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I have a fantasy story in which the lead character is designed as your typical bland everyman protagonist whose purpose is to give the reader someone to relate to and ask questions about the fantastical elements of the world to allow the reader to go through the journey of discovering the supernatural elements of the world along with the main character. However, while the character is initially meant to come off as a boring everyman for the reader to relate to, they are intended to gradually shed off their generic status with more unique traits as the reader feels more comfortable with the setting.

One of these aspects is intelligence. All of the other lead characters in the story come off as highly intelligent and scientifically minded, and it feels very awkward to me that the main character comes off as "the one dumb one" because they are shackled to the role of being the "generic everyman with straight B grades" to be relatable to the average reader. This is even worse considering that the character in question is Latino, which potentially sends off unfortunate implications that are the exact opposite of my intent.

Something I liked the idea of is that it's very strongly implied that the character is actually of above-average intelligence and while the character was an average student in grade school, this was more because they never felt the motivation to apply themselves and felt demoralized and overshadowed by their highly intelligent older sibling (who is Latina and high-achieving, and given the two are siblings it makes sense that they would both be smart). Thus, the character seems like an everyman but actually isn't.

My question is: how to I show to the reader that a character is highly intelligent when they aren't particularly academically inclined or "book-smart"? They also aren't super street smart in the way the term is also used, given they've lived a somewhat sheltered life in a safe neighborhood before being thrown into the plot, so that easy solution isn't really doable for me.

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    Related, possibly duplicate: How does one write a character smarter than oneself? – SF. Jun 15 at 11:35
  • @SF. This is definitely different. The character isn't smarter than the author, but the difference is conveying that information to the audience when the character lacks usual shorthand traits for high intelligence in fiction like being academically inclined. – user2352714 Jun 16 at 2:24
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A Few Thoughts:

I've seen a number of stories (especially mystery novels) where a character is portrayed as clever, a genius, or a Hannibal Lecter-type evil genius. Here is what I've seen works. Some of these might be slightly contraindicated.

  • They are treated unfairly: To have an everyman who is highly intelligent, discriminate against them. Teachers describe them as uppity, employers don't give them jobs while acknowledging they have the qualifications. This can be due to race, family, laziness, or even because they are a little arrogant and get in trouble whenever they show off how smart they are. Perhaps they have a criminal record, and only later do you reveal that it was because of something fine or noble (like beating up a cop to save a person's life).
  • Humility: Your character underplays the things they do. If they show skill, they quickly hide it, or even lie and say it was luck or unimportant. They accidentally reveal occult (occult meaning out-of-place) knowledge and may even panic when they do, afraid others have seen.
  • Education: You character has an advanced degree, or several. If not that old, then a fancy prep school. Maybe they got a merit scholarship but never did well for other reasons. They are described as having good grades when they try, or attending prestigious schools (Harvard/Princeton) even if they don't stand out there.
  • Careers: Your character does something professionally that is either described as or implied to be a job for intelligent people. Doctor, lawyer, general, or the classic rocket scientist. Or, they USED to have such a job/trained for such a job and quit to do something else more rewarding or easier (if you're going for unambitious). They rise to leadership but always fail due to other circumstances (personality, secrecy, discrimination).
  • They come recommended: People talk about the character as being clever, witty or superior in some way. Think of Miss Marple (a little old retired lady solving mysteries), and you can hear an inspector saying how clever she is. They hang out with smart people who treat them as peers, if not superiors.
  • Cleverness: Your character comes up with a brilliant solution every time a problem comes up (if they bother to try and solve it). They may simply avoid problem solving out of personal issues. It doesn't even matter if you know about what it is, you describe the solution as brilliant. Again, Miss Marple is always given incomplete or even misleading data on which to solve cases, but always miraculously makes the correct assumptions, goes to the right spot (supposedly on purpose) to find clues, and always knows the right questions.
  • Accomplished: They have done great, clever things in the past. Even Han Solo, who isn't always intelligent, ran the Kessel run in 12 parsecs, so he's talented and clever. They have awards, trophies, and medals that they treat with little importance (an academic competition trophy used as a paperweight, for example).
  • Flawless: Your character doesn't make mistakes, except personal ones. They rarely even make unavoidable mistakes. They are perfect judges of character (if you want them to have emotional intelligence) or can play chess to beat supercomputers.
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Some possibilities/ideas you can tinker with:

