I am currently writing a medieval (low fantasy) novel set in a society akin to that of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. One of my protagonists is raised poor in a small village, but early on discovers he has blue blood.

One of his three major character traits is his vastly superior intelligence/intellect. In fact, he has what we would define as a genius level IQ (~150), though I know IQ does not account for all aspects of high intelligence. However, I am having trouble figuring out how this would clearly manifest itself with neither a good education nor much knowledge of the world to back up his gifted mind with facts.

Another of his three major character traits is his naïveté. This is in part due to being very sheltered–which is also the main reason why he has little worldly knowledge–but also owes to the fact he is only 15; he simply has not had enough time to "experience" life.

At first, I wanted to present his gifted mind through cunning and deception, (perhaps almost a bit like Tom Sawyer?) and that part of his underdog-like character was to use his sharp tongue to escape impossible situations. However, this would conflict with his third major character trait: idealism. The character is simply too compassionate, honest and honorable to be physically capable of lying to another person for personal gain, for instance. Moreover, this ties to his naïveté as well, in that part of what drives his kindness, is his belief that humans are inherently kind; he simply acts towards others they way he believes they themselves would act.

My question, then, is twofold: how could vastly superior intelligence very visibly manifest itself in someone with little or no education in the medieval world, and does kindness and naïveté conflict with the idea of this sort of character?

10 Answers 10


Medieval men typically worked a trade. Make him gifted in his trade so that commoners come from miles around to acquire his goods. Even nobility have heard of his skills.

You can add artistic mastery to the trade. Like a blacksmith who makes not only the mightiest swords but carves the most amazing Celtic knotwork into the hilt.

He can also be a gifted problem solver. People ask him advice. He solves aggressive conflicts with peaceful determination.

He is cultured in that he believes in love and enjoys music. He rarely drinks, and he's funny when he does.

You basically want a very likeable character who excels at everything he does except for perhaps his fatal flaw.

It also opens the door for some young princess to teach him how to read (a la The Belgariad).

  • He is cultured in that he believes in love and enjoys music. He rarely drinks, and he's funny when he does. He is not cultured. Read the question again. believes in love? enjoys music? how about long walks on the beach and world peace? rarely drinks? how do these illustrate his intellectual superiority?
    – Lew
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 16:53
  • 2
    The only aspect you have listed here which speaks to intelligence is the problem solving.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 11:04
  • +1 for problem solver. Being a master at his trade or very artisitc doesn't necessarily mean his intelligent. His intelligence can be far below the average and not stop him from being both artistic and an expert with his hands. One mustn't confuse being good with your hands and being good with your intellect. Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 19:54

In that period, education was not the province of the nobility but of the church. A intelligent and idealistic young man or woman would have a very obvious outlet for their intelligence and idealism, and an opportunity for an education, by joining a monastery. Monasteries were not just the seats of religious thought and learning. They were centers of science and engineering and economics. Upward mobility within that society was very much available through the church, and a monastery would give opportunities for intellect and idealism to be realized in many different ways.


Since books would be very few and very far between, and mostly bibles, it would be difficult to have him read a ton of stuff, although it's your world, you could put a library in it and have him find a way in and regularly read all sorts of stuff, that would give him a wide breadth of knowledge but not a deep one.

The other thing you could do is have him be able to watch someone do something for a while and then be able to be instantly brilliant at it. e.g. he could watch a blacksmith make a sword and then he can just start making swords, maybe he changes the process slightly based on his observations and he can produce better swords than the blacksmith. This way he could become a master at several trades but could also be an accountant, a swordsman, an apothecary or doctor... anything really.


In the real world, especially before the internet, technical expertise and education correlated heavily with economic privilege and access to resources. If the character isn't formally educated, there's little hope for him being academically intelligent. He/she (more likely he, given medieval gender roles) can be skeptical, he/she can have a sharp wit, he/she might even be able to read. Keep in mind, however, that literacy was a rare ability in medieval societies.

One alternative is to have a society that is aesthetically medieval but functions as might a society from a different era (not necessarily a better era, just an era where it is more feasible for a peasant to be educated. If this means the protagonist is a slave whose job is to write down what elites say, well then, you have a society that functions in some ways like the Roman Republic.) For instance, a society with the governmental quality of a republic or maybe a constitutional monarchy or at least some semblance of egalitarinaism and humanism would make the kind of protagonist you're talking about more feasible. Even if it comes packaged with a set of social ills separate from those seen in real-life medieval societies. Mixing and matching your government types with varying levels of egalitarianism, humanism, secularism and mercantilism can result in entirely unique fictional societies which, while they never existed in the real world, are not necessarily unfeasible. The aim is to create a society where the reader can experience sufficient suspension of disbelief within the scope of your story.

