Creating villains and aliens smarter than yourself is easier than you might think
|Back in 1996, there was a movie called Independence Day. I didn’t get to see it until it came out on TV in 1999, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a blockbuster, and I believed it thoroughly deserved to be. It wasn’t until a decade later when I began to consider it purely as a story that I realised it was full of holes.
It is, in fact, loosely based on War of the Worlds: aliens come and kick our butts, then die because of a virus (WotW: bacteria). These apparently super-intelligent creatures were also rather dumb. They revealed their plans (although that could be put down to arrogance), and were overly reliant on their superior technology.
They also used our satellites to coordinate their attack. Surely a space-faring species with the capability to travel between the stars would be able to utilise satellites of their own? Then there was the fact that one of our characters was able to figure out their operating system, and thereby create a virus that would work in it, overnight.
In a book, that sort of stuff would have invited ridicule, but in a movie things are very different, because it is an audio-visual medium. The short time-scale (a couple of hours) doesn’t give the audience too much time to think, and the dialogue, action, audio-visual effects and sub-plots force us to move forward with the story rather than ponder such things.
Movies tend to limit battles to a couple of battle scenes (i.e. every Star Wars movie is top and tailed with a battle), unless it is an action movie of course. In a novel, that would seem just weird. If there is a war going on, the reader expects to see it. If it takes the average reader one to three months to read a novel, then most of that time they’d be disconnected from the war, and it wouldn’t be so much backdrop as almost irrelevant. In a movie, it is necessary to allow time to develop characters and plot and create drama.
Plot holes are things to be avoided, but what can you do to make super-intelligent aliens or villains? How do you create someone, or something, that is far more intelligent than yourself, and make it believable? It would seem to be an impossible, perhaps even paradoxical, task. According to Mensa, genius begins at IQ level 140. Einstein had an IQ estimated between 160 and 190. In the 20th and 21st centuries, there have been people recorded with IQs that extend well into the 200s.
If you want to create a super-intelligent villain, you’ll probably want to aim for an IQ at Einstein level, but certainly no more than the mid-two hundreds. For an alien or alien species, you might want to push to 400.
There is an argument that with sufficient time to develop technology, we’d have all the same tech the aliens had in Independence Day. That’s good news, because it wouldn’t make us smarter just by having that tech, so we can argue the aliens are no smarter than ourselves, and may even be less so. In fact, intellectually diminutive aliens with superior weaponry might be more scary, so heading down that path could be really interesting.
The good news is, you don’t have to be super-smart to create super-intelligent characters or species. You only need two things, both of which you already have.
The first is time. In your story, the genius villain does something extremely clever, and she might do it on the fly. The reader thinks this is entirely in keeping with the character, is impressed that you could even dream up such a thing, and believes you to be super-smart too. In reality, it took you several weeks to figure out this thing, maybe even months. That’s not something the reader needs to know.
The second is literary skill. In the movie, Now You see Me, the original bank robbery looks terribly clever and quite impossible, until the method is revealed. In this case, the revelation is a required part of the story, which you wouldn’t normally do if all you want to do is make your character look smart, but the process of creating an impossible crime is also revealed in this movie.
Firstly, don’t start with the scene where the crime apparently takes place on a stage half-way around the world. Work out how it might be possible to break into the bank vault - what information, tools or whatever do you need to get in without tripping alarms? How do you get the money out? then work backwards, figuring out how to get that information, tools etc. After you know how the robbery is done, you move forwards again to figure out how you would make it appear the vault was robbed at a later time in a seemingly impossible manner.
The very first story I wrote was an alien invasion story. It’ll never see the light of day because despite having genuinely highly intelligent aliens, it’s just another story on what is already a well trodden path. That said, the aliens really are smart and since it’ll never be published, I’ll use them to show you a good example of how to make someone or something that appears to be what you want the reader to believe - super-intelligent.
You can begin by writing down all the things that super-villains do in movies which are just plain dumb. Crowing about how good their plans are to the protagonist before they execute them; building a super-fortress to keep people out, yet have a culvert with a flimsy (and often heavily rusted) barrier that leads straight into the heart of the place; having the generators for force-fields outside the field they generate. The list goes on. If you want a super-smart super-villain, don’t look to the movies, but if you want to know how not to create a super-villain, they are by far your best source.
I’ve already mentioned that in Independence Day, the aliens were overly reliant on their superior technology. If an alien species came here to make war, they would definitely use their technology, but they wouldn’t be totally reliant on it being superior. If they were good at making war (which we must assume they are, since they are warlike and have survived this long), then their plans should reflect that. Using our satellites is dumb, because if we figured out what they were being subverted for, we could simply turn them off.