  1. Give your character hobbies or attributes that are unique to who they are.
  • This often shows them in a light where they are knowledgeable about the topics in which they actually care about. For instance, if the character was extremely knowledgeable on, say, football, make part of the journey having to do with football, and then your character can demonstrate their non-book-smart ways through the activities surrounding the things that they care about.
  1. Make them a leader, or give them leadership qualities.
  • Oftentimes in novels, I have found that the protagonist is (forgive me if this is cliché) a leader to their group, team, or people around them. Leadership can indicate high IQ/smarts, as well as other skills/qualities that your character could have, such as charisma or the ability to be a 'people person,' which would be a trait that requires high levels of intelligence. This would fit your plot, as leadership is not usually considered book-smart.
  1. Have them find what they are good at or have them go through a quest for knowledge within your story.
  • People sometimes drift pointlessly or coast through life, and while they do this, they do not meet their full potential. (i.e. a straight-b student who is actually very smart) But when they find a purpose, they can get to their full potential, in this case the protagonist's smarts, by applying themselves to that thing. In your novel, it could be the supernatural elements that you mention in your question, or something else that the protagonist encounters along the way (although preferably earlier on).
  1. Have the main character realize that they are smart.
  • Perhaps the most straightforward idea, this may also be the hardest to execute, as it is a gradual thing, learning that oneself is smart. But if the protagonist thinks that they are dumb, or at least not smart compared to those who are around them (you describe them as 'highly intelligent and scientific-minded') they could just give up, or take the easy way out, making them seem even stupider. If you choose this method, it would be your job as a writer to find a way for the main character to figure out their own attributes, including their intelligence and then to prove that they are smart to the people they are with as well as the reader.
  1. (And this one I recommend even if you pick something else.) Give them a sense of humor.
  • When done correctly, this not only shows how smart the character is, through the quality and thoroughness of the jokes and quips they tell, but also makes your story more engaging and relatable to the reader.
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In order to show this character is intelligent, you have to show that this character in areas that let him shine. In particular in his home environment. For instance, if he lived on the edge of wilderness he might be able to see -- at a glance -- that you shouldn't walk somewhere because the lack of animal tracks betray that the footing is bad.

The "at a glance" is important. Yes, he can see things that others can. He can also see things quickly that others do slowly. And he will often find it hard to explain, because it seems obvious to him.

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Make them a mastermind

Your character is highly smart because they are able to play several moves ahead.

  • They have situational and emotional intelligence: they intuitively know how people are going to react.
  • They also know who to ask for the right thing / how to obtain what they want.
  • They have clear goals and establish plans at different scales (short-term and long-term). (and their plans are good)
  • They do seemingly random / unexplained actions that will prove useful much later, or conversely they are always prepared for the current situation. (because they have predicted that certain situations may arise)
  • They are reliable, therefore people rely on them.
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I'm from the northern USA. I have met a number of people from southern USA who at first appeared less smart than they were because they tended to talk and act at a slower pace than is normal in the north. I also had a 3rd semester calculus teacher who was very plain folksy and didn't appear very smart (but, come on! - He was teaching calculus!)

There's a big difference between being smart and acting smart!

A really smart person might be very unassuming and not reveal their intelligence until a situation demands it. And, if they were previously isolated or relatively unchallenged, they might not even realize how smart they are. People usually think they're the same as everyone else until they run into evidence to the contrary.

There's also the possibility that a person was demeaned/abused when they were younger and they learned to act dumb to fit in or were just too insecure to show any special abilities.

There are lots of ways a character could appear as normal and then be revealed as special in some way as their circumstances/events demand a response or offer an opportunity or they find someone who believes in them.

On the flip side of this are people who think they're smarter than they are and may get into trouble. This can include people with very high IQs, but with very little common sense or without the social skills to be effective.

A key aspect of the reveal would be to ease the reader into discovering the character's abilities. If it's done too abruptly, it may feel like a cheap writing device.

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