Oct 16 2012 9:30am

Too Smart?: Intelligence in Romance Novels

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Iron ManMany romance authors pursue diversity in their stories. Usually they do so in regard to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and/or sexual orientation. But there’s one area that I’ve been wondering about lately: Intelligence.

How much diversity is there in romance regarding intelligence? If marketing departments are to be believed, romance characters across the board are amazingly brilliant. But is that really the case? And of the heroes and heroines who are intellectually gifted—the scientists, the scholars, the inventors—do they inadvertently receive the lion’s share of the attention, both in terms of marketing and reader interest?

It's easy to understand the appeal of intelligent characters. Smart heroes and heroines are probably correlated with fantasies of high social status, money, and power. Genius characters would be unusual and therefore exotic. However, that fantasy may not be for everyone.

Of course, intelligence is a complex issue and can’t be reduced to just a particular type or IQ number (because that can be a dangerous way of thinking). Even the experts don’t always agree about the definition. Still, if one goes by general intelligence quotient tests, it's a safe bet that many heroes and heroines are of “average intelligence,” meaning they’ve got plenty of smarts but not at the level of, say, a physicist. Casting an eye toward the other end of the bell curve, they don’t have any moderate-severe cognitive impairments, either.

The phrase “average intelligence” implies something negative when in fact the opposite is true. Across the genre, “average” intelligence heroes and heroines come equipped with a wide variety of skill sets that compensate for any so-called intellectual deficits. Examples of those talents include artistic ability, leadership skills, networking savvy, and mechanical know-how. Heh—and also unique bedroom skills. I’d also propose that plenty of heroes and heroines have a high emotional IQ, an ability that comes in very handy when one is navigating the treacherous slopes of a new relationship.

That said, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of intelligence and romance characters. What about those with developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, or other types of mental impairments that impact their ability to learn? Don’t they deserve love just as much as the brilliant types? Can those types of characters and the associated fantasies provide readers with a satisfying story? The answer to both is a resounding yes. But why don’t we encounter them as often?

The answer is a complicated one, ranging from author interest to reader interest to the ability of marketing departments to effectively promote such characters. That particular fantasy is admittedly a more challenging one to sell. Still, I like to think there’s plenty room in this subgenre for below-average intelligence heroes and heroines of various types.

Now here’s a thought: are any of the so-called “Too Stupid To Live” heroines actually characters with below-average intelligence or cognitive deficits? As long as a character is acting consistently within a story, can we assume a certain level of intelligence?

One reviewer called my heroine Sarah from The Blacksmith’s Lover something along the lines of “not the sharpest tool in the shed” and she was exactly right. I specifically wrote Sarah as a heroine with below-average intelligence because it made her more interesting to write and also raised the stakes. Would her occupation—a servant in the 1800s—have been more plausible if I’d infused her with Albert Einstein-level abilities or even just above-average intelligence? If a servant in a historical romance is intellectually gifted, then that would demand a different type of story.

What’s your take on intelligence and romance characters? Do romance books abound with gifted heroes and heroines or are they just marketed that way? Would you be interested in reading stories that push the boundaries of intelligence? Please share any title recommendations featuring intelligence diversity!



Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.

She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit www.heathermassey.com.

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1. Arthemise
In real life, I find intelligence very, very attractive in a man. Therefore, I find the same in a romance novel. That's not to say I can't appreciate a male character that has average intelligence and is still very clever. A character with a mental impairment would annoy me, but I'm sure a skillful writer could make me buy even that. Heck, I never thought I'd tolerate a character who's a drug addict, and Stacia Kane managed that brilliantly. Short answer: A good writer can pull off just about anything.
Allison Brennan
2. Allison_Brennan
I agree with Arthemise. I personally am attracted to smart men, and I generally write smart men. But "smart" means a lot of different things.
Smart often means common sense. You want someone who is sensible, who would think or believe what we would given the information at hand. But while they may not be a rocket scientist, they should be above average in their field of choice (and training.) If they're a cop, they should be a smart cop. I think of John McClane here -- he didn't feel comfortable or "smart" around corporate folks or even his successful wife. He didn't "get it" and he probably couldn't sit behind a desk and successfully do the job his wife does so brilliantly. BUT he was a GREAT cop. Smart, common sense, physically and emotionally capable of battling terrorists.

