Intelligent characters and the “brains vs brawn” fallacy

There’s a huge audience for stories that involve characters who solve problems using wit and intelligence rather than force and physical strength, particularly in written fiction. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that the audience for written fiction mainly consists of people who enjoy and spend time reading books, which is usually seen as an intellectual pursuit. People who read books for entertainment are usually the kind of people who identify more with Bruce Banner than with Hulk. We’d like to solve our problems by being clever and adroit, rather than transforming into a giant green monster and solving our problems by smashing them.

We have an easier time empathizing with characters who are like us, and a story about character who solves problems using the same skills that we possess feels validating. The issue is that there are a lot of situations where Hulk is better at solving problems than Bruce Banner, and if you want to construct a story where every problem can be solved with wit (and no problem can be better solved with brute force), then you’re going to have to warp the events (and sometimes the logic) of the story in the service of that goal, because that’s not always the way the real world works. And a lot of times, this has the effect of making stories more about using a very narrow idea of intelligence, rather than actual approaching problems rationally.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a scene in the movie Sneakers (a delightful 1992 thriller and heist movie about cryptography and espionage) where Robert Redford’s character goes to steal a cipher device from a researcher’s office. After socially engineering himself past the front desk, he finds his caper brought to a halt when the door to the office is protected with an electronic keypad. He radios the guys in the surveillance van and says, “Anybody remember how to defeat an electronic keypad?” Because this is a thriller about computers and cryptography, we expect them to come up with some kind of backdoor solution to breaking this lock, the cyberpunk equivalent of “recite this magical incantation and the lock will open for you.” The audience waits in tense silence as Robert listens to the voice of the computer guys speaking into his earpiece and mutters to himself, “Alright, that might work.” And then he takes a step back and kicks down the door.

This is what actual intelligent problem-solving actually looks like. In this scene, the crew identifies the fact that when snooping around in an old academic research building, it’s easier to kick an old wooden door off its hinges than to try and defeat an electronic keypad. They do the smart thing, which in this case is to use physical force. And I (and most viewers) are delighted by this moment, in part because you see the thought process behind it: Robert Redford encounters a problem, asks the computer guys to solve it for him, and they realize that real problem is not “How do I hack this electronic keypad,” but “How do I get to what’s on the other side of this door.” This moment of hesitation is important, because if he had just marched up to the door and kicked it down without taking the time to consider the optimal solution, he would feel less like a smooth operator executing the perfect heist, and more like a Jack Bauer who just charges into situations and resolves them with force.

It can be easy for stories to fall into the trap of breaking things down into a dichotomy of “brains vs brawn,” as if any energy spent doing physical tasks subtracts from the energy that would otherwise power your brain, but in fact a lot of the times the smartest thing to do is to punch the bad guy, or kick down the door.

The dichotomy of “brain vs brawn” suggests that these two are somehow mutually exclusive, and it feels like an example of a common fallacy where people see real-life skills and talents like some kind of tabletop RPG stat sheet where you have a finite number of points to distribute, which means that any points invested into things like charisma and strength necessarily subtract from stats like wisdom and intelligence. In reality, “talent” is not an evenly distributed thing; at best, it seems like athleticism and intellect are orthogonal, as plenty of people seem to have both in great abundance. (At my high school, the class valedictorian was also a star player on the high school baseball team.) There are also lots of smart people who have realized that investing time in their health and fitness is a smart use of their time, and usually the most fit people are the ones who treat optimizing their health as a worthwhile undertaking. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that physical fitness and mental performance are positively correlated in a number of ways: for example, cardiovascular health affects brain function, and so engaging in physical exercise increases your mental fitness, rather than draining away a finite number of stat points from intelligence to boost your physique.

Kicking down the door may be intelligent, but it does not always live up to the romantic ideal of intelligence, which is less about actually making the best choice in any given situation, and more about believing “reading books is a better use of your time than sports, scientists are always better at solving problems and winning conflicts than linebackers.” This partly feels a bit like concession to the fact that the crowd of people who read for recreation tend to be the same kind of people who spent much of their youth indoors reading books rather than flipping tires on the football field, and people like reading stories that serve and flatter their own sensibilities. But to be charitable to this line of thinking, it is true in the aggregate that people who engage in intellectual pursuits tend to do better: education is correlated with things like higher income, longer lifespan, most of the things that we’d define as “higher quality of life,” and more generally, “winning.” The issue is when you take that general idea (“the person who had a good SAT score tends to have a better life outcome than the person who spent high school playing sports associated with head trauma”) and try to apply it universally to every situation, you wind up in bizarre situations where people would rather try to hack the keypad instead of kick down the door.