On the flip side, keep in mind that socioeconomic status is not a guarantee of illiteracy so much as it is a decent predictor. Consider, for instance, the escaped American slave Fredrick Douglass, who against all socioeconomic odds managed to be more literate and intellectual than the average free man at the time. This shouldn't be regarded as surprising, but it should be regarded as unique, and difficult to attain.

If your protagonist is in a downtrodden position, he will likely require the help, unwitting or not, from people in a higher position.

If you desire even less fidelity to history and more creative freedom, systems of magic and superhuman abilities provide all you need. A character can be graced by the God or Gods with the wit of solomon, Can be given psychic powers which allow for heightened empathy and sensitivity, can decode alphabets of foreign languages without the help of native speakers, can slow down their own perception of time to prolong important decisions.

If you go with a magical system always have a way for your character to become exhausted or less sane with the execution of each "spell" so that their heightened abilities come at a price which increases narrative tension.

A good and increasingly popular example of the sort of character you're setting out to create is Kvothe from the Kingkiller Chronicle. I would also like to mention Will Hunting who, while not a fantasy character, is a lower-class Bostonian janitor who is a genius at math despite being the kind of guy who sometimes gets into street brawls. His character, to me at least, manages to be convincing and compelling despite not necessarily being realistic.


Having in mind the OP's comment...

By sheltered, I meant very sheltered. This owes to the fact the protagonist is next in line for the throne, but the rest of his family was murdered when he was merely half a year old. His (adoptive) father had to flee the castle with the baby during a coup, and they have since then lived under the rule of their rival country. The father has tried to limit his adopted son's "exposure" to the world in fear they might be discovered and hunted down.

I believe the first thing to do is to decide how the foster father raised the protagonist. He must have received some education in order to prepare him to become an adult. It would be useful to teach them some sort of martial art (even if only how to use a sword and a dagger) because he may need to know how to defend himself in the future.

If the idea was for the protagonist to not attempt to recover the throne, then he should be taught a craft, preferably something that doesn't require much contact with people. If the idea was for the protagonist to be aware of his lineage, then he'd have academic knowledge in the shape of written language and history, besides martial arts.

To be very sheltered would be expected of a child in a noble or rich middle-class family, not in a poor family of exiles. That would just call unwanted attention. The boy should be raised in a way similar to the other boys in the neighbourhood.


My question, then, is twofold: how could vastly superior intelligence very visibly manifest itself in someone with little or no education in the medieval world

Since he is lacking a formal education but is extremely intelligent, he would likely teach himself everything he wants to know. Show him picking up a book and learning how to read overnight.

His analytical abilities must be well above average. Show him observe and memorize the patterns of movement of the celestial bodies and later be able to find his way home by the position of stars and moon(s), and maybe even question the accepted dogma that the world is flat and rests on the back of a giant coackroach.

Make him solve a complex puzzle (a riddle, a cryptic set of magical glyphs on the wall of an ancient cave, or even a murder) using only the power of his mind to see connections between seemingly unrelated things, symbols, and events.

Anyways, like, whatever smart peoples do.

does kindness and naïveté conflict with the idea of this sort of character?

Con artists exploit the aforementioned traits in their victims. Guess the answer.


Personally, I woud model him on Francis Bacon. Bacon was educated but you could have your character working in a menial position, eg pot boy in a tavern, where he comes into contact with, say, alchemists (or physicians etc), notices that their methods are slipshod and 'unscientific' (clearly he wouldn't use that term - maybe he sees them as silly and pointless) and suggests a more methodical, logical way of doing their job. Most of the listeners mock him but one takes him back and educates him while using him as a labourer or assistant. In this way he develops scientific methods and discovers new things.

But, ultimately he has to get an education if he is to attain any position of power.


In the medieval era Europe such people were sent to the clergy. Genius-level intellect is fairly obvious even in children as it involves thinking different from normal and children are bad at hiding that. As such the kid would have ended up talking to the local priest or the local monks unless some specific reason prevented it. This would have led into him being educated to some degree and probably being forwarded elsewhere for further education, which was pretty much a monopoly of the church. Even if he dodged education religion was seen as only proper intellectual pursuit so expectation would have been to go there.

