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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Get Smart?

   
Author Topic: Get Smart?
dougsguitar
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Recently I surfed by an internet link about writing "smart" characters, but planned to return to the article on my way out. Somehow I lost contact with it. I would like to hear some input about writing characters who are much smarter than I(we) am(are). How do you strike a balance between showing the characters intellectual abilities and sounding contrived or (the writer) sounding like a regular smart person attempting to 'sound' smarter than they are. (Would anyone like to re-write that sentence in a worse way than I just did? OUCH!)
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Robert Nowall
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It depends...do you mean "smart" in the sense of "smarter than the other characters?" Or maybe "smart" in the SF sense of "smarter than human beings?"

On the latter, I'd recommend an exploration of the works of both A. E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon for outstanding (but not recent, and maybe somewhat creaky) examples of this theme.


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Merlion-Emrys
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Well, since I don't really believe in our cultures notions of being "smart" or of "intelligence", I can't really say. Are you speaking in terms of knowledge? Ability to solve problems, or comprehend things? But with that, it really depends on what kinds of things.

Someone may be very "smart" about numbers and mathmatics but have trouble understand linguistical concepts or vice versa.


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dougsguitar
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Right. The notion of 'smart' is relative in a wide spectrum. As a writer attempting to maintain the 'illusion' of fiction, I am concerned about how to keep the 'smart character' from shattering the shell of the story to where the reader is suddenly looking down at a paper book instead of being immersed in the character. I may not be articulating my thoughts on the subject very well.
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Merlion-Emrys
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But before I can even try to offer any advice on how to avoid that, I have to know what kind of "smart character" you're talking about and in what context.


But believe me, I know what it is to be trying to figure something out thats hard to properly articulate.


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extrinsic
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A cocky smart character all but begs for a comeuppance resolution in the vein of poetic justice, which comes with a ready-made plot structure. In an alternative, a deeply troubled smart character instills sympathy/empathy in readers, all but asking for a noble sacrifice resolution. In author surrogate types of stories, the central features of self-efficacy and self-idealization are significant ways to bridge reader resonance resistance through self-identification and wish fulfillment.
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BenM
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Ender Wiggin springs to mind. It's my opinion that a reader can put up with a character with an impossibly high IQ provided that the story (for want of a better description) declares it, shows it, and reflects it.

Declares it: Says up front before/as we meet the character.
Shows it: We see how this character thinks, in some way, so that what otherwise appears to be an impossible leap of intuition makes sense.
Reflects it: Other characters and their environment treats them like they are a very smart person, maybe by being in a special school, maybe with contempt and loathing, maybe by bullying.


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ScardeyDog
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I think OSC had a section in "Characters and Viewpoints" that dealt with writing characters more intelligent than the writer. Unfortunately his advice isn't coming to mind right now.

You could always do the Sherlock Holmes thing; have your character draw conclusions very quickly or from less information than would be required for a "normal" person.

Having a good vocabulary can be another indication of intelligence, but over-using it is really annoying to the reader (like over-use of a dialect).

If your smart character is also a viewpoint character you could have them dismiss something as "too easy" that normal people find difficult, like calculus or rocket science, or understanding women.


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sholar
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When I try to be intelligent, I often end up writing myself into corner. If Bob was super smart, he would see this, which would mean x, but then y would never happen and onward.

Another thing to consider is that the author is creating the world- which means that the author controls results. So, your character does basically have access to special info that the rest of the world does not, which allows them to come off as smarter.

I know my brother and my IQ scores an both of us are quite high. For my brother, you almost need to see the paperwork to believe he is that high. He barely passed high school (mostly because he didn't care). He spent many years working construction and is currently a fireman who runs a contracting business on the side and flips houses. For the tests to be a fireman, he blew through all of them without problems (both physical and mental) and got a job with less qualifications and experience and less time looking than the usual expectation. He is charming and personable, but almost never talks about "smart people" stuff. In family situations, he often acts juvenile, makes stupid jokes and is pretty flaky. So, keep in mind, just having a high IQ doesn't really mean much. It is how it is applied.

