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I've been asked to write a story as an assignment. It should have as the main male character an unusually smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who is somewhat reserved and mysterious. The point is that I cannot figure out how to draw a good, lively and convincing description without being stereotypical or boring. I guess that this kind of character is quite common: can you suggest me some examples of good descriptions that can be found online so that I get an idea about how to proceed? Thank you.

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    Isn't this exactly the point of your assignment? To learn how to create such a character on your own, without copying someone else's work? – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Jun 20 '14 at 18:32
  • Lauren, I agree, but this is a borderline situation. If people vote-to-close, it'll show the community agrees with you. – Neil Fein Jun 20 '14 at 19:17
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    @LaurenIpsum you're right, but I don't want to copy "someone else's work": I just want to learn how to do my work more effectively by reading some examples that you professional writers find good enough to reccomend – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:05
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    You don't need an example of the exact same character you are supposed to create on your own. That would be cheating (and we don't want to help you with that) and you would not learn anything (which we want to help you with). What you might want to do is pick up any book, read the character descriptions, define for yourself what kind of character that description makes him, and then observe how this was done. Then you try that with your character. Failing is part of the learning process, and if you are afraid to fail, you'll never learn anything of value. – user5645 Jun 21 '14 at 12:46
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    You might also be interested in watching some of the older renditions of Sherlock (e.g. not Elementary or the movie with Robert Downey Jr.), or the more recent BBC adaptation. – drusepth Jul 22 '14 at 14:22
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Smart, clever, insightful, thoughtful, reserved, and mysterious are all abstract qualities. They are summaries. And the summaries lack all of the juicy details that lead people to attribute those qualities.

Instead of describing such abstract characteristics, demonstrate them. Show the character doing clever things, or mysterious things. Let the reader reach the conclusions.

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You might benefit from some ideas:

1. Avoid the info dump (a long description scene)
2. Add your description in showing/active sentences
3. Use character contrasting (contrast one character to another)

I explain more here: How to describe your point of view character in a first person novel?

If you want your character to be:

unusually smart clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who is somewhat reserved and mysterious

then Let your character develop as you write. You can do some pre-work. For each description in your list, ask this question

What is your character doing or going to do that is (smart)?

Keep these tag lines around and as you write, just make the character act these ways. I don't know what your character will do. So here is an example from my book:

My character is also smart. I don't actually ever say he is smart. I do say he is a Jeek, half jock half geek. He plays chess. He is watches the some college videos on chemistry just before his high school senior senior year to help prepare himself for AP chemistry. He talks about getting a scholarship either with sports or grades.

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What I would focus on is the character's backstory. You're correct that the combination of traits that you describe could be pretty common, but what is unique is the why behind it. What happened in the character's past that has caused him to be so reserved? What sorts of influences did he have that nurtured his cleverness and insight? Different answers to those sorts of questions will yield vastly different characters, even though those core traits are still present.

  • Hi @Roger. Thank you for your answer. I will surely focus on your suggestion. However, I still need to give a first "basic description" of the character, and I would like to offer something more elaborated that "he is an unusually smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy who also happens to be inscrutable". I just want to be somewhat more lively in this first stage of description. What can I do? – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:41
  • Also, I forgot to mention an important thing which is also causing trouble: the first part of the story should (according to the requirements I've received form my teacher) be presented from the perspective of two characters (our guy and another student) and each one should describe himself (not the other one or no-one!). Here comes the question: how do I make the guy describe himself in a lively way, but without sounding self-righteous or arrogant (which I think he should not be, according to his attributes)? – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:57
  • Why should he necessarily be lively when describing himself, if he's meant to be reserved? "So, ever since I scored 2250 on my SATs, everyone's going on about how smart I am. I don't know if that's true; I just see how things go together. Things that other people struggle with tend to seem, I don't know, obvious to me. If you want to call that smart, that's your thing." So, in a few sentences, we establish that he's intelligent and has a gift for insight, but is at the same time introspective about it and too reserved to be boastful. – Roger Jun 20 '14 at 18:08
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    The point is to demonstrate those traits to the reader rather than just say that he has them. It's sort of like how if you have to tell people that you're cool, you're not cool. :) – Roger Jun 20 '14 at 18:11
  • Well. That is a good idea. Personally, I like that mixture of laziness and "devil-may-care attitude" in your example (maybe because I'm that way), although it could seem somewhat too blunt. Anyway, in general I like this way of presenting abstract qualities with facts to back them up. Thanks. :) – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 20:11
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So you've got a few adjectives for the character, to start off with. Some people are a fan of the figure-your-character-out-as-you-write approach, and some prefer outlining the character first. Since this is an assignment, and you don't want the character who spontaneously appeared as you wrote to differ from the one described in the assignment, I'd have to recommend the latter approach.

