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Writing Characters That Are ‘Smarter’ Than You

Flickr Creative Commons: Steve McFarland

 

We are so excited to welcome our newest contributor to Writer Unboxed – Rheea Mukherjee! Rheea is the author of The Body Myth, which is releasing this month from Unnamed Press. Rheea is the co-founder of Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore, India. You can connect with Rheea at her website, Facebook, and Twitter.

I spent the first fifteen years of my life thinking I was quite stupid because I didn’t do well academically. It took as many years to rewire this thinking and understand how wide the spectrum of intelligence is. It took even longer to identify my own intelligence on that spectrum, which happened to be emotional intelligence. This is precisely why I’ve added quotes to the word ‘smarter’ in the title of this blog.

When I started writing my novel, The Body Myth, it quickly became apparent that Mira, the protagonist, had a certain bookish intelligence that I did not possess. Mira had read a wide variety of dense philosophical books and could link historic dates and anecdotes to present-day issues. The memory of everything she read was living and breathing and on the tip of her tongue. I panicked when it dawned on me that Mira was way smarter than I could ever be. While I had the same curiosity she had, especially about the past in context to war, oppression, feminism, and culture, I hadn’t read as fastidiously as she had, nor did I have the ability to connect the dots of the past or explain philosophical ideas and theory to a layperson.

How do we write characters that are different from us intellectually? Here’s what I did to create a character that was smarter than me, or rather had a capability that was very different from something I possessed. While the jury is still out on my success, I certainly learnt a lot about what a writer is capable of and tested my own preconceived limitations.

Study the conviction you have in your character

I didn’t make Mira smarter than I was just because I wanted a challenge. The story demanded it. Her trauma manifested as a need to validate the world through intellectualism. Her cynicism and emotional instability emerged from this form of validation. Once I knew this, I realized I had to put myself in her shoes. I also knew that it would be an artificial process for me, but one that had to flourish authentically on the page. All this to say: allow your story to demand a character’s abilities and worldview first and then research accordingly. 

Prepare to temporarily rewire your brain

My process of rewiring my own mind took about 2 months. This was a period of time I filled a thick notebook with handwritten notes. I watched youtube videos on philosophy and history for hours. I read articles, processed names and dates, and  jotted down eras and influencers of certain time periods. In order to soak in the information I was hearing  or reading online and in print, I had to write it down. For these two months I was another person, a person who could read and listen to subject matter I would not have had the patience to go through on a regular basis. I reread my notes everyday, letting the information sink in while simultaneously wondering how Mira would use this information to build her world view.

Ditch most of your research and new knowledge as you write 

When I started writing again I was an expert on both world wars and could teach a college level introductory level philosophy class. But as I wrote, I found that I had to position very little of that knowledge in the book. A super well read person in real life doesn’t necessarily go about their day spurting excerpts and factoids they’ve read. In real life, knowledge builds our approach to life and how we communicate with the world. Mira is a bit of an intellectual show-off and she uses a significant amount of her knowledge to impress someone she is falling in love with, so there were areas I had to write that in. But mostly, my research allowed me to build Mira and her worldview authentically. Today, 3 years later, I can’t remember even a quarter of the things Mira knows in the book. My brain is not naturally equipped to think or remember like her. When I go through my own book now, it’s like I am learning again from Mira. It’s surreal to think I was the one who wrote it.

While it does take patience and a commitment to process, you can write a character that has been informed in a way dramatically different from your own. And in the end, it will be your writerly imagination that needs to have the confidence to break free from the chains of knowledge and let your characters be who they are.

Have you ever written a character that had a capability very different from yourself? What was your process? How did you bring authenticity to them?

About Rheea Mukherjee

Rheea Mukherjee is the author of  The Body Myth, (February 2019/ Unnamed Press).  Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in several publications including Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Out of Print, QLRS, and Anti Serious among others. 

She is the co-founder of Write Leela Write, a design and content laboratory in Bangalore, India.

She spends most of her spare time eating and making vegan hipster things.

Learn more at www.rheeamukherjee.com, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.


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About Mary Ellen Bellusci

Mary Ellen Bellusci is a longtime resident of Baltimore, Maryland... A foodie, traveler, writer, and pursuer of happiness.