If I were writing a "smart" character, I would generally focus on competence in the chosen field and interests. It is possible to be a genius and not a geek. Also, possible to be a geek and not a genius.


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tchernabyelo
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I've had significant problems trying to write characters who are "smarter" then me - in the specific sense that they are supposed to be able to come up with clever, convoluted schemes.

Which I can't, even with ages to think them up at the keyboard rather than having to do it on the fly.


As a result, I generally try and stick to characters who are no cleverer than me...


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dougsguitar
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quote:
But before I can even try to offer any advice on how to avoid that, I have to know what kind of "smart character" you're talking about and in what context.

Merlion - The character is a super-genius type who runs quantum mathematics in her head. The two main characters, her (16yo) and her brother (14yo) have super-human attributes but remain very much true to their age typecast. Their abilities seem mundane to them because they have had so little social interaction with peers. They don't know, and never really ponder what is 'normal'.


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shimiqua
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Slow down the action and have the character notice little things like a knowing look between lovers, or a finger twitching over suitcase.

In my opinion, smart means quick and observant. And that is easy to fake.

When I write a character that is smarter than me, and am unsure on how to do it, I tend to over educate them, give them too big of a vocabulary, or try to prove they're smart. That makes my characters seem insecure and works against what I am trying to do.

Make them confident. Force yourself to make them use a simple word even when you, and they, know the meaning of a bigger one. Then while writing their thoughts use a few carefully chosen big words, or recall quotations from books. Make sure they think grammatically correct.

Just because someone is smart, that doesn't make them God. How do people in the story regard this smart character? Just because they are smart, they are not infallible.

Make them fail once or twice. Maybe seven times.

If that doesn't work, then just write with a British accent. Can't hurt.
~Sheena

[This message has been edited by shimiqua (edited January 04, 2010).]


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Kitti
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If for every gift you give a character, you with-hold something, then you'll probably be okay.

E.g. super-smart guy who is completely unable to talk coherently in non-work situations. Or someone who's super-smart but can't ever find car keys and gets all mixed up over "common sense" type stuff. Someone who's smart in one environment and has trouble in another one gets leveled out in my opinion.


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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As I recall, OSC talked about being able to write characters smarter than himself because he, as author, could take his time to figure out things that his smart characters figure out very quickly in the story.
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dougsguitar
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quote:
If that doesn't work, then just write with a British accent. Can't hurt.
~Sheena

Uhmmm... looking for the accent command key... uhmmm...

extrinsic - the character is leaning more toward the deeply troubled soul based upon an unfair past that came as a result of her younger brother's actions... at birth. She can't even blame him.

sholar - she is the genius/non-geek version. She sings acoustic physics while riding a KZ900.

sheena/kitti - my mind has been searching for the 'oops' in her character sketch. May be that she is too perfect... will contemplate!

kathleen - I think part of my trouble is that I don't take enough time to noodle 'it' out. I hope I am not relying on what experienced writers will see as the equivalent to a card trick. Only crits will tell.

I try to let the writing flow as naturally as I can. I have been involved in some very high-tech action in the real world and shudder to think about the real tech guys showing up in the story... (YAAWWNNN... stretch... scratch'z beard...looks longingly at the fridge). Anyone not totally up to speed on the subject matter would be lost right away in one of those conversations. Real is boring in this instance, fiction is much more fun.
Thank you all for the insight and the effort to think... thinking is good!

fyi - if you own a fridge you are among the top 8% of the wealthiest people on the planet.


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KayTi
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I recently read an older work by Poul Anderson (I think) called Brain Wave, which deals with what happens when a "dampening field" leaves earth (earth/the solar system moves out of the way of this field that has affected us for eons) and suddenly everyone is frighteningly brilliant.

He has some great ideas around what would happen to society in that case, but he also does a good job of explaining how it felt to the people affected, and it's just a good story about intelligence and what it means to us humans. It might be of interest to you as you're writing this particular story.

good luck!


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MAP
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quote:
Merlion - The character is a super-genius type who runs quantum mathematics in her head. The two main characters, her (16yo) and her brother (14yo) have super-human attributes but remain very much true to their age typecast. Their abilities seem mundane to them because they have had so little social interaction with peers. They don't know, and never really ponder what is 'normal'.