What makes a "good" or "lively" character:

  • Details! What are his quirks? Does he wrinkle his nose when something disgusts him, or wipe his right hand on his pants?
  • What does the world look from his point of view? What's his job? Does he like it? Any best friends? How'd he grow up? Since he's smart, insightful, and thoughtful, how did this shape his philosophy? You need to know to write him well, and we as readers find difficulty relating to him unless we can get inside his head a little. This will also be crucial for your self-description.
  • Give him flaws. Up until now he seems a little Gary-Stu-ish. He's smart, thoughtful, insightful, clever--he's most likely gone far in whatever he's done. Reserved and mysterious? Even better, the girls are swarming and we're all jealous of him and wondering what he's up to. Now balance that out. Is he arrogant because of this? Or is he eager to make people like him and bends over backwards for them? Or does he not have this success at all and is angry at the world for not giving him what he thinks he ought to get? This and the point above will most likely determine how he reacts to others.
  • Last but not least: We don't see his biography, we see him in action. Specific to your situation it seems like you're forced to give a little biography, but my general advice would be not to make it too long, and intersperse the rest of your biography in with the action, if you need to add it at all.

You've got a character, you know how he thinks, now it's time to throw him in a situation. Roll dice if you have to: 1 for getting mugged, 2 for being fired, 3 for meeting with an ex, so forth and so on. And build the situation such so that you can show most of his character traits in the situation. Think about what he might do to show the qualities you want to highlight.

For instance getting mugged: Your main character stops/talks down the attacker, maybe makes some comment about the mugger's motivation that obviously hits the nail on the head (because he's smart and insightful) , and lets him get away with a "dummy wallet" with only a few dollars (clever, well-prepared) and continues on his way. This scene is observed by an acquaintance who is following the main character and wondering what he's doing in that part of town at night, without having told anyone (mysterious and reserved) .

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To add to @roger's answer, another thing that can make a character unique is giving them an atypical profession or hobby. Since these things will influence what the character will do everyday they are a part of who he is. A good example is Walter Mitty, a typical shy guy but works in negative assents for Life magazine. Interesting enough his job also defines a fresh context for a story that has been told a thousand times.

  • Thank you @aperl. However, in the story I've in mind, the guy is a college student (the whole thing is set in college, actually) about 21-2 years old. – user9933 Jun 20 '14 at 17:44
  • @user9933 In that case he could be part of a club or team. But if that doesn't fit with in the scope of the story I understand. Nevertheless thinking about such things might open up possibilities about why he might make certain decisions. We as people make decisions based on of our experience and our environment. – aperl Jun 20 '14 at 18:49
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1) unusually smart,

I presume by "smart" you are not saying the same thing as "clever", "insightful" or "thoughtful", which IMO leaves an academic understanding of how things work. You show this by finding an opportunity to have the character explain something others (including the reader) may not understand very well. Of course as an author you can "cheat" by doing an hour of research on some question relevant to the storyline, and learning something surprising that your smart character can toss out in a paragraph or so.

2) clever: You show this by the character being inventive on the spot, coming up with a solution to a problem that seems like a good idea. This can be a solution to somebody else's stated problem, or a problem of his own.

