Brief “Quick Guide to Smart Characters”

To say that everyone is tired of clichés in games is already a cliché. I was looking for something useful to read about narrative. Found Quick Guide to Smart Characters by Eliezer Yudkowsky, author of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

The original article is 18.5k words. After the first hour, the brain boiled and begged for mercy on him. Apparently, the brain does not know that we are a smart character. I decided to make a summary, like a spur at the university, so that it remains in my memory. I tried my best, shrunk to 1.3k words, this is already ~ 5 minutes of reading, not 2-3 hours.

But first the 3 second version:

  • A smart character will not act dumber than you.

But for 30 seconds of reading:

  • In order not to write nonsense, try to write in the first person.
  • Glasses, thinness, insecurity with girls and a lot of buzzwords – the most lame way to show intelligence.
  • To respect a character, especially a villain, mentally tie him to an acquaintance whose intelligence you respect.
  • The reason for smart characters’ mistakes is that a good and well-thought-out idea did not work 100% as planned by the character (and the reader expected).
  • To put a hero with intelligence in front of a “real” moral conflict, choose two conflicting ideals that are close to you. Doubt which of the two is better. Still doubt. Ready.
  • Write down all the arguments in favor of the Villain so that the followers of the Villain would not guess that it was not the Villain who wrote it.
  • If your character is superior to the whole world, describe the reasons.
  • Do not use scientific terms, explain the essence.

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Below is my version of the summary for ~ 5 minutes of reading (but without examples from Naruto and the canonical Harry Potter, as in original).

1. Smart first level characters

I wouldn’t do that.
You wouldn’t do that.

A character with a level one intellect is a character who does the best in a given situation (for a given character), who optimizes his own life, and not the one who behaves according to the script.

2. Intelligence through empathy and respect

Blatantly steal the image of someone whose intelligence you truly respect. You can steal from real life or from literature. Or make an intelligence check by imagining yourself in the shoes of a character (p. 1).

The trick is to try writing in the first person. So it’s harder to write obvious nonsense.

3. Deliberate Actions and Smart Mistakes

You want an epic fight between villain and hero. But the villain wants the heroes to die in the first chapter and sends extra soldiers to make sure that happens.

Come up with an idea where none of the characters look like an idiot. Since you are the author, you have a bonus: if you find a loophole in chapter 63, go back in time and fix this loophole back in chapter 17.

Ideally, if your ant/protagonist makes a mistake, then the mistake is so plausible that most readers accept it as a sound idea. At least on first reading. Convince the reader that the hero really thought about it carefully.

4. Genuine moral conflicts

You have read many stories where there are two sides with different morals, but where there is no such thing as a moral conflict. It’s almost always clear what the author is thinking about which side you should be on.

You write the real conflict when you find two conflicting ideals that are so close to you that you are not sure which side you want to end up on.

Try to honestly play the conflict between Good and Good.

5. Realistic villains and points of view

Ideological Turing Test: try to write down all the arguments in favor of your opponents so that if your opponents read these arguments, they would not guess that NOT one of them wrote it.

Each active character in your story should live with a worldview where he is the center, and not your GG.

What we truly believe does not feel like a belief or belief to us, it feels like the world really is.

6. Originality

Don’t do what has been done before.

How? Reject the first idea that pops into your head. 99% that it has been used many times already. Yes, it’s not difficult to come up with a random game, you can generally roll the dice. The question is how your randomness fits into the plot.

7. Self-awareness and understanding of the genre

If the situation around you reminded you of horror, then you would not separate from the group, wander around the house with the lights off, or go towards strange growling sounds in the bushes. You’ve seen scary movies and you know what usually happens next.

If the genre is too obvious and the hero doesn’t recognize it, the hero doesn’t seem smart. If the hero recognizes him with a half-sigh, the hero is too cool or the fourth wall breaks.

Ideally, you put the characters in situations that don’t look like the patterns you’ve read so that smart characters can’t resolve those situations immediately or successfully predict their development simply because they’ve read the same books as you.

8. Characters with second level intelligence

Hollywood, when it wants to portray a good chess player, puts next to the chess player someone who opens his mouth admiringly after his move. Partly due to the fact that a genius cannot simply make a brilliant move – an ordinary spectator, a non-chess player, will not understand genius.