The most important thing is to make sure you get the math and physics right.

I don't think you need to focus on how to make her seem smart, but more on getting into her head. How does a super-genius in math and sciences think? Once you answer that, the character's intelligence will come, and it will seem natural.

I bolded a section of your post to point out that if she is isolated, she should be an idiot in dealing with people. No intellegence is going to supersede experience in interacting with others. If you make her street smart and able to read people, I am not going to buy it no matter how genius she is.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited January 05, 2010).]


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dougsguitar
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MAP - This brings THE question to my mind... concerning getting the math OF the physics correct.
One of my concerns is in the detail of something one of them does at the very beginning. I don't know how to do the literal calculations for what he does, to see if my 'guess' was even remotely close.

It is hard to describe in ambiguous terms and even harder to understand I'm sure.

I'm guessing 90% of the readers would not hiccup at the non-calculated result of what happens. This is totally what I'm reaching for here; to understand if I can guess at an outcome which could be calculated by a physics professor and get away with it... without breaking the illusion.
Blink, blink... I'll try to be more vague.

quote:
If you make her street smart and able to read people, I am not going to buy it no matter how genius she is.

This is a recurring theme of thought in the above posts... maybe I should pay real close attention.


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extrinsic
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Stephen Kotowych's "Saturn in G Minor" WOTF Volume XXIII grand prize finalist didn't get the physics right. I noted it was off, but it didn't disrupt my reading experience. It was also commented upon at the awards ceremony by a physicist who could do the math, who also commented that it didn't bother him, the story was good anyway.

However, there's a strong following of critics who denounce stories that don't have externally consistent logic. It's becoming quite a secondary discourse movement, finding fault with science and technology misrepresented in fiction. An art form? Perhaps. Stranger things have happened in the secondary discourse world.

Secondary discourse is discussions of published literature, including critical reviews, literary reponses, promotional copy, writing workshop and literature study discussions, and so on. Primary discourse is the literature itself.


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sholar
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For the street smart part, for me, it is not about having trouble being smart in multiple areas. It is about the isolated upbringing. If she has had opportunities to learn social skills and watch people, it is believable. But if she has never interacted with people, they should be a bit of a mystery. If you wanted her to be able to read people and still be isolated, she could have maybe watched lots of videos of real life people in different situations.

To make them sound British, just start watching BBC America exclusively. Little Britishisms will start popping up all the time, whether you want them to or not.


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MAP
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quote:
MAP - This brings THE question to my mind... concerning getting the math OF the physics correct.
One of my concerns is in the detail of something one of them does at the very beginning. I don't know how to do the literal calculations for what he does, to see if my 'guess' was even remotely close.
It is hard to describe in ambiguous terms and even harder to understand I'm sure.

I'm guessing 90% of the readers would not hiccup at the non-calculated result of what happens. This is totally what I'm reaching for here; to understand if I can guess at an outcome which could be calculated by a physics professor and get away with it... without breaking the illusion.
Blink, blink... I'll try to be more vague.


Are you having your character do math in your novel? I would stay away from this; I can't see this being interesting to anyone other than a mathmatician. When I said to get the physics and math right, I meant get the terminology correct. There is a big difference between integration, deriviatives, and partial differential equations. I remember eigenfunctions and matrices were talked about a lot in the quantum mechanics section of physical chemistry.

Yeah, if the story is good enough mistakes in science can be forgiven, but there is no reason to get the terminology wrong. I get so frustrated when chromosome, DNA, gene, and even base pair are used incorrectly. They are not all the same thing. There is no excuse to not do the research. But I didn't mean for you to successfully derive the Schrodinger Equation.


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Robert Nowall
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I dunno...being smart doesn't necessarily show on your face. They say Asimov, to the uninitiated, looked like a moron studying to be an idiot, and occasionally fooled people who thought that.

I generally came across pretty high in the smarts category (not that it did me much good, but that's another story). In my school career, I came across, oh, maybe three people who I thought were smarter than I was---one of them is, apparently, the Congressional Budget Office director right now. (I say apparently 'cause I haven't been able to confirm beyond "it sure looks like the guy I knew.") Probably there were others---but I wasn't capable of observing it.

