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Level 2 Intelligent Characters

As I have previously remarked, Hollywood thinks “genius” is being good at chess or inventing amazing gidgets. Not only is this a dead dull cliche, it is all without exception what TV Tropes calls an Informed Ability. You can tell me that a character is good at chess, but you can’t show me that they’re good at chess.

Or rather, to show me that a character is a chess genius, you would have to show me their brilliance in a chess game.  You would have to put the current chess position in a graphic, have me think that the black player looks doomed, and then show the black player making an incredibly brilliant move whose genius I can perceive. This requires that I, the reader, be an excellent chess player myself—-and even then it probably won’t work as literature.

So how do you actually show a character being a genius?

Consider the dilemma faced by Orson Scott Card in writing _Ender’s Game_ (the book, not the movie). Card can tell us that Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is a military genius and great at commanding ships, but this is merely telling. We cannot actually be shown how Ender Wiggin has arranged a set of ships into a 3D pattern, and see for ourselves that this is a more powerfully attacking 3D pattern than we’d have invented. (Especially in the book, as opposed to the movie!)  In order to show Ender being smart, Card had to put Ender in a situation that we as readers could understand was threateningly difficult, and then show Ender’s solution, which would be something we could understand, and see for ourselves was good or clever.

So Card establishes early in the book that when the enemy’s army is all frozen, the winning commander has four un-frozen soldiers open the enemy’s gate to ceremonialize the victory, after which the lights come on and the game is over. Card shows you this happening several times, so that it is there in your memory as a well-established fact. Then Card puts Ender up against two armies at once, odds that not even Ender can beat, gives the dilemma some time to establish plot tension… whereupon Ender gives up on playing by the rules, and just bulls through with five soldiers and opens the enemy’s gate immediately. It doesn’t have to be explained to you how this works. There’s no slowdown for exposition at the moment of climax. All the mechanical rules operating to declare Ender’s victory are already known to you; the story has already shown the ceremony several times so that it’ll be there in your literary memory at the critical moment when you’re shown Ender’s good idea and Card wants you to understand it immediately, without pausing in the story.

When you, as an author, have written similar scenes a few times yourself, it will occur to you that the only reason why this rule exists in the Enderverse - the real reason that a battle in Battle School ends with four soldiers pressing their helmets to the enemy’s gate - is because Card wanted to put Ender in an impossible fight, decided that Ender would fight two armies, asked himself “Now how the heck can Ender win?”, invented the victory condition, asked himself why commanders wouldn’t just vigorously defend their gates, and then decided to write (into the earlier parts of the story) that this was considered a ceremonial final move.

Is this cheating? Yes, but cut Orson Scott Card some slack! He can’t actually show us Ender being a great tactical genius the way a real-life version of Ender would be, because we’re not tactical geniuses.

For a more organic example of cleverness, think of Ender’s slogan, “The enemy’s gate is down!” In zero gravity, Ender tells his troops, you should think of the enemy as being below you, so that you orient yourself with your legs toward them. This presents a more narrow profile, and means that the enemy’s laser guns (which Card has previously shown you!) will freeze your legs (according to rules we’re now already familiar with!) rather than your arms. This doesn’t have the literary artifice of the way Ender wins his battle against two armies; it’s a natural idea for fighting in zero gravity with laser-tag guns. In this case I expect that Orson Scott Card spent a day thinking about how to fight in zero gravity—-or maybe just a few seconds, depending on how smart he was—-and then came up with something that seemed to him like an actual good idea. And then, perhaps, he discarded it, and generated another good idea, continuing until he had the best idea he could give to Ender.

“The enemy’s gate is down” is also an idea you can visualize yourself. You can imagine how it would work. You can imagine being in zero gravity, and then orienting yourself so that the enemy is beneath you, seeing a low profile of you, with your legs shielding your upper body from being frozen. You don’t have to be told it’s clever, you can hold the idea in your mind and form your own estimate of its cleverness.

And so after Ender is done saying “The enemy’s gate is down!”, nobody in Ender’s troops calls out “That’s brilliant!” Ender doesn’t think himself about how smart it is. Nobody has to say an explicit word about intelligence, nor should they.

(In general, to tell what you’ve already shown is to diminish its impact. See the trope for “And That’s Terrible”. A powerful moment usually has its greatest impact when it is silent of surrounding commentary, and all the force goes squarely into the reader’s mind. As someone once described this error of the novice author, “The character cries so that the reader doesn’t have to.”  Think of a book that made you cry, if any book has succeeded at that, and ask yourself whether the characters themselves were crying at that time.)

