Why Writing Smart Anime Characters Isn’t Easy

There’s smart anime characters, and then there are geniuses who surpass all others, but it isn’t always easy getting these characters right.

Genius characters in fiction aren’t new. They’ve appeared in detective stories, fantasies, psychological dramas and so on for a long time and while we remember the Sherlock’s and Moriarty’s who seem to have gotten the balance just right, many characters and their ‘genius’ are largely overlooked and quickly forgotten by those who encounter them. Which seems odd given even a mediocre action based character can remain pretty entertaining just so long as he hits things hard enough (and the audience cares about why he’s doing it). So why are smart characters harder to write and have work well for the audience?

Random aside, earlier this week I ran a poll on Twitter to find out who my followers thought the best smart anime character was. Despite Lelouche getting an early lead, Light came back in the end and stole victory by the skin of his teeth. Though I will point out that there were a lot of comments for Senku and then Yang Wen-Li.

Light, L and Ryuk - Death Note
There’s genius and then there’s evil genius.

The reason I most recently started thinking about this issue again is my recent viewing of Moriarty the Patriot (Yuukoku no Moriarty) where I found Moriarty was a really well written character who I quite enjoyed but the anime as a whole suffered because of the efforts made to make him appear so much smarter than everybody else. The characters Moriarty interacted with and manipulated were at times blindingly stupid or at the very least incredibly naïve. One particular character, having already murdered someone, just accepted Moriarty’s advice about next steps without actually thinking anything through himself. And while you might argue that the character in question was distraught by the events that had unfolded, a more appropriate reaction might have been actually just stabbing Moriarty (which would have upset his overall plan enormously).

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Likewise, other characters follow along with plans seemingly without ever considering their own actions and while I’m willing to accept that given the era a general lack of educational standards there’s almost nobody in the anime even acting with what one would consider an average amount of thought; and all so that Moriarty could really rise above and shine with his incredible intellect that seemingly predicted all manner of events, circumstances, and human psychology.

Sebastian Moran from Moriarty the Patriot
First rule of being a support character when there is a genius protagonist – don’t think.

Part of this probably comes about because, let’s be honest, most of the authors are not super-criminal geniuses themselves. While they have the advantage of pre-planning and controlling all the narrative variables, ultimately the ploys and plans delivered by these genius characters were concocted by someone who was probably just hoping not to trip over their own logic and tangle their narrative in a knot.

What I found particularly interesting about Moriarty the Patriot is that ultimately it uses the same device as Death Note to ensure that there is some balance in the cast (though realistically Moriarty was always going to given the literary inspiration). That is, both anime introduce a character foil to ultimately oppose them in order to provide some sense of conflict into the story, and both anime end up having a genuine friendship, or at least respect, forming between the two characters despite their oppositional moral stances.

L from Death Note
Yep, he’s a genius.

Of course, Death Note had the same issue of the vast majority of the cast (particularly all the policemen and people investigating who were not L) were pretty much unable to add 2 and 2 together consistently (though some in Death Note did at least get the occasional moment of intelligent dialogue just to ensure we didn’t write them all off as incompetent).

However, outside of the detrimental effect smart anime characters frequently have on the intelligence levels of their supporting cast, other issues emerge. Code Geass fans will know how incredible Lelouche’s ability to plan and outwit his opponent is. Why we even start off the series with a chess game won from a more or less unwinnable position within moments just to show-off how smart he is. Of course, Lelouche is one of those characters who very quickly goes from being a driven and smart character to being a super-human who seems to have pre-cognitive abilities because a lot of what he pulls along the way in his story is just so far-fetched it defies actual belief. It’s a lot of fun, but you can’t for a moment take him seriously as an actual person because ultimately he’s a step ahead because he is and he conveniently always seems to get the information he needs at just the right moment.

Lelouch Lamperouge - Code Geass
Alright, genius and drama queen.

Okay, in fairness, things do go wrong for Lelouche at various points in the story, usually because despite being a genius he is a teenager and sometimes doesn’t quite think before he speaks or plan things quite all the way through and his opposition has some god-level intel at times as well so really let’s just throw Code Geass entirely into the realm of fantasy and call it a day.

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With difficulty balancing out a cast to make your smart character seem smarter without crossing into the realms on unbelievable some writers actually go the other way (and this is where we get a whole lot of forgettable supposedly genius characters). When I reviewed Makai Ouji: Devils and Realist I kind of pointed out one of the things that really didn’t work for me about the anime; the main character being ‘brilliant’. My main point was that the audience is told again and again, by William, teachers, other students, the anime synopsis, that William is brilliant and yet I couldn’t point to one decision or action William takes in the entire anime that actually seemed to demonstrate it.

Of course, some anime try to get around these problems and largely succeed by simply making their super-smart character really, really quirky. I’m kind of feeling Ed from Cowboy Bebop but there’s a lot of these characters who the writer seems to have balanced their abundance of brilliance in one department by making them more or less non-functioning humans in others. Professor Stein in Soul Eater with his obsession with dissection would be another example of a character whose overall intelligence and competence is balanced out by a fairly debilitating character quirk. However, on that note I actually thought of an anime that went with the quirky genius model and kind of pulled it off.

Steins;Gate - Kurisu and Okabe pose in their lab coats.
Yep, Steins;Gate.

Probably the only reason this works is the majority of the core cast are brilliant in their own way, and those that aren’t genius’ all have a particular personality trait or skill set that is necessary to make the plot continue to churn along. That, and Okabe is a fairly erratic character who keeps getting pulled up short by Kurisu. Kurisu meanwhile constantly needs to be pushed out of her comfort zone by Okabe in order for things to progress.