(Aside: don't confuse "smart" with "intellectual." What's brainy on that level doesn't necessarily cut it in the so-called "real world." I'll recommend Thomas Sowell's recent book Intellectuals and Society, just for the list of just how dumb smart people can be.)


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KayTi
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Reading further in the thread, you might be interested in reading about Gartner's theory of multiple intelligences, to be able to give your characters a few strengths, and some plausible weaknesses.

Bright children are often intuitively bright about society, they understand society norms. This is more true of bright girls than boys, which leads to one of the biggest challenges in identifying giftedness in children. Girls figure out early on that they're "different" and in our society different = bad, so they find ways to not stand out, to perform at the same level as others in the group (maybe at the top of the group, but they are often performing way under their actual potential.)

Bright children also often have a very strong feeling about fairness and right and wrong. Injustices bother them, at an extreme level. They often have a strong social conscience, and become advocates in areas like homelessness, poverty, famine. They don't understand why adults can't figure out how to feed people who are hungry, and the injustice of that is upsetting.

However, it's also true that often bright children are isolated and "in their own world." This is typically because they can't easily find their true intellectual peers. Their age-peers (kids their same age/grade) don't think the way they do. Going up in age often leads to problems of bullying or being used by older kids, or even just being ignored. So the bright child in the mainstream environment often turns inward and has a rich fantasy life, imagination, etc.

It is common for them to get very involved in one thing for a period of time, borderline obsession. They will learn everything they can about that subject, exhaust their interest, and then move on to something else. Can't tell you how many parents I talk to who lament the extensive collection of dinosaur books they amassed during their bright child's dinosaur phase, only to have him/her move out of that phase and onto something else. Libraries are a gifted child's best friend. Not just for their materials, but because librarians are often as serially deep in their interests as gifted children, and if one librarian doesn't happen to have that particular interest, she can often point the child to another or find the resources (e.g., local university professors) to help them. As you're composing your cast of characters, you may wish to use a librarian/professor-like resource for the children, just someone who helps them identify what they need. (In classic Hero's Journey type stories, this would be called the Mentor role.)

Some other elements of how gifted children think - they think differently. They do not require repetition to learn material, often one explanation is enough for them to learn how to do a math calculation, for example. Sometimes, they don't "get it" from the first explanation. Rather than repetition, what they generally need is an alternate/different explanation - an approach to the problem from a different angle.

Gifted children tend to have intuitive leaps as they are learning material. They often "just know" an answer, without knowing or understanding how they came to it. A lot of what gifted education needs to focus on is giving them both the confidence to know they're right, and then helping them learn the detailed calculations/analysis to be able to go back and derive the answer that just came to them, so they can check their work and build that confidence.

Like other children, gifted children need to be able to develop mastery of material. They can't have a continually moving target (oh, this stuff is too easy for you, I'm going to give you the 9th grade textbook...) - they do need the opportunity to feel that they have achieved mastery of some content before moving on. Every human needs this, but it's often overlooked because many basic school skills come so easily to a gifted child that they aren't actually mastering material but rather regurgitating what they know and have known for ages. It's a balancing act to find the right kind of challenges for gifted students.

Sorry for the length, can you tell I do some gifted advocacy?

I can go on a bit more about how it is difficult for the gifted child who feels out-of-sync with their peers, but I think you're painting a different scenario where your two bright children are with each other, so they may have developed a skewed sense of what others are like because they do actually have that gifted buddy who thinks like they do. But check out Gardner's work on multiple intelligences. It would be fun to give one character a few of the intelligences and the other some *different* ones and see how those play out.

Oh, and don't assume gifted children means everything comes easily. Many gifted children are called "twice exceptional" because they are gifted and have a learning disability.