Contrast to the mere Hollywood Genius: Even the best scriptwriter, if they want to depict a character who’s good at chess, will need to have some bystander gasp in awe.

Orson Scott Card does get to specify as a story outcome that Ender’s idea actually works and Ender’s soldiers win their battles. This too is ‘cheating’ in the sense that it makes the story-Ender more intelligent than the actual cognitive work that Orson Scott Card expended to invent the “orient downward” idea. As a reader, you were probably thinking of “The enemy’s gate is down” as that awesome idea Ender had which worked great (because that’s what you’ve been shown), rather than one of twenty possible suggestions for how to fight in zero gravity, none of which have ever been tested.

But at least it’s not a pretentious or an obvious idea that the story shows us as working great. It’s not like Ender said “Try pulling the trigger twice in a row!” and nobody in-story had ever thought of that before. It’s not like Ender tried some ridiculously complicated plot (that is, any plot relying on more than three separate events happening without superintelligent or precognitive guidance) which worked by sheer authorial fiat, a la _Death Note_. Again, have some sympathy for Orson Scott Card: he can’t actually build a Battle School and test his ideas. It’s at least plausible that if you actually built a Battle School in zero gravity and had the kids fight, they’d do better by thinking of the enemy’s gate as being downward.

Remember purpose of _Ender’s Game_ is not to prove that Card is smart, any more than Card was trying to prove, by writing Ender, that he himself was a seven-year-old killer.  Ender exists as a tactical genius in-universe; the literary challenge faced by Card is how he can put that fact into text.

The fundamental requirement in Level II Character Intelligence is the Fair Play Insight, a generalization of the Fair Play Whodunnit in mystery novels. A Fair Play Whodunnit is a detective-story plot that the reader could in principle solve with the information the detective has discovered, that the reader is invited to solve. It is part of the fun of a detective story to construct your own theory about Whodunnit and see in the denouement if you were right.

In generalized Fair Play Insight—-as I would term it—-the solution the character proposes must be one that, in principle, the reader could have thought of. If there’s literally no possible way to put the pieces together on your own, that must mean that there’s no sense in which the ‘answer’ is the solution to a cognitive problem, which means the ‘answer’ does not show any cognitive labor.

See also Sanderson’s First Law: “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” As a corollary, if you want a Fair Play Insight to be good literature, the reader must have real actual understanding active in their minds, not just a game of ‘Gotcha!’ where you mentioned the answer once in Ch. 26.  To dramatically show Level 2 Intelligence, all the pieces of the puzzle must be present and active in the reader’s mind, not just mentioned once in a lone sentence half-a-book earlier, but mentioned often enough to actually be there in the reader’s mind.  So that the reader says “Of course!” at the moment of dramatic climax, rather than “Wait, was that a thing…?”

On your next read-through of HPMOR, notice how many times you are reminded that Harry is wearing a pinkie ring with a tiny jewel that is a Transfigured rock, before the critical moment in Ch. 89 where invoking this fact must not slow down the story’s pace at all.

Vinge’s Law

Vinge’s Law says that if you know exactly what a very smart agent would do, you must be at least that smart yourself. If you know exactly where Deep Blue would move on a chessboard, you can just move to that place on the chessboard yourself, and play chess at least as well as Deep Blue. In the theory of tiling agents, Vinge’s Law appears as the rule that a self-modifying agent is not allowed to know its future self’s exact choices before deciding on a self-modification (since then each version would need to be successively stupider).

The place where the mathematician Vernor Vinge originally coined this observation was, in fact, the literary theory of science fiction: Vinge observed that he could not write realistic transhuman characters because he would need to be smarter than human himself in order to figure out what they would actually do. Lucius Malfoy in HPMOR paraphrases both Vinge’s Law and its literary application when Lucius tells Draco that plays like _The Tragedy of Light_ are never truly realistic, because if the playwright had been as smart as Light, the playwright would have tried to take over the world himself instead of just writing plays about it.

This is not to say that you should despair of writing intelligent characters because you think you’re not intelligent yourself. “Being intelligent” is something you can decide to try harder at and something you can practice, not something of which you have a fixed quantity; an insight that goes under the name of “growth mindset” (Google it). But you do need to input significant amounts of real intelligence yourself to write a Level 2 Intelligent character.

We can see the techniques Orson Scott Card employed to create Ender Wiggin as generalized sneaky artifices which create a character that outputs more apparent cognitive work than you yourself have put in, in limited violation of Vinge’s Law.

