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Intelligence and Wisdom in Life and Fiction

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Written by Vicki Hinze

On April 24, 2014

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Intelligence and Wisdom in Life and Fiction 


Vicki Hinze


In theory, we all like to think of ourselves as intelligent people.  We also like to think that intelligence makes us wise.  It doesn’t.  The two, intelligence and wisdom, are related but significantly different.

Have you ever met a genius who didn’t have the common sense to come in out of the rain?  The judgment to handle simple tasks, though s/he could make mincemeat of mental pretzels that left the rest of us dazed with our eyes rolling back in our heads?

Have you ever met someone who wasn’t the brightest bulb but was amazingly wise in his or her insights?

Intelligence is genetics, engaged and applied.  Wisdom is experience, cause and effect, action and reaction and life lessons learned and applied.  Well, not always applied, but the wise person does have an awareness of those things.

During the course of a lifetime, we meet many people who are intelligent and many others who are wise.  Fortunately for mankind, most human beings have a fair mix of both intelligence and wisdom.  We’re smart on certain topics, certain things; not expert on many things, but in our areas of interest.  We’re wise in the areas in which we’ve had or observed experiences—the sums of lessons learned, outcomes we want to repeat or we do not want to repeat.

In life and writing, both intelligence and wisdom can make for interesting characters, but combine the two—especially in atypical ways—and you’ve got compelling characters who are fascinating and egnimatic.  They attract others, including readers, on multiple levels simultaneously.

Why We Don’t Want Perfect

A genius who is also wise is a perfect character—and while that might be fine in life, in fiction, perfection is not a good thing.  Perfect is boring, deadly to conflict, the spine of the story, and it creates anxiety in readers because they see Mr. or Ms. Perfect and can’t measure up, and therefore they do not relate (and they resent being reminded that they can’t measure up).  But a genius who is struggling to pair wisdom with his base intelligence or a wise person who is struggling to pair intelligence with his base wisdom makes a perfect-for-fiction character.  One striving to be a better human being.  With that, most of us relate, because we’re striving, too.

One mistake often seen in early works is the super-human protagonist.  For all the reasons above, this makes for a weak character, who can actually carry little conflict in a story.  If well matched against an equally smart and wise villain, a good story can be had, but unless the writer skillfully crafts a hunger, a desire to face some serious obstacle that taps into the reader’s humanity, readers will be emotionally distanced from the character.  We are not super-human, and while we find those who are interesting, we’re not attached to them and we only bond with them through their struggles and sacrifices and their battles to achieve their objectives just as we struggle, sacrifice, and battle to reach our own.

Something we see all too often in life is the perceived genius.  One who feels s/he is always right, knows everything, is best at everything, and s/he discounts the contributions of others, deeming him or herself superior.  You know the people I mean.  They irritate, grate on your last nerve until it’s frayed, and then strum it.  You can’t wait to get away from these people.

It isn’t that you’re trying to be judgmental.  It isn’t that they make you feel inferior. It’s that they consider everyone else inferior and that irks even the heartiest of souls.  These are the people who lack wisdom.  They lack, or fail to exercise, judgment, common sense, or compassion.  Shortsighted?  Definitely.  But admit it?  Never.

They don’t just refuse to admit it.  They don’t see it, and would never attribute these shortfalls to themselves.  They also don’t acknowledge mistakes, self-centeredness or often even recognize any of these traits as traits.  From their lofty and superior acuity, they can’t see them at all.  As annoying as that might be, it also is a path to understanding that they aren’t being nasty by choice.  They just don’t know any better.  Their perception receptors are down, and that should make the rest of us a wee bit more patient with them.

Recently, a friend and I were discussing this topic.  She said that in her home, intelligence is defined as the ability to learn from your mistakes. 


I love that.  In my eyes, that’s wisdom.

In our home, intelligence was respecting everything and tempering your conclusions through values.  Someone doing something that might be considered moronic might well make perfect common sense to that person due to other influences.  We might or might not know those influences, so we should be slow to deem actions anything—good or bad.  Any actions.

And that is my point.  Whether in life or in fiction, unless we look at the whole of an act or an attitude, unless it is our own, we can’t know if it is intelligent or wise.  To make a determination, we have to examine the whole.  View the whole as an aspect of an action so that we see and understand it in perspective.

In fiction, we learn the motivation of characters’ actions.  We observe their rationale, understand why they are doing what they do when they do it, and the way they do it.  This is essential to fiction, but it isn’t the way things work in life.  Seldom have we walked in another’s shoes to the extent that we can deem their actions intelligent and wise or foolish and foolhardy.

In a civil society, we have medians.  Standards that the majority of us consider acceptable conduct, or the right responses to specific actions.  But in these standards there are often extenuating circumstances.  Other influences that make what is generally deemed appropriate neither intelligent nor wise.

Yet we must have standards.  Some basis for what is either.  So coupled with that standard, we must also have values that guide our judgements so that we make our determinations not from a point on a black-and-white scale, but from a point on a scale that acknowledges and accepts that the scale contains a million shades of gray in between black and white.  Because life is lived by us all in the shades of gray. And it is in the shades of gray that wisdom and intelligence resides.

When we mature enough to understand that, to factor it into our personal calls, we have fostered our own unique blend of intelligence and wisdom.  Until then, we are seeking it but haven’t yet come into our own.

Steven R. Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” which isn’t a new thought but a succinct, relevant one ignored at one’s own peril.  In the sixth century, Lao Tzu, a philosopher, said pretty much the same thing:  “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

There are valuable insights for us in both quotes.  Valuable insights and roadmaps for finding our own unique blend of intelligence and wisdom—in life and in our fiction.



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© 2014, Vicki Hinze. Hinze is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of nearly thirty novels in a variety of genres including, suspense, mystery, thriller, and romantic or faith-affirming thrillers. Her latest release is Down and Dead in Dixie. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in Philosophy, Theocentric Business and Ethics. Hinze’s online community: Facebook. Books. Twitter. Contact.




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