Friday, July 18, 2014

The Mad(dening) Genius

From Doctor Who to Nero Wolfe

While I haven’t yet written one of these kinds of characters myself, I find them fascinating and think creating characters like these must be a difficult proposition – certainly they themselves are.  I’m not talking about your genial genius, who might be a bit eccentric, but the problematic prodigy, the irritating intellect whom no one would ever put up with if it weren’t for their brilliance.  Sherlock Holmes is a classic illustration of the type, and I would choose Carol O’Connell’s Detective Mallory as a modern model, as well as being the only female representative I can think of.  But Nero Wolfe and the Doctor (Doctor Who?) are two of my favorite examples.

For all the differences among these distinct characters, they share important commonalities.  And as a writer, in order to know how such a character can be done well, I want to first understand the essence of the archetype before I explore the variations.

One element, of course, is that they must be a genius.  But even in mystery stories, the sleuths aren’t often that brilliant – real geniuses appear to be rather rare.  Writing someone who’s supposed to be so clever must be quite a challenge in and of itself.

The other defining quality, as I see it, is a rare gift for annoying, frustrating, even driving up the wall anyone who has to deal with them – which means the way they interact with other characters, and the way those people react to them, is integral.  Even those closest to them will often be exasperated by their attitude – maybe they’re long-suffering like Watson, or bite back like Archie.  Or maybe, like the Doctor’s long string of fleeting companions, they burn out, drop off, get abandoned or even killed.  (And these ‘geniuses’ don’t generally seem to be too concerned about the effect their behavior has on others.)

So how can such a ‘hero’ even be palatable to the reader?  Through those same people who have to put up with them, who act as a buffer, diluting us from the full force of the genius’ personality.  At least that must be part of it, that the presence of more likeable, more relatable people in their orbit leavens the narrative.

But I believe there’s more to it.  Not only must their gifts be spectacular, but they must be applied to good purpose.  Nero Wolfe may be motivated by the need for money to pay for his lavish lifestyle, Holmes may move only when driven by intellectual curiosity, and the Doctor may simply be lonely – but they all use their genius to vanquish villains, deliver justice, and destroy monsters.  They are all guided by a firm moral compass.

One last point I think is important.  Despite their genius and however alien they may seem (or be, in the case of the Doctor) they are all quite human in spite of that.  Their quirks, preferences, affections, and faults are real, and we can all relate to those things in general if not in the specifics.

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