The first sneaky artifice is to reverse-engineer the problem around your ideas for possible solutions. Perfect Lionheart once wrote, “A Muggle with a cigarette lighter could and would start any sort of fires, while a wizard with a cigarette lighting spell would light cigarettes.” So you, as an author, can observe that the protagonist needs to start a fire in Ch. 20, and then arrange for them to learn a cigarette-lighting spell in Ch. 5.

I think of this as the Reverse Lionheart Trick, and it’s especially applicable to Munchkin moments - events revolving around re-applications of existing powers. But any relevant fact can be one that you engineer into the past; e.g. in Ch. 26 when the fake newspaper story mentions an alleged debt from the Weasleys to House Potter, establishing a certain rule that creates a blood debt. (Though I remark that the key moment when this obscure fact is needed to solve an in-story puzzle, is a between-chapters pause where I originally gave my readers on /r/hpmor a couple of days to reread and come up with the answer.)

Closely related is the second sneaky artifice of only presenting the character with problems that they can solve.  Orson Scott Card didn’t put Ender Wiggin in a battle chamber stark naked and alone, because Ender Wiggin couldn’t have won that challenge, so Card elected not to have that be what happened.  Maybe Card considered several different challenges for Ender, besides the final battle against two armies, and only picked one that Card could figure out how to have Ender solve.  Again, this is a way of creating an in-universe character who is apparently smarter, in-universe, than the outer cognitive work you put in; the author is solving one of many possible challenges, but the in-universe character is demonstrating their ability to handle whatever reality throws at them.

I am vain enough to tell you that I probably didn’t use nearly as much sneaky literary artifice to generate Methods of Rationality as you might think.  I did not, in fact, have Dumbledore say in Ch. 17 that the Cloak of Invisibility can hide from the gaze of Death in order to set up Azkaban.  I wrote that line in Ch. 17 to reference canon; and then, while, I was writing the Azkaban arc, I realized that I had entirely by accident given Harry the resource he would need to hide Black even after Dumbledore’s Patronus started tracking Harry’s Patronus and Harry had to dispel his Patronus Charm.  But I do admit that if I hadn’t come up with a clever way for Harry to handle that problem, then Dumbledore would not have been able to track Harry’s Patronus.

The third sneaky artifice is when you as an author decide that a clever-sounding idea works, when in real life the only way to find out is to test it. The idea must still appear clever, you still need to play by the Fair Play Insight rules to have the solution be recognized as a solution… but in real life, most ideas that give off insightful aha-feelings still go wrong.

This is why Eliezer Yudkowsky can’t take over the world just by promoting his simulation of Professor Quirrell to be in charge of his brain, as several earnest people have proposed to me. Look, I don’t mean to sound immodest here, but that would in fact be a huge step down for me.  The model I use to generate Professor Quirrell doesn’t even come close to invoking all of my technique to power him. In the real world, everything is harder than it is for characters in stories; clever insights are less likely to be true and clever strategems are overwhelmingly less likely to work. In real life, I have to try literally ten good ideas before one of them works at all, often putting in years of effort before giving up or succeeding. Yes, I’ve been known to pull off implausible tricks like “Write a Harry Potter fanfiction good enough to recruit International Mathematical Olympiad gold medalists” but that’s not the only implausible-sounding thing I’ve ever tried to do.  You just don’t hear as much about the clever ideas that didn’t work, over the many years I’ve been trying weird and nonweird ways to get my task done.

In fiction you as the author can decide that the bright ideas do work, being careful to accompany this by an appropriate amount of sweat and pain and unintended consequence so that the reader feels the character has earned it.  You cannot evade the curse of building your story out of clever ideas that would be far less likely to work in real life, not just because you have no way to test the ideas to find the ones that actually work, but because in real life we’re talking about a 10:1 ratio of failures to successes. We get to see Harry fail once in Ch. 22, because I felt like I had to make the point about clever ideas not always working. A more realistic story with eight more failed ideas passing before Harry’s first original discovery in Ch. 28 would not have been fun to read, or write.

But! Just because you absolutely unavoidably must cheat in this sense, doesn’t mean you can cheat so much that it looks like cheating. Thanks to standard human optimism and the planning fallacy, your intuitive sense of “how much a good idea seems like it should work” is already making all plots and clever ideas far more likely to succeed than they would be in real life. If you then take what intuitively feels like a mediocre idea, or what intuitively feels like a good idea that is not quite clever enough to work, and declare as an author that it works wonderfully and have the character congratulate themselves on it, this will not pass muster as literature.