Here's a wikipedia page on Gardner
Here's also a good gifted resource (I really like this author - Linda Kreger Silverman)


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MartinV
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When it comes to intelligent characters, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series comes to mind. There is really no dumb character on Discworld. Even the thugs and bandits have really interesting things to think/say.
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extrinsic
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Thrice exceptional: gifted, learning disability, and personality syndrome dysfunction. The range of personality syndromes and overlaps covers about everyone with some degree of social functional incapacity. It could be argued that intellectual gifts are a byproduct of personality syndromes.
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micmcd
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Showing how a character thinks by writing in his or her viewpoint can be an easy way to suggest a highly mathematical mind. For a good example, you might want to check out the chapters from Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon where Waterhouse is the viewpoint character; one particularly funny bit comes where he ponders about the graph of a periodic function where the horizontal axis is time, and the vertical axis is his need to visit a local whorehouse (he labels the dependent variable as lowercase sigma "for obvious anatomical reasons"). A visit to his favorite hooker results in a "reset" of the desire variable, so that an extended time view looks something like a chopped-off version of a tangent graph. This works out until he introduces the "factor of Mary Smith," proximity to a girl he is quite fond of but isn't allowed to sleep with, which he denotes by F with a subscript of ms. Sigma(x_ms) is now a more wildly varying function, which is havoc on his work schedule...

I'm paraphrasing of course; I don't have the book handy, but this is how he narrates when Waterhouse is the viewpoint. A hull explosion on a ship is a deformation of a planar surface designed to separate gas from liquid, resulting in a manifold that is neither planar nor separating - it was clearly not a continuous action. Little, everyday things are described in bizarre but understandable ways. When he does make a "mental leap," the author simply mentions that he created an algorithm to break the code in real time... no need to give clues as to how he did it. The reader probably isn't a cryptographer.

Also - one of your other posts threw up a red flag

quote:
The character is a super-genius type who runs quantum mathematics in her head

As someone who once studied mathematics and physics (including "quantum" things), I would be very, very wary of using modern buzzwords to make it sound like she's doing something super-smart. There really isn't any such thing as "quantum" math. There are mathematical ideas used to calculate things related to quantum particles, there are all sorts of fun equations, and there are random mathematical concepts to which the word "quantum" is attached. A professor of mine once said at a talk "we call this thing quantum because [imagine this said in a thick Russian accent], quite honest, is sound sexier, you know? Get more grant money that way."

There are quantum mechanics... I once spent a summer studying the classical and "quantum" 6-j symbols, which have little to do with QM, which is really a separate beast from quantum field theory (though you could argue it isn't)... yeah. Anyhow, my point is to beware tossing in the word "quantum." It can bug math/physics people the same way a character hopping on a bareback horse and riding eighty miles in a day and then fighting off a raging horde of orcs would irritate a horse person.

Also, if your person does higher mathematics and it is important to the story at all, you should definitely interview a mathematician. Ask them to explain the difference between calculus and mathematics, and what math research is. We used to have a saying in the department that "Calculus is what engineers think mathematicians use all day."


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Pyre Dynasty
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There were two people who were told to watch a building and report on how many people came in and out. One of them was a mathematician. (Sorry I forget what the other one was so my punchline is lacking, anyways) Two people walked in and three people walked out, the mathematician turned to his friend and said, "If one of us go into that building it'll be empty again."
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Teraen
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Use big words.
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ScardeyDog
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micmcd - As an engineer: lol!
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dougsguitar
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To all; if my brain explodes one of you has to help clean it up! Seriously, this is a great help. I am reading all comments carefully and finding the clues I need to do what I am attempting with this character. Sometimes I feel like a cartoon guy cutting off a limb... while standing on the wrong side of the cut. 'Sokay though, in cartoons you always bounce!

I happen to know a superbigbrainmathperson... a conversation is in order I thnk. (hows that fer a big word?)

fyi; the story is not about math... the character has an enhanced brain, so to speak, she just doesn't know it yet.

[This message has been edited by dougsguitar (edited January 06, 2010).]


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micmcd
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I actually switched over to the dark side and became a software engineer, but the math mentality stuck around a bit.

How to tell the difference between a mathematician and an engineer:
1. Put them in a kitchen, and place a pot of water on the floor.
2. Ask both for an algorithm to boil the water. They'll tell you the same thing: take the pot of water off the floor, put it on the stove, and turn on the stove until it boils.
3. Place a pot of water on a table.
4. Ask both for an algorithm to boil the water.

