Monday, November 13, 2006

Lex Luthor is Smarter Than You

Second hardest character in fiction to write? A protagonist that's smarter than the you are. If someone is a certifiable genius, if, in fact, her super power is being a genius, then how are you ever going to come up with something so clever and wise that it earns the distinction of intelligence beyond the merely human.

There's ways of writing around it, I suppose. The Richards Method is to have your character be a genius in a completely made-up field of study. If Richards expertise is Cosmic Radiation collection and manipulation, if he builds the world's best energy transmitter and no one else can, then he's a genius and no reader could say otherwise.

There's the Batman Method, where the character figures out instantly what took the writer three years to figure out, and without the advantage of being able to change the facts to fit the theory.

And there's the Ozymandius Method, in which the character does something completely insane, but since it causes everything to work out in his favor, he must, ipso facto, be a genius. Because it's the only explanation.

But when the character is a master strategist, who has all the time in the world to perfect her magnum opus, then anything you could have her do is, by definition, not something that requires a 12th level intellect to conceive of.

But that's the second hardest job. The hardest is coming up with an ANTAGONIST that's smarter than you are. Because then, not only do you need to come up with a plan so fiendishly clever that you wouldn't have thought of it in a million years, you then have to come up with someway of foiling said plan that doesn't invalidate the genius of it in the first plan. So you have to outthink yourself, and then outthink yourself again. And if you found a flaw, an obvious flaw, then your genius villain should have caught it in the first place.

Your only recourse is to hide said flaw in your villain's particular blind spot. Superman #2 is the almost Platonic Example of how to do it. Lex Luthor fairly ruthlessly and easily discovers Clark's secret in the space of one issue, proving that he is, in fact, an evil genius. But he dismisses the answer out of hand because he can't imagine someone with that kind of power not using it to subjugate others. That fundamental distrust is what makes Lex a villain, and what makes his thinking flawed.

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