I've written a lot of secondary characters who weren't "smart" per se, and I like writing about those with learning disabilities or who are "slow" -- in my first book Adam was slow and Rowan (my heroine) befriended him. But as a hero in any romance fiction, I don't think it works. Outside of romance? Yes, I think it can work exceptionally well to have a not-as-smart hero or heroine. (I once had a story idea for a heroine who was extremely trustworthy. She'd been sheltered and didn't believe people would lie to her. Contest judges found her too gullible. I'd like to bring her back someday ...)
3. Kareni
It's been years since I read it, but Colleen McCullough (of The Thorn Birds fame) wrote a novel called Tim in which the title character is of limited intelligence.

I've also heard good things about Pamela Morsi's Simple Jess.
4. Mary Castillo
I love it when characters are clever and perceptive, so much so that they take me by surprise. Clever characters who come to mind are Nora Roberts' heroines, Emma from A Woman of Substance, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs and I could go on and on!
5. wsl0612
One of my favorite "smart" heroes is Rupert Carsington (Loretta Chase's Mr. Impossible). His family doesn't think much of his brains but he's smart enough to fall in love with the brilliant heroine and convince her to marry him :-)
Heather Waters
6. HeatherWaters
I do love smart characters, but I'll also say that one of my favorite things in the movie The Bourne Legacy is that Aaron Cross didn't start out as a genius spy--his IQ was originally pretty low.
Saundra Peck
7. sk1336
Ahhhhh....Tony Stark!!!! Smart is the ultimate sexy, "for your consideration"!
8. carmenlire
This brings to mind Ian Mackezxie from Jennifer Ashley's The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. He was actually astronomically intelligent, but he suffered from some type of autism. Catherine Anderson also had a book where the heroine was in a car accident that impaired her abilities, but the hero, Isaiah still fell in love. My sunshine, the book was called.
9. Marva
Quite a while ago I read a category where the heroine was severely dyslexic. One of the plot points was about her need to buy a reader so she wouldn't be dependent on others. I'm sorry I can't remember the name of the book but I think it was a Loveswept.
10. A. R. Norris
I think an "average" man or woman as lead is interesting. I will be honest that I don't know how well a intellectually impaired character would be for me. There's just such a fine line from decent to a "taking advantage" or "manipulation" kind of situation, especially when it comes to the romance genre.
Vanessa Ouadi
11. Lafka
In my everyday life, I prefer to hang with intelligent people, and, when it comes to the opposite sex, I do think that smart is the new sexy.
Hence, I love smart heroes and heroines. I'm not talking about astronomically intelligent necessarily (though, I do like characters of genius from time to time), but someone who can actually have a conversation that goes beyond sports results or the latest gossips, someone who processes information reasonably quickly and efficiently. Average smart.
I really don't think intelligence has anything to do with your background, your education level or your job ; so I'm really not discriminate when it comes to that.
For instance, in Bella Andre's I only have eyes for you, Jake, the hero, comes from a rough background and has been illiterate up to his teenage years. In adulthood, he's still not comfortable reading books, and he has complex regarding what he perceives as a lack of intelligence _ especially given that the heroine is a real bookworm. Yet, he's a clever guy, with intersting things to say, who runs his own successful business. I loved this character.
In R.L. Mathewson's Perfection, Trevor has a complex because he's dyslexic. He was often called stupid by his own father, and regarded school as a real challenge. He still isn't comfortable with his disability. He's also a manual worker, who doesn't have a string of academic titles. But I think he's smart, and sexy.
I actually love this trope where the hero thinks little of himself because he's just average smart and school wasn't his thing, especially when the heroine is on the contrary of above-than-average intelligence.

I haven't encountered a hero or heroine who really was intellectually challenged, as in really idiotic or simply less-than-average smart. With the notable exception of Catherine Anderson's Annie's song, in which the heroine is mentally disabled (I don't remember what disability exactly, I think she was retarded and perhaps a bit autistic).
BB Medos
12. BevBB
There's also another aspect to this that watching the new series Perception this summer got me to thinking about and that's how so many times historically extreme brilliance in some area has been coupled with either emotional or social disfunction of some type. At the moment, I can't think of any specific romances but I know I've run across this type of character in either historicals or contemporaries over the years. And it's niggling in the back of my mind that it could very well have been a common theme in the old style Gothics/horrid tales - taylor made for them in a lot of ways.
Alana Abbott
13. alanajoli
I think the proportion of intelligence in heroes depends on the subgenre of romance you're reading. I've been trying out some new subgenres lately -- historical and contemporary Westerns -- and I'm seeing a wider array of types of intelligence. A lot of the male characters in these aren't that book learned, but they're good at working with their hands, or animals, or are good at managing their businesses because they put their own people first (rather than because they're good at numbers). The heroines in the historicals tend to vary between those early Western feminists, whose strength of character comes more from their willingness to challenge the status quo than because they're brilliant, or the naive but sweet characters who have strong hearts but may need someone with greater street-smarts watching out for them.

