. Or plan B-2, or plan B-7877. Because knowing the ways in which your initial plan might fail is smart. And planning alternatives in the event that those things come to pass is smart. And maybe you have a thousand backup plans. And maybe after the steel ball that is chaos theory has fallen through the pachinko machine that is your series of backup plans, maybe, maybe things work out in your favor. But even then, you still can’t say that was your plan all along, because the final scenario that played out was scenario 48. Out of ten thousand. And you can’t have predicted that, you can only plan for it.
Scott Watmough has many strong opinions about many things that he knows very little about. They're usually about video games.