3) insightful: Being insightful is usually understanding a problem or situation in such detail that conclusions can be drawn that were not stated or obvious. This is particularly true in relationship issues; an insightful person not only understands another's situation as stated, but understands the person well enough to know what they are not saying, or how they feel about the situation, and uses that. In fiction, they might state that, and elicit agreement from the person they are talking about.

4) thoughtful: This is somebody that thinks ahead to what WILL be needed, or what others will appreciate or need when the time comes. It is related to memory, but also to caring for others. For example: Joan is coming tomorrow, I know Joan, so I will shop today for Darjeeling tea because that is what she will want. Thoughtful involves thinking about others, thinking about the near term future, and taking action in the present to make the near term future better in someway.

5) somewhat reserved: Many highly intelligent people are also insecure and feel a need to show off their intelligence and receive praise or accolades for it. But not all of them. Some highly intelligent people know they are intelligent, and know that braggadocio and constantly reminding others they are the smartest person in the room, alienates them. In a way, it is applying their intelligence to understanding the patterns of social interaction. So they ARE somewhat reserved, willing to help but not insisting they know best or should be in charge or that all the stupid people should listen to them.

In fact, some smart people, besides knowing they are smart, also know that being a "know it all" is a pejorative; it can be threatening or off-putting to the 99% of people that are not as smart as they are. And knowing that, and being insightful, they will only assert their intelligence when it is really going to matter, when they anticipate significant negative consequences of failing to speak up.

In this way, most exceedingly intelligent people portrayed in fiction as socially awkward or lonely are actually be portrayed as stupid or defective, for all their brains they cannot figure out how to make friends, woo a romantic partner, or learn to use humor to relieve tension. All of these are learnable skills.

6) mysterious. Highly intelligent people can take actions on opportunities or threats that others do not perceive. Intelligence is about being able to predict the probable future (or for detectives what most likely happened), and the highly intelligent do this better than others. Thus what they are doing can be mysterious; if they don't explain it, we can't figure it out. You show this just by having them do things that seem significant, but are not explained.

I know I am not giving you examples; I think the point of this StackExchange is to provide instruction on how to accomplish what you wish in writing.

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There is a lot the supplied description does NOT tell us about this character. It does not tell us how old he is. It does not tell us his race. It does say whether or not he has a handicap. It doesn't tell us if he is living now, in the past, or in the future. It doesn't say what kind of clothes he likes to wear. It doesn't tell us if he is short or tall. It doesn't say if he's ugly or handsome. It doesn't tell us what his native language is. It doesn't tell us if he's married or single. It doesn't tell us whether he rejects gender norms or exemplifies them. Figuring out those kinds of details will help give you a less generic character who can lend himself to a more interesting description --particularly if we see him in action, not in repose.

I watched, fascinated as books seemed to appear and disappear all by themselves on the counter over by the scanner. When I went around to the other side of the desk, I saw him, an African-American boy so short he had to reach up over his head to check out the books. He was dressed all in black, with thick glasses, and just as he caught me looking at him, he disappeared into the stacks like a ninja, bearing several thick tomes under his arm.

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As others here have mentioned, you want to show, not tell--have your smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful guy do smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful things, rather than just dictating a description.

That said, if you can't think of smart, clever, insightful and thoughtful things for your character to do, here's a way to cheat: think of some people you actually know who are smart, clever, insightful or thoughtful, and model your character after them. This is an easy and effective way to add detail and realism to your characters. The adage "good artists borrow, great artists steal" applies to real-life experiences as well as other artists!

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As others have said, show, don't tell. Because that advice is rather vague, however, allow me to explain. The way I understand 'show, don't tell' is 'let the reader form his own conclusions. Just make sure they are the ones he is supposed to form.' For example, you don't need to say that someone rolled their eyes in exasperation. The fact that they rolled their eyes alone will usually make the reader deduce that they did it in exasperation. The same thing can go for characters. If they are smart, clever, insightful, and show it, you won't need to tell the reader that. He'll already know it.

protected by Neil Fein Jul 1 '14 at 4:44

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