That's just a little of the range I've noticed since starting in this subgenre, so I assume it'll expand the more I read! I agree that a lot of paranormal romance tends to feature very smart characters, and that what I've seen in Victorians ranges from sharp wit to utterly vapid (which, notably, doesn't really make an interesting hero/ine). Viking romances don't tend toward brilliant hero/ines, but I've read plenty of Medievals that do.

I think the worst for me is when a character is supposed to be intelligent, but doesn't live up to that expectation -- or when they're supposed to be uneducated but suddenly know all sorts of things they shouldn't have context for. But that's less a flaw of intelligent characters than it is sloppy writing. :)
Dolly Sickles
14. Dolly_Sickles
Ooh, there's nothing sexier than an intelligent man (be it in real life or in print/bytes). One of my favorite geniuses is B. G. Grantham in Emma Holly's Strange Attractions. My husband is a mathematician/programmer, and he always talks to our son and I like we're able to pace him IQ point for IQ point. Through the years I've learned a ton through osmosis, so I like the way Holly threads B. G.'s intelligence through his everyday life (such as it is ... eroticism and all).
15. Zizi_W
@Kareni : Pamela Morsi's "Simple Jess" is a lovely book. I read it many years ago (one of the first romances I ever read) and unless my memory fails me, I think the hero's mental disability resulted from complications during his birth.

Morsi writes Jess as a truly empathetic and appealing character -- he's aware that he is different from other people in his rural community (sometimes painfully so) and also that he cannot do anything about it, but he makes the best of his situation. Morsi makes the inner and interpersonal conflict in the romance believeable -- the heroine comes to appreciate Jess for the caring and loyal man he really is. Great secondary characters too.
16. Kareni
Zizi, thanks for the information on Simple Jess. I'll definitely be on the lookout for it now.
17. Marilynn Byerly
I agree with alanajoli. Some authors say a character is intelligent, but he isn't remotely smart, let alone brilliant. Part of that is the author isn't bright enough to fake the character's intelligence. Part is the author not having that much experience around super intelligent people.

True, a few are all but autistic in their social skills, but a vast majority are articulate in their own area of expertise, and part of those are articulate and charming in all aspects of life.

Personally, I want major characters to be really smart. I also want my bad guys to be equally smart to match them.

Not that smart bores me.
18. ladynat
I'm gonna through this one out there. I know it's not a book in the traditional sense, but neither is Ironman and Tony Stark is awesome! It is a graphic novel that is wildly popular in Asia called Hana Yori Dango. Tsukasa Domyouji is a box of rocks. And I might be insulting the box by comparison. Wonderfully charismatic, but not the brightest bulb in the room. His friends are quite a bit smarter than him.

His lack of intelligence is part of his charm. He's very sweet and goofy and very uncomlipicated. Once he devotes himself to something or someone. That's it. Game over. That will never ever change. The point is that Tsukasa may be a box of rock, but he is a very lovable box of rocks.

