On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters

Pulling off a wise character effectively can be very difficult. Do it wrong, and the character will end up looking more conceited and condescending than anything, which can severely damage (if not utterly destroy!) any image of wisdom your character may have had. So here are some tips to help you portray characters who will seem genuinely wise.

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First, know the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

People often conflate these two, but they aren't really the same thing. In a nutshell, wisdom requires knowledge, but knowledge is not in itself wisdom. Rather, wisdom is better described as a sense of knowing when to apply - or when not to apply - one's knowledge to any given situation. You can memorize and recite "wise" sayings and bits of advice until you're blue in the face, but if you go throwing them out at people in situations they seem at first to apply to without first looking a little closer making sure they actually do, you're not very wise at all. (If anything, you're just arrogant and presumptuous.) What's more, if the people you're giving the advice to are already aware of it, you run the risk of looking downright condescending - especially if you act as if it's something they've never heard or thought of before.

Some things wise people know and do.

Not every wise character need be 100% perfect at everything on this list (everybody has flaws and makes mistakes, after all), but as a general rule, most of these should apply most of the time to any character intended to be perceived as particularly wise.

They know things are probably a lot more complicated than they look on the surface. Especially in any large-scale problem, or in any problem with an emotional component. Because of this, they will try to find out as much as they can about what's going on first to try and understand the full scale and scope of a problem before trying to fix it. Good questions they might ask are "what exactly happened?", "why do you feel this way?", or "what makes you believe that?" And they'll know to ask more than one person if possible, because individuals have biases and gaps in their knowledge.

They know that problems that seem similar can still require different solutions. So before prescribing or slapping on a fix that worked for an earlier problem, they'll first try and figure out whether the same solution actually applies, or whether it might need modified or whether if something else entirely might be more appropriate.

They know to treat the illness, not the symptoms. For example, they know that to fix any self-destructive habit or to solve any kind of civil unrest, they can't simply force those involved to stop acting that way - they must also find the underlying causes and reasons behind these behaviors and address them if they truly wish to fix what's wrong.

They know to examine a problem from every angle. For example, if a group of students are failing in a school program, they won't simply jump to conclusions and decide that the students are all lazy and need to apply themselves harder - they will also examine the program itself to find out whether it might be too advanced or confusing for the students.

They know that their own biases and wishful thinkings can impair their judgment. And so they always try to remain aware of this possibility in everything that they do. They might try to take it into account when making their own decisions (EG, "is he really as innocent as I think he is, or is it just that the puppy face he pulls makes me feel like he is?", or "does the evidence really point this way, or do I want this to be true so much that I might be overlooking something?", or "Is my current mood perhaps making things seem worse than they actually are?"). Another thing they might do is ask for advice from people less likely to be biased on the subject at hand.

They know that knee-jerk impulses are often the worst to act on. Because these impulses are just that - they do not take into account the bigger implications of the action being considered, nor whether or not they're actually the best methods to accomplish what they're intended to. The particularly savvy will recognize people acting on knee-jerk reactions (especially over unsubstantiated or questionable claims) as the potential beginning of a moral panic/witch hunt.

They know to slow down when approaching areas outside of their expertise/experience. They know that there's a lot that they don't know here, and that they would do well to listen to and take the advice of those with more knowledge in this area.

They know that some things are just lost causes. They've probably learned that no matter how they try to accomplish something, sometimes it's just a hopeless case. Sometimes, someone really doesn't have a good side that needs nurtured out. Sometimes, an old house really isn't worth saving, even if there are a lot of fond memories attached to it. This doesn't mean that they'll get in the habit of brushing everything off as a lost cause - just the opposite! - but they know that the possibility is there.

They know to ask themselves whether their current methods are the most cost-effective. They might ask themselves, "Is there a way I can do this without exhausting myself so much?" or "Is there another way I can do this without using or risking so many resources?" Another thing they might ask themselves is, "Is my current plan actually getting the result it's supposed to? If not, why? How can I fix that?"

They know it takes effort and strategy to get the job done. They know that just sitting around wishing and daydreaming won't do anything - and that if they want something done or want to get something, then they've got to get up start putting some thought and effort into it.