I decided that my aliens would be smarter. If they were warlike and good at it, then their plan would reflect the basic tenet of any battle plan: keep it simple, stupid (the KISS principle). In a simple plan, less can go wrong and when it does goes wrong, it is less likely to cause the plan to fail. In addition, a simple plan has much more capacity to be able to adapt to the changing needs of the moment as the battle unfolds.
That said, a simple plan doesn’t mean it can’t be sophisticated. In fact, sophistication is what prevents the enemy from countering it effectively, so let’s use that too.
A two-battle scenario doesn’t work well in literature. The main character might only take part in two battles, but you really have to impart a feeling that there is an ongoing war at all times. To this end, I decided that I would have a genuine campaign consisting of many battles (most of which we only get to hear about).
The basic plan was simple enough: create a beachhead, then send out troops to occupy various surrounding areas to divide the enemy forces arrayed against them. This also forces the enemy to take on these self-expanding outposts before they can take on the beachheads, so they don’t have an enemy force behind them or that are capable of setting up a new beachhead if the existing one fails.
As the (human) enemy wins each campaign by finally defeating the beachhead, they realise two things. Firstly, they are now much weaker because of the attrition of war, and secondly that this was a feint. As this layer of the plan evaporates, they discover another layer beneath. Each layer (there are five) hides the layer beneath, a deeper plan. They are all feints bar the last, the true purpose behind the plan, and by distracting the enemy, and forcing them to face each of these layers, the aliens have been able to advance their true plan unimpeded.
So here we have a simple plan, one which deceives yet also serves the purposes of weakening the enemy and hiding the true purpose of the plan. It is multi-layered, adaptable, and should result in a final beachhead that the humans are too weak to do anything about. They use their superior technology, for sure, but it is the plan that is most devastating. Without satellite communications, and if you factor in electronic warfare to disrupt radio comms, a weakened military would become far less effective and able to figure out what is going on.
This is a smart plan. Simple, yet sophisticated, and utterly devastating. They are prepared to accept losses and make sacrifices, because once the war is over, they will (they hope) have time to rebuild and recuperate. If you were to present this to a real general, offering him just what the human troops on the ground could discern, they would be sorely pushed to determine what the aliens were up to and how to counter them.
My starting point was the ultimate beachhead. Then I set about determining how to hide it, obfuscate the alien plan, weaken the (human) enemy and disrupt their ability to respond well. All you have to do is work backwards and think of the sort of things that would disrupt the efficiency of any response. You can spend a year or more working on this, because it doesn’t matter as long as you create confusion in your story and that the plan is actually a good one that might really work. If you spend enough time getting it right and iron out all the kinks, all that is left is how the humans respond to it.
At that moment, start thinking of how the war progresses, and all the things the humans might do to come out on top. As you reveal these things, go back and build in something, or change your plan, so that these things can’t come to pass. Of course, blocking everything the humans do won’t make much of a story, but anything obvious should be taken care of.
Whether the humans win or not in the end is actually immaterial. The plot is figuring out what the alien plan is, and the solution should always be human ingenuity rather than technology (which can still play a part). It is our ability to adapt to the needs of the moment that sets us aside, so exploit that, don’t ignore it.
The same thing applies to super-intelligent villains. Presenting them with a problem and providing a smart solution is what it’s all about, but what you really do is create a solution and then find a problem for it to solve. Or spend six months ironing out a solution if you prefer. I’d always go with the former method, it’s smarter, easier and I’m lazy.
Larry Wall (inventor of the Perl programming language) said the three great virtues of a programmer are laziness, impatience and hubris. I won’t explain why, that’s beyond the scope of this article and you’re probably not interested, but I believe the principle these traits embody apply to creative writing too.
Hubris is because you think you can write great stories that nobody else thinks of. You need this, else why would you ever bother writing?
Impatience is the reason you write. Nobody else is writing the sort of stories you do, which is what spurred you to write in the first place, and impatience is also what spurs us to finish a story.
As for laziness, we have to discriminate between the two kinds. If you do no research, don’t explore your characters etc. before you begin writing, that’s the bad kind of lazy that has an adverse effect on your stories. If you do the research though, and very importantly, allow that research to influence your story, then that’s the good kind of lazy, and planning is part of research. Why is this lazy? Think of this: you can spend some time before you write the story researching it so it all works out well in the end, or you can spend five times as much time fixing what’s wrong with your story during the editing process.
Research and planning are crucial to creating a character or whatever that is apparently more intelligent than yourself, but it is easily achievable. A mathematical genius, presented for the first time with E=MC2, might take a few minutes to work out that it predicts black holes. For us mere mortals, it might take several months, maybe even years, yet we get there in the end. Time is the key, and your readers need never know how long it took you to figure stuff out.