You mention being sheltered, so I think the assumption was he has spent his childhood with someone who protected him from falling to religion and getting educated? Developing that person and relationship should probably be your first step in creating the character as his values and attitudes would come from there. Reclusive relative, wandering magician, minstrel, or merchant? Somebody who lives separate from others or moves around, anyway?

As for writing a genius-level character, you probably should not. It is almost impossible for an author who is himself not at that level of intellect to do it correctly. And while most people would not notice the issues, they also would get no added value over the character simply being very intelligent with 120-140 IQ. It can still be impressive and it is much easier to write. Much easier.

Some tips if you really want to anyway. These should help as long as you avoid the genius intellect being the focus of the story. And you really, really should avoid that.

"Normal people think inside a box of their expectations. Intelligent people can with effort think outside the box. A genius builds a fake box and uses it to communicate with others."

Genius has issues communicating with other people. They are constantly aware they are different and separate from other people. This includes their family and friends. This may result in withdrawal and bad social skills or it may result in deliberate effort to act normal. This results in a person that most of time acts perfectly normal, but when excited or upset says incomprehensible or odd things that display, if somebody cares, greater understanding.

Genius always redefines the issue at hand. Genius does not really have a real copy of whatever box people are using to frame their question. So they have to reframe it in wider context to understand it at all. Upside is that this usually gives deeper and wider understanding and possibly "outside the box" solutions. Downside is that unless the topic is already familiar, the genius needs more time to have any opinion. Usually being "merely" very intelligent is more useful than being a genius.

(<- The part to remember whenever faking genius thinking.)

Genius thinks other people are smarter than they are. Because genius reinterprets everything in a wider context, he sees links and meanings that did not actually occur to the person saying it. Usually this is harmless, but can lead to misunderstandings. Essentially a genius will assume people are expressing their thoughts in simplified form for easier understanding,because that is what they themselves do.

Genius excels and totally sucks at explaining things. Genius may see the issue with great clarity and consequently can provide a clear and accurate explanation of it. Genius is almost incapable of predicting what of and how normal people will understand his explanation. No copy of the box, remember? This may result in incomprehensible and easily misunderstood explanations.

Genius is bad at explaining what they are thinking and usually will just say something "close enough" if asked. While the end results may have great clarity, the actual thought process may be non-linear and impossible to verbalise without extensive ret-conning. This is a limitation of languages and verbal expression and not specific to geniuses, but a genius will run into it constantly. Amplified by most geniuses also being very intelligent and thinking faster than they can talk.

And a reminder, IQ was originally seen as the quotient between mental and physical age. So making the character prefer talking with older people and express himself as an older person would, with allowances for social status and life experience, is a good start.

  • By sheltered, I meant very sheltered. This owes to the fact the protagonist is next in line for the throne, but the rest of his family was murdered when he was merely half a year old. His (adoptive) father had to flee the castle with the baby during a coup, and they have since then lived under the rule of their rival country. The father has tried to limit his adopted son's "exposure" to the world in fear they might be discovered and hunted down. @VilleNiemi
    – Arizan
    Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:33
  • 3
    @Arizan Good. Father sounds paranoid. Avoid being noticed, blend in, all that. Kid might end up as social chameleon who observes people around him and blends in. Dad would also have an escape plan, maybe an escape tunnel and run through wilderness. Maybe he is a hunter or trapper? So kid would be trained in stealth, traps, tracking, slings and so on. He'd also be deeply aware of the difference between justice and law. Add one unjust tax collector and you have Robin Hood, except less bows and Merry Men, more stealth and subterfuge. You might want to add a mentor character or two. Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:50
  • @Arizan I think you could get a master con artist. Commented Mar 11, 2017 at 21:51

Your character's three traits (intellect, naivete and idealism) combined with the fact that, at 15, he is outside of his sheltered home, virtually sets up the plot that your character will be used by others.

Most likely, it would be done by some con artist or crime lord who notices your protagonist's abilities and proceeds to delude him that he needs to help crafting criminal schemas in order to punish the rich and help the poor.

  • The main antagonist uses the young prince as a puppet for his schemes. When the kid is crowned, the antagonist has enough influence over him to essentially be the de facto ruler of the nation, though from behind the scenes.
    – Arizan
    Commented Mar 14, 2017 at 12:52

make his intelligence his curse,and by that i mean his level of common sense is his inner genius, which is balanced by his patients and love for the universe but the curse lies in the inability to retaliate or have anger against those who wrong him making him the puching bag with only the power of love and empathy.. kinda like i would imagine jesus to have felt having more understanding and knowledge then the common people of his day leading to his death not so we could sin but because we simply didnt know any better. so yea this is just my opinion.

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