To design a character for level 2 intelligence, the reader must own all the pieces of the puzzle.

A bad example: you mention somewhere at the beginning of the first chapter that there is a piano in the bushes, and in chapter 101 you find yourself right in these bushes, when no one remembers about it. That doesn’t work. You must activate all the pieces of the puzzle in the reader’s mind, i.e., mention and refer to these pieces several times during the course of the story.

So that the reader says “Well, of course!” at the moment of a dramatic denouement, rather than “Wait, wait, when was that..?”

9 Vinge’s Law

Vinge’s law states that if you know exactly what a smart agent would do, you must be at least as smart.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a character smarter than yourself. “Being smart” is a skill that can be developed. And you can be tricky too.

The first trick is to reverse engineer the problem around your ideas of possible solutions.
Build the problem from the solutions you have (this is just a literary example, forgive me startups).

The second trick is to only give the character problems they can handle.
The third trick is that you, as the author, decide that a smart-sounding idea works, when in real life the only way to know if an idea works is by testing it.

In life, the failures and successes of smart ideas are at best 10 to 1. But we cannot test them in life. And reading 9 unsuccessful attempts will be boring.
Planning errors and human optimism are usually enough to make plans seem more successful than in real life.

This assumption does not mean that one should endow an intelligent hero with a mediocre or “normal” idea. It has to be the best available.

10. Unexploited vulnerabilities

Your GG came up with a good idea. Why didn’t you come to the villain?

If a lot of people want something that exists in limited quantity, then it’s amazing that there is an easy way that anyone can use to get this resource.

If this is a complex new concept, then your fictional world may not really have grasped it yet.

The ancient Greeks did not come up with the idea of ​​natural selection, although they had all the information they needed; and in many dark corners of the world, as in America, the idea is still not fully accepted.

If your character is superior to civilization, then there must be reasons for it.

11. Explaining other universes

For your own fantasy or science fiction, you choose a set of pre-set conditions, the laws of the world, and explain the world based on them.

For fanfiction, watch your chosen world until you start giving your own answers to its riddles.

12. Solvable riddles

If you want to hide an important fact, then don’t do anything to hide it.

Remember about the Illusion of Transparency: if you know about the hints, it is easy for you to notice them, if you do not know, they are much more difficult to notice.

In order for the reader to know about the riddle before it is solved (many people will not notice your riddle), have the characters mention it.

No, readers are not stupid, it’s just that many people read faster than write.
If you don’t have 10,000 fans to sit around and solve your riddles, but you want your readers to solve them, don’t hide the clues too hard.

13. Real learning

The six skills needed to describe real science in a work of fiction are:

1) Know the material at a level above what appears in the story.

If the character is referring to sci-fi, read the original articles referenced by that sci-fi.

2) Be prepared to see how the material will be implemented in the story.

If there were alternatives to scientific principles you know what such a world would look like.

3) You must master the art of relevance.

Mention only facts important to the story.

4) You must be able to explain things in your own words, and at a higher level than what teachers ask you to do in an essay.

Ideally, scientific terms should not be used at all.

5) Being able to imagine what it’s like to not know the material without being stupid.

Writing for the reader or character you want to explain to, trying to show empathy, is close to passing the Turing Ideological Test, item 5.

6) Be able to explain technical ideas to other people.

Write a blog or find a person and explain the same material to him without context so that he understands the material).

Mark scientific facts that affect your life to write a story. Mark the buzzwords in the story and double-check if they are important to your story.

14. Smart characters of the third level

The third level of intelligence is when you have described the intelligence and thinking of your character in such a way that the reader can learn this way of thinking.

Sherlock Holmes does not operate in any reproducible method. It works by magically finding the right clues and magically connecting the right complex chains of deduction.

Rationality techniques are ways of good thinking that can be transmitted. You can understand the rules, name them, list the details and explain to others.
“Of course you’re joking, Mr. Feynman” won’t turn you into Nobel Prize winners in physics, but you’ll learn something from the book.


If you didn’t get any smarter from reading about the character’s point of view, at least a little, then most likely the author did not show real intelligence.
If the reader, based on the thinking of the hero in the book, can guess what he did in the GG in a similar situation, and get a good, applicable to life answer, then most likely you have created a hero with a third level intellect.

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