Today, I want to talk about a character trope that particularly annoys me, one you see nigh-constantly in television media: the genius is an a*****e. I'll use the term jerk from here on out to avoid having to self-censor myself, but really: what I mean is precisely what I said.
There seems to be a compulsion to present characters who are brilliant problem solvers, scientists, innovators, as genuinely obnoxious people to be around: misanthropes, smart alecks, bucking authority not because it needs to be bucked, but simply because they can't stand rules. Television in particular adores this trope: House, Sherlock in Elementary, and most recently, how Genius portrayed Albert Einstein. Now, I know enough about Einstein to know that's a somewhat accurate portrayal, but it really was emphasized to a grating extent. I also just tried out Amazon Prime's The Collection, and lo and behold, there's another cynical, misanthropic genius. (Claude also suffers from a second trope that I hate - and suffer is exactly the right word - but that's for later in this post.)
To some degree, it's easy to see why television in particular reaches for this trope. It's an easy flaw to give a character who otherwise has unfair advantages without having to alter the storyline or the opposition. It's a flaw that is readily visible and creates outward conflict. And you do see it in literature, too. Dr. Frankenstein comes to mind, but I would say it's less common because it's easier to show inner flaws and struggles in fiction, where you can get deep into a character's head. It's also very possible that I don't have many examples from literature because I tend to avoid reading about those types of characters. Spoiler alert: I don't enjoy it.
I also think that genius-as-jerk is wish fulfillment. Don't we all wish we were smart enough / good enough at our jobs that we could ignore human conventions and have people kowtow to us? Sadly, that's rarely the way the world works, but it's part of the attraction of the trope. And there certainly is an argument that the genuinely brilliant often have trouble interfacing with society's rules, so portraying characters that way is realistic.
On the other hand, it doesn't have to be that way. The one-season television show Allegiance portrayed a remarkably brilliant young man who had trouble interacting with people, but it wasn't the attitude of a jerk or misanthrope; he simply had trouble reading cues and was intensely shy. (This character was also autistic, and the intriguing thing about it was that one could tell, but it was never stated outright.) In the fictional realm, take Miles Vorkosigan, whose intellect gets him into trouble ... quite beyond his physical flaws, which are another issue entirely.
The genius-as-jerk trope has a close connection with another character trope that drives me batty, the tortured artist. (Remember Claude from The Collection? He is a perhaps painfully perfect illustration of this.) Maybe it comes back to the wish fulfillment, and we writers would love everyone to bow to us even as we suffer for our art, but the tortured artist is difficult, surly, and has a dysfunctional relationship with his muse ... but his product is astounding, so everyone around him puts up with it.
Maybe this was a bit more true in earlier generations, but these days, the whiny or unproductive artist doesn't get concessions; they get the boot. There's always someone just as talented who *isn't* difficult. I really think this trope is harmful to newcomers, too: young writers and artists may think that the world is going to treat them like the artists in film (and sometimes fiction), and it's a shock to find out otherwise.
In my own works, both Vil (narrator of Unnatural Causes) and Iluenn, her "sidekick," are highly intelligent, but they have compensating flaws: Vil her inexperience with human foibles and politics, and Iluenn her (crushing lack of) self-confidence. Now, I'll confess that Maren from Surgeburnt *is* a jerk (you'd probably want to punch her if you met her), but she takes just as many shots at herself, and she's not unusually intelligent.
If I ever tackle the tortured artist trope without subverting it in some way, shoot me in the head.
Word Count this week: 5,309
Pages Edited: 7.5