Engineer's response: Take the pot of water off of the table and put it on the stove. Then turn on the stove until the water boils.

Mathematician's response: Take the pot of water off of the table and put it on the floor, thereby reducing the problem to one we've already solved.

[This message has been edited by micmcd (edited January 06, 2010).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Having earned a degree in mathematics and one in engineering, I thank you for the explanation on how to tell the difference, micmcd.
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sholar
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A hotel room is on fire. The engineer looks at the fire, looks at his ice buckets and thinks, yup, that much water should put it out. He fills the bucket, puts out the fire. A mathematician sees the same fire, rushes to his pad of paper, calculates the exact volume of water needed. He determines that the bucket would be sufficient and then, comforted that it is possible to put the fire out, he returns to bed and sleeps.
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micmcd
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Last one along this thread, I promise:
A farmer asks three people, a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer, to build him a fenced-in pen for his cows, and asks them to make it as large as possible.

The engineer grabs as much wood as he can and builds a circular enclosure, since that shape yields the most are for any given perimeter.

The physicist goes back to his office and drafts up a paper for a government grant for a few hundred million dollars and then builds a fence that goes around the equator of the earth, since that is the largest circle you can make on this planet. "Ha! Beat that!" he says with a mischievous grin.

The mathematician takes the four tiniest wood planks he can find and wedges himself into the tightest square into which he can fit. "I define myself to be on the outside."

Incidentally - getting back to the whole "how this helps writing through the mind of a smart/engineery/mathy/sciencey person," even if you aren't a mathematician/engineer/physicist/programmer/biochemist/etc: You don't have to know math to write the thoughts or speech patterns of a mathematician. But it would help to talk to one.

By the way, KDW - I have the ever-conflicting pair of degrees as well. I also loudly rejected the idea of ever wanting to do engineering when I started my undergrad days, explaining to anyone who cared to listen that I hated anything with practical applications; theory was so much more beautiful. Eight years later, it occurred to me that practical vocations paid much, much better.


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sholar
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I am married to an engineer, who got his masters in math, and then got a job as a quality engineer (and loves it). Math and engineers supposedly don't get along and engineers hate QEs. So, he is just a bundle of contradictions. But he got a job in a horrible economy that pays all our bills, so that quiets the conflict.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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My explanation of the difference between scientists (which in this case includes mathematicians) and engineers:

The scientist sees a new discovery and is in raptures: "Look at how beautiful and elegant that is."

The engineer hears the scientist's raptures and comes to take a look as well: "Huh! How can you make money with it?"


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BenM
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I beg to differ, Kathleen...

The scientist sees a new discovery and is in raptures: "Look at how beautiful and elegant that is."

The engineer hears the scientist's raptures and comes to take a look as well: "Huh! With this I can make the ultimate widget!"

The marketing guy looks at the engineers proposal, scratches his head and says: "The ultimate widget will cost too much, no one will buy more of them, and you'll put us out of business. Make it last only thirteen months."

The CEO looks at the marketing report and dials the harbor: "I need an extra berth, I'm getting another Sea Ray."


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Edward Douglas
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When it comes to character development I keep the following in mind: "Smart people can act stupid, but stupid people can't act smart."

No character will ever be smarter than the author who created him. Unless, of course, that character's knowledge is left unexplained, but then we are accepting a superior intellect on faith alone, because the author is unable to justify it.

What we must concentrate on are the other characters in the story. The ones who are not as smart. I think that is why so many author's introduce sidekicks. Samwise Gamgee comes to mind. Someone simple or slower than the wise in the world, yet just as loved and memorable because of their "street smarts."

Need I mention Sancho Panza, or Little John, Dr. Watson, Huck Finn, Friday, et al...

These sidekicks tend to make the MC obviously more intelligent than others in the tale. I don't wonder how smart the MC is or even care why he is. It's no longer important.

[This message has been edited by Edward Douglas (edited January 07, 2010).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I concede, BenM. Your version is better than mine.
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