There was a brief period where I was planning to have Harry ride out of Azkaban on a rocket attached to a broomstick with superglue, but when I got to writing that section of the text I realized that, in real life, anyone who tried this was inevitably going to die. Even for a story it was too much. So I had to decide that the Defense Professor would wake up and perfect the invention, and then it started to feel like something that passed muster at the intuitive level… although if you tried something at the same level of cleverness in real life, there’s an excellent chance you would crash into the walls of Azkaban and die, or that Professor Quirrell’s unbreakability charms would accidentally harden the solid rocket fuel or prevent something from flexing that needed to flex, etcetera. Doing complicated novel things correctly on the first try is hard, the sort of thing that takes years of careful thinking and planning and double-checking when NASA sends out spacecraft they can’t fully test beforehand.

All three sneaky artifices allow for a limited violation of Vinge’s Law.  In-universe, in the realm of the text, a character is solving the one problem they are given, with only the resources they happen to have at hand, and coming up with an idea good enough to actually work.  On the outside, the author is reverse-engineering the past to contain facts with unexpected uses, selecting solvable challenges, and coming up with ideas that are in fact “things that intuitively feel very clever” and not “things that would really truly actually work in real life”.

Even so, writing Level 2 Intelligent characters requires both sweat and native intelligence from the author.  Everything Hollywood does wrong with their stereotype of genius can be interpreted as a form of absolute laziness: they try to depict genius in a way that requires literally zero cognitive work, even the work of asking a scientist friend to fill in their technobabble. Seventeen languages, amazing gidgets, beating a chessmaster at chess, being bad at romance? What all of these have in common is that you can write them without any unusual cognitive labor.

So be wary of this temptation to laziness, and be careful in how you cheat.  Show the character suffering, show them thinking, show them earning the success of their Level 2 Intelligence.  Show the unintended consequences. Have them just completely fail sometimes.  Only declare that something works when it intuitively feels like it ought to work, and maybe not even then.

You can sometimes get out more character intelligence, in-universe, than you put in as labor. You cannot get something for nothing. I advise that you not think of yourself as relying on artifice, but that you think of yourself as trying to be intelligent so that you can generate the Fair Play Insights that lie at the core of Level 2 Intelligence. In that sense it is no different from Level 1 Intelligence; there is still an empathy that must fuel the core of it.



How to write a kickass essay with ½ the stress
A kickass ppt by wittacism


Find out what your teacher wants

  • get the assignment prompt and break it down into its individual parts
  • this becomes your skeleton for your essay
  • spooky


Don’t start with the introduction paragraph

  • seriously this is a great way of stumping yourself ten minutes into the writing process
  • you’re trying to write an intro for a paper that doesn’t exist yet???
  • start with the first body paragraph


Your awesome body paragraphs

  • the cool thing about the essay is that you pretty much get to tell people what to think
  • don’t hold back
  • your name is already on the top of the page
  • so whatever you say
  • try to really mean it


Conclusion paragraph

  • the conclusion is like the end of a 30 second commercial where they hold the product up at the end just in case you forgot you were watching a Hot Pockets commercial
  • hold up all your arguments for the audience one more time
  • just in case they forgot what they just read


Introduction paragraph

  • now that you have some kickass body paragraphs and a conclusion, rewrite your conclusion in introduce your topic
  • notice how its 300x easier to introduce something AFTER you’ve written it
  • slap a badass thesis statement on the end of your intro


Badass thesis statements

  • remember that skeleton we made in slide 2?
  • get it back out
  • make a single sentence that talks about all those points
  • it’s totally cool to write a sentence that says, “In this essay, I argue that…”
  • then just list those things
  • done



  • quotes are a great way to make yourself look credible and to add length to your paper
  • lets be honest, no one actually wants to write 2,000 words
  • you need to talk before and after a quote
  • tell people who you’re quoting
  • tell people why they should care



  • fun fact: Microsoft Word’s citation maker is literally the scum of the earth
  • never ever use it
  • use citationmachine.net instead
  • or make your own
  • (it takes about the same amount of time with a lil’ practice)



  • go get yourself a milkshake
  • because you have a rough draft, my friend
  • be proud of yourself

(Note: all text copied word-for-word, with errors intact.)



It’s essay writing season for tons of students!

After being a college writing tutor for over a year, I thought I would share my advice with all you awesome people on tumblr. This is how I write essays, but if you’ve got more tips, feel free to add them below. 

Happy writing. You can do it!

This is actually brilliant.

(via creativehubble)

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