Still, it seems that a lot of writers do have a difficult time balancing their cast when building it around a genius. Or worse, they diminish their genius character in order to make the cast dynamics work but then the core personality trait they seemed to be aiming for is more or less abandoned. Despite the difficulties, when it is done well, these smart anime characters (or any work of fiction really) definitely leave an impression. What that means is we will probably continue to see writers play around with this particular archetype with varying degrees of success.

Before finishing I did just want to share a link to my list of top 5 smart anime characters. Realistically, Moriarty from Moriarty the Patriot deserves a spot but I just haven’t figured out where on the list he should go. But I would love to know who your favourite smart anime characters are so be sure to give them a shout out in the comments.

Images used in article:

  • Moriarty the Patriot. Dir. K Nomura. Production I.G. 2020.
  • Death Note. Dir. T. Araki. Madhouse. 2006.
  • Code Geass. G. Taniguchi. Sunrise. 2006.
  • Steins Gate. Dir. H. Hamasaki. White Fox. 2011.

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11 thoughts on “Why Writing Smart Anime Characters Isn’t Easy

  1. Related but unrelated, is that I’ve noticed a lot of smart characters often times don’t have other redeeming traits aside from their intelligence. Which when the story is set up so their core trait is being smart, and they’re in the position of being the main character is the main draw. Everyone likes a story about characters unlike yourself. Or everyone likes the idea that because they followed a fictional genius’s line of thought, they are one too.

    However, stripping back the fact they’re smart, and they are the main character so we’re suppose to like them; a lot of them don’t have anything else going on.

    This is probably personal taste, and my own experience dealing with a variety of ‘smart’ people in my life, but I feel like Code Geass had a better grasp on having a smart character lead then Death Note did. Light is intentionally a character to divide the fanbase to have, and is well written narrative wise, but he’s completely empty aside from his ‘I’m smart and I have the power of Death on my side’ from my recollection. Lelouch, seems to have been written more from ‘I’m smart, and vengeful since I have other people I care about get hurt or saved based on my actions so I have to choice wisely’ again from my recollection.

    I hope that reasonably relates back to your topic. I found your blog post really interesting, but my comment might have gone a bit off track. I do agree that writing ‘smart’ characters in most senses is incredibly difficult, so when they’re done right it’s a huge win. More often then not though, a lot of other elements of the story seem to suffer for the sake of a character being ‘smart’.

    1. I see where you are coming from though a lot of characters in general suffer from one defining trait whether it be smart or nice or vengeful. Wonderful when you have a cast of characters that are more than one word descriptors.

  2. I have enjoyed M the P so far.

    It is the curse of writing genius characters that to do it well the writer has to be just as smart. If you have a team of writers they can brainstorm to create a character above their individual levels but more often they’ll produce a character that’s the least common denominator and fall back on gimmicks. Committees usually do not create genius.

    But then you have a different problem. The genius’ logic has to be capable of being followed by the not so genius viewer. Otherwise it just seems like magic and becomes indistinguishable from “writer ex machina.” The clues have to be there and they need to be coherent.

    If I miss clues, I can excuse the inspector for missing clues. But writing people as being obviously incompetent to make the genius seem more intelligent has to be for comedic impact or it irritates the heck out of me. I dropped Death Note because of this. They wrote the female FBI agent who was supposed to be super competent as a blithering idiot, easily tricked into giving L her name after he all but confessed to the crimes.Unforgivable.

    1. I really find it irritating if the support cast exidts just to be amazed and impressed by the ‘genius’ in their midst. At least make them have a little more going for them than fan club.

  3. I spoke about this on my own blog, but I feel like they’ve built up Moriarty so much that his desire for a rival and a challenge is ultimately going to get in the way of his schemes. His need eventually leave his great rival clues and string him along with ultimately undercut how inhumanly intelligent he might be.

    It’s like you say. It’s easier for him to ultimately fail (if he does end up failing in his version of the story) through the human weakness of hubris instead of the writer having to figure our how two super geniuses would end up one upping one another.

    1. It still seems a little silly though given how focused he has been and the lengths he has gone to. To start making mistakes for the sake of interacting with Sherlock just seems illogical compared with his usual highly rational decisions. Then again, maybe it is an important step in humanising him.

      1. My take is that he’s finally found something more important to him than the mission, and that is his lusting over Sherlock. Be it intellectual lust or otherwise… I don’t know if you’re caught up, but that conversation between them in the train has some real sexual tension going on.

        Being slightly more serious, Moriarty has shown that he isn’t purely an intellectual, he has an ego that needs soothing. As shown by his insistence for his victims to see him giving a sinister smile as they meet their end. He wants them to know it was him.

        1. He definitely has an ego. I kind of figuered that would be his downfall but then he started playing games with Sherlock opening up a whole bunch of other opportunities to fail.

          1. It’s intellectual lust. He’s finally met someone who he thinks is on his level and the prospect excites him. More-so than his grand plan for England.
            Maybe it’s his ego that makes him think he’s still so far beyond Sherlock that he needs to leave him some clues to help him along. There’s all kind of routes I psychoanalyse him; maybe he’s looking for an excuse to self destruct, or maybe prospect of corrupting something good and bringing him over to his side gets him off.

            It could be all of these and none of these haha. All I know is that I am desperate for this show to start again in April. So much so that I’ve been reading through my copy of the original Sherlock Holmes stories in the meantime.

          2. Yes, I am pretty keen for more. I think I will watch while airing because I don’t know that I am patient enough to wait until it is done.

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