What is Intelligence and How is it Used in Fiction?
Familiar components of intelligence are reaction time, sensitivity, problem solving, foresight, and memory. Novelists often elevate one or more of the components to make their characters more interesting or to give them the necessary ability to achieve plot elements. Sometimes we pick up hints that a character is intelligent and then we are delighted when she almost magically connects disparate clues and solves the crime. Dr. Who and Sherlock Holmes are spectacularly successful at this. In other instances we enjoy watching a character’s routine use of his powerful intellect. It is fun to watch Lee Child’s Jack Reacher use his exceptionally acute hearing to follow the progress of a professional tail who thinks Reacher is totally unaware of his presence.
Characters are also defined by their temperament, they way they experience and express anger, love, jealousy, regret, and so forth. Temperament might seem to be the only real concern for character building, because it so clearly distinguishes individuals. Intelligence, however, sets limits on the expression of temperament. A smart wise-ass is more likely to produce interesting insults than a dumb one. And an intelligent character is more likely to notice a detail such as the shape of a tree and see the connection between shape, competitive ability, and history of the tree. Intelligence determines the depth and richness of a character’s response to experience.
What produces intelligence? We know that brain size, composition, and internal connectivity are involved, but we only know that these are correlated with measured intelligence (see the references). We do not know how they work, and we do not know the full list of factors that are necessary. Perhaps high intelligence requires the presence of structures such as complex hands, thumbs, and voice box, or perhaps an undiscovered chemical. Whatever the requirements, why haven’t they been met in many complex organisms? Why aren’t all animals intelligent?
The theme and plot for “Corr Syl the Warrior” required highly intelligent characters with powers of thought beyond human ability. I used evolution to create them. I imagined an Earth on which evolution, in its gloriously random way, included intelligence among the traits of the first higher organisms. I imagined that intelligence was common to all animals, and that along with other character traits, natural selection would continue to improve intelligence. By the time dinosaurs appeared, most animals were as intelligent as humans are now (see the references).
Before I could use intelligence in my story, I had to answer numerous questions. A central question concerned competition and conflict. Would the many intelligent species on Earth have lived and worked together peacefully? Or would they have built weapons and fought wars? Observing the warlike tendencies of our modern human civilization, we might expect that universal intelligence would have raged across the Earth like a firestorm leaving nothing behind, perhaps not even the planet itself. So this is what I decided must happen: 🙂 Continue reading