There various adaptations and some are wonderful, some not so much. Anime (even my husband loves it), Japanese movie, Japanese tv series (Jun Kun plays Tsukasa beautifully), Korean series (min ho is wonderful), Taiwan series (a bit of a disappointment), chinese series (this version is like the american live action version of dragonball z), I've heard rumors of a Filipino version, but I cannot verify. The Korean version is currently available on Hulu. Worth watching, but be forwarned..some of the songs as ear worms and you will get sick of them.
Sherrye Nichols
19. san301
When Colleen McCullough's "Tim" was made int0 a movie, Russell Crowe played him.
As long as a character isn't stupid -- which is not the same as having low IQ, or perhaps a disability -- their IQ 'number' doesn't matter if it 'fits' the story.
20. haplo
This topic makes me think of Freddy Standen from Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. He does not understand the machinations of his relatives and describes himself as not being clever like his cousin Jack. But it is not the dashing, rakish Jack who wins the girl in the end but the dependable Freddy.
21. parawriter
Smart is always sexy. I love to read stories with characters who are flawed. Even people with high IQs have some area of disfunction in their life. I'm reading "Time Untime" by Sherrilyn Kenyon right now, and the hero Ren, who is very smart, wise even, suffers from a speech impediment, and it causes him to feel that he can't communicate with people. The heroine simply finds it endearing. So do I.
22. Crzytxgirl23
I think that the reason why Dr. Who has gotten so popular in the States is due to the way they wrote the love story between Rose and the Doctor. It grew in popularity among women because it caused you to look at why a human woman would be into a very old alien. I think beside the somewhat good looks of the guys who played him it was the hotness of that smart brain and sense of humor that I know was a major turn on for me. The sense of adventure was of course a part of it but that can only get you so far without someone who can get you out of whatever mess that adventure gets you into. Give me a sexy brain and british accent and you got my attention!
23. SassyT
I love an intelligent man (in real life and in books). However, I do find stories of heroes with learning disabilities or maybe some developmental issues to be equally appealing (this is largely due to the authors' ability to make these characters into more than just their issues). I think most of the characters (men and women) in romance novels are of 'average' intelligence (being average isn't bad...it's what everyone else is...that's a good thing). They just happen to be really good at their jobs (someone mentioned John McClane and that is a really good example). In other words, they know what they know. I have rarely read any books where the character is supposed to be super brilliant. I do sometimes wonder about the common sense of a lot of characters (they do some bonehead things). Common sense (maybe more so than IQ) is big on my list. Without some common sense you just do stupid things repeatedly and that isn't sexy (or interesting).
24. Lizzie18
I don't remember ever reading a book where the hero was 'dumb'. Some savvy individuals were not book smart, some geniuses were not street smart; however all heros I read about were highly capable in their field.

Concerning heroes with learning disabilities, I recently read a book where the hero was autistic. Since it was in the 1800s, he was of course not identified as such and spent a good part of his childhood in an asylum. The book is The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley. He developed into a highly functioning autistic adult, even a 'savant' with numbers, but still exhibits a lack of social skills: not good in crowds, can barely meet someone's eyes for a second, can't interpret most people's emotions, needs alone time, etc... What I really enjoyed is that this was the first of four books (four brothers) and you can see him learn and evolve in each. In the last one, at one point we see him playing with his little baby boy, and adoring each moment with him.

A lot of vulnerability in this character but, because of it, he became one of the most endearing hero I've read about.
25. lm7418
Just a quick note about Lafka's comment about Catherine Anderson's Annie's Game - Annie was deaf, not autistic or retarded.
26. readinrobin
I married (and eventually divorced) a man who was practically illiterate. I was a high school drop out, though I did have a GED, and we both worked in menial restaurant jobs. I went back to school, got out of waitressing and moved up in my job to a decent salary. He had the opportunity to go back to school, the emotional support from myself and others to do so, but did not have the drive or the will to and dropped out again very quickly. We had young children, and I wanted to improve our lives and provide a better life for them than the one we were living. He was content to count pennies and live in a crappy cheap rental and and never have any money to do anything beyond barely pay the bills. Intelligent men are not content to live that way. I didn't get an intelligent man in real life, but I want the men I read about to be intelligent.
27. Christine M. Fairchild
Another aspect to this issue of intelligence in romance is how the book is written. Traditional publishing houses have different reading levels they desire based on each imprint. Most editors don't discuss this openly, as folks --readers and authors alike--get offended. But in the romance genre the average reading grade level they shoot for is 4th or 5th grade. That's not an insult. On the contrary, that is a more inclusive reading level.

Thrillers/Mysteries shoot higher due to the puzzle factor. Literary books obviously go for higher levels, but vary from 6th grade to 10th, depending on the book.

The reason I see this as important is that to write an intelligent character also/typically means writing an intelligent plot and style as well. And that doesn't always fly with publishers or readers. My book, a romantic suspense, I tend to describe as Jason Bourne meets romance, so I purposefully aimed for a higher reading level akin to Thrillers. Some readers made comments like "too complicated, too many side characters". But folks who came from Mystery and Thriller genres loved the complexity. I've won over a lot of male readers, surprisingly, who say it's not the romancey type book at all and reads like a Thriller. In fact, a recent review called the book "the spy who loved me".

So it's hard to strike a balance as the author between intelligence and inclusivity for readers. If you make it more complex, with mystery and action, you lose some romance readers but maybe gain other genre readers.

Thank god that genres are branching out and there's room for every style in the market!
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