Why Writing Smart Anime Characters Isn’t Easy

Smart Anime

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).

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.


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 Steins;Gate 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.

Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
Karandi James

Makai Ouji: Devils and Realist Series Review


Makai Ouji Overview:

In Makai Ouji, William, apparently a brilliant student, is a son in a noble house but due to his Uncle his fortune is lost and now William is going to struggle just to pay his school fees. While searching the family home for anything that might sell he comes across a magical symbol in the floor of a hidden room and somehow summons a demon.

That said, this story then goes in a slightly weird direction after he has the demon arrested for trespassing and steadfastly refused to believe in anything demon related for the vast majority of the show despite the copious number of demons popping into his life.

Makai Ouji Review:

From the various descriptions of this show I kind of thought this would be some good, mindless fun with maybe some slightly darker overtones. Enjoyable and forgettable. I was right enough about the forgettable side, but enjoyable might be stretching it.


It isn’t that there is anything terribly broken about the show. The plot works reasonably well (such as it can with several demon factions all trying to get William to agree to support their push to rule over hell – and why William has any say is something that is better left undiscussed because it’s incredibly arbitrary and not really dealt with well in the series though there is a reason). The characters are all kind of one note characters but they fairly consistently hit their cues and visually it works well enough.

No, my main complaint with this show is in the delivery. It consistently takes short cuts in story-telling or underestimates the audience’s ability to put two and two together and somehow get a number close to four.

What does that mean?


In my overview I said that William is apparently a brilliant student. How do we know this? Because the synopsis told us so. Because the show tells us. Over and over again. The other students are jealous of him. His teachers praise him. His own inner and outer monologues tell us this. But do we ever see William being brilliant or doing anything that might even suggest he is slightly above average in intelligence? Not once.

On not one occasion does this character do anything remotely bright. He isn’t stupid, but his decision making skills as demonstrated over the course or 12 episodes are average at best and at times questionable. His stubborn refusal to believe the evidence of his own eyes about the supernatural elements at play might be seen as him being egotistical but they hardly show the flexible and quick thinking of a so-called genius. This is compounded by his flimsy attempts to rationalise his refusal to accept evidence.

This complaint carries over to almost every character. Rather than allow these characters to be met organically or to learn about them and their natures in any kind of natural fashion, the show continuously has characters make snide comments about the nature of others or has the character themselves declare their fascination or obsession. It’s really lazy character development and it hinders any kind enjoyment these characters may have otherwise given us.


While I said the plot works, it is a really contrived plot. It is one of those situations where everything is centred on William and it gets increasingly difficult to believe that one of the demon factions won’t just take him out. The argument that he’s being protected by Dantalion will only stretch so far given even Dantalion can’t fight all the hordes of hell. And yes I know there’s the whole back story which I’m not going into but again it feels really contrived.

All and all, unless the thought of demons taking on human form and going to highschool offends you, Makai Ouji: Devils and Realist is a fairly mindless piece of fluff that might make you smile or you may just watch it and forget it. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it but I also won’t say its terrible. There’s a lot worse out there then mediocre demon comedy.

Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
Karandi James