They know that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. But rather than let that discourage them from trying, they plan and prepare for it to the best of their ability. This often means making plans that are flexible enough to be adjusted if something goes amiss, rather than meticulously planning for each and every possible contingency.

They know to ask themselves "and then what?" when deciding upon any step in a plan. It's important to figure out what one is going to do after any given step in one's plan - even if it's as simple as "I'll have to see exactly how this plays out and make my next decision from there."

They know they aren't always going to be right, and that the learning process never stops. They know that no matter how knowledgeable they get, there's always something they don't know - and so they know that they must always be willing to listen and learn. They also know that they must be willing to change their minds if they find out the facts point to a different conclusion or reality than what they suspected or believed at first.

They know to keep an eye on themselves. They know to watch their own thoughts, attitudes, and actions with an objective eye, lest they become corrupt or end up as bad as those they fight. They may also consult with others they trust to ask them what they think about their actions and choices.

More tips for your wise characters.

Don't make unaccountably wise characters. Figure out how your wise characters got that way. What all did they learn or experience that resulted in the wisdom they have now?

The thought processes of a wise person will probably be similar to the scientific method. An explanation of the scientific method can be found here. In terms of how this applies to wise people, upon encountering a new piece of information or forming a new suspicion or belief, one might internally ask, "But is this really true? What can I do to verify it that it is? And what would prove that it's not true, and how could I test that?" Likewise, upon being given some "fact" or rule about the world or the nature of things, a wise person might internally ask, "Is there anything I know about or have experienced that doesn't actually work according to the way this rule says they do?"

Before your "wise" characters offer advice to others, put yourself in the shoes of the intended recipients. Is it really likely that the intended recipients aren't already aware of what you plan to have your "wise" characters say? Is it really that likely that their own life experiences haven't taught them these lessons at some point? Be honest.

Remember that they don't have to give advice on absolutely every problem they come across. Nobody knows everything about everything, so there's no shame or failure if your wise characters don't always have anything to offer. In fact, for them to keep quiet, listen, and possibly even outright admit that they don't know or don't have the answers shows wisdom in itself.

No, you can't see the wisdom in someone's eyes. You might see wrinkles and an unfocused gaze, but that's not "wisdom." That's wrinkles and an unfocused gaze.

You should never have to append what your wise characters say with "said wisely" or similar. If it really is wise, then the wisdom should stand out for itself. If it's not and you say it is, it's going to make you look pretentious and arrogant.

No matter how "wise" they are, children/teens are still children/teens. Because the prefrontal cortex isn't finished developing, they'll still be subject to making impulsive decisions like anyone else their age might, and will still be less controlled and disciplined overall. Adolescents will be subject to the same rush of hormones that anyone else their age would be. (Hormones do not care how smart and sensible you are!) They'll also have the same emotional needs and wants as anyone else their age. No matter how "wise" they are, they will never, ever amount to miniature adults and cannot be expected to handle or cope with adult responsibilities and pressures, particularly in the long-term.

And think twice before making young characters "wise beyond their years." What's wrong with being young and naive? What's wrong with making the mistakes that young people make, and having to learn from them, so to gain that wisdom the way everyone else does? And remember, seeing a character who messes up and has to learn from experience can make that character so, so much more relatable - and can serve as a much-needed reminder that messing up is a part of life, and that the important thing isn't that we totally avoid making mistakes, but that we learn from the ones we make. That is wisdom in itself.

These might also be relevant to you:

On Writing & Roleplaying Smart Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Competent Tacticians
Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
Tips For Writing Better Immortal & Long-Lived Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Mysterious Characters

How To Write Powerful & Extraordinary Characters Without Being Obnoxious Or Boring
Why "Purity" Is An Overrated Character Trait
Plotting, Conniving, & Manipulating - What It Isn't, And What It Is
Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know
Things About Training & Teaching Writers Need To Know

Protagonist-Centered Morality: What It Is, And How You Can Avoid It
Tips To Write Better Royalty, Nobility, & Other Upper-Class & Important Characters
How Good People & Well-Intentioned Groups Can Go Bad
Things About Moral Panics Writers Should Know

External resources:

Science Buddies: Steps of the Scientific Method
Introduction to the Scientific Method

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