The convenient thing about fiction is that the author can simply fail to introduce the sort of problems that would be best solved by a well-placed kick. (If you want to have a story about hacking the electronic keypad lock, just make the door out of some kind of reinforced material that can’t easily be kicked down.) In fact, it’s possible for an author to create an entire setting based on the idea that people who are more intelligent (here defined as “reading lots of books”) always win. I suspect that a major reason why “kid goes to wizard school” is so popular as a trope of fantasy that is that it’s essentially created a genre where studying and reading books makes you more capable of dealing with violent conflict. In general, bookish and studious people rarely intersect with violence, and when they do they tend to find their skills poorly matched for dealing with violent conflict, but a wizard school setting allows for a logically consistent story about a character who is a brainy academic who also solves their conflicts with with superior force. In this case, we don’t have to choose between being Bruce Banner or being the Hulk. The wizard doesn’t have to trade their intelligence for strength; the wizard becomes a powerful combatant by burying their nose in books.

The issue with a character who solves their problem just by studying is that when they acquire that skill and then apply it to solve a problem, they’re not really demonstrating intelligence, they’re demonstrating expertise. The wizard’s power appears to be the triumph of brain over brawn, but this is true only in the most superficial sense of what is meant by “brains.” A wizard who defeats his enemies by throwing fireballs at them is not really showcasing his intelligence, even if his method for learning to throw fireballs involved reading a lot of books.

Intelligence is powerful because it transcends expertise within a single domain. It’s also narratively useful, because it would feel unrealistic for a character to be an expert on every single problem that they encounter. You can mitigate this somewhat by creating a story about an ensemble cast of experts who are capable of dealing with anything that comes at them (which is the level on which heist stories like Sneakers operate), but there’s something about the ability to solve a problem in a simple and elegant way that just sings to us, precisely because it bypasses the need for expertise. You could spend hundreds of hours studying this field to become expert enough to overcome problems in the conventional way, or you could be clever, think outside the box, redefine the problem into terms that you’re equipped to deal with, and kick down the door.

Some thoughts on Death Note (2017)

I just watched the Netflix Death Note movie.  Some thoughts (spoilers for both the movie and the manga/anime included):

If you were expecting a faithful adaptation, there’s a lot to take issue with. The movie is more about emotions and revenge, rather than logic and justice as the manga/anime was. “Light” and “L” are definitely not the characters that people were expecting coming from the anime/manga.

I don’t really consider myself a “purist” when it comes to adaptations, and I would actually be okay with the decision to tell a story about emotions/revenge rather than logic/justice if it were done well, but it’s not. Even when people behave “irrationally” and are driven by emotions, there’s a limit to how much stupidity you can tolerate.  The biggest example is how Light never makes any attempt to hide the death note, even after L just told him face to face that he believes Light is Kira.  I don’t expect Light Turner to be as smart/prepared as Light Yagami (who devised a way to hide the death note in a hidden desk drawer way back in episode 2, before the investigation ever started), but you would think that after L tells Light Turner “you are the prime suspect,” he would at least devote a little thought to hiding the murder weapon.

Plot holes (and other contradictions)

Even the ending of the movie, which I actually liked, has a big plot hole that can’t simply be explained by characters acting emotionally/irrationally.  The ending of the movie culminates with L sneaking into Light’s house and finding a page ripped from the death note with names written down on it.  Then, L picks up a pen and contemplates whether to write Light Turner’s name on the page that was torn on the death note, taking revenge on Light for killing Watari.  While this would be out of character for the version of L we seen in the manga/anime, I think this is actually an interesting conflict for the more emotional version of L we see in the movie, and it also plays with the theme of revenge, which the movie seems to be based around. However, this scene is completely undermined by the fact that L did not know what Kira’s method of killing was.  He finds a paper that has a list of criminals, and a description of how one of them dies.  Okay, that seems like the kind of thing a killer might keep (a “hit list”), but there seems to be no explanation for the fact that L, who knows nothing about the death note or its rules, is immediately able to conclude, “If I write Light Turner’s name on this sheet of paper, he will die.” ((I’m ready to be proven wrong on this if someone wants to tell me why I’m wrong; I only watched the movie once and I have no desire to go back and rewatch to confirm that L didn’t know how the death note worked, although I don’t see how he could have given that the notebook was never in police custody.))

This reminded of a scene from the anime, where the investigation team is watching Higuchi (the Yotsuba killer) as he goes through some files to discover Matsuda’s name (the file he actually finds is a decoy with an alias, planted by the police).  Higuchi pulls out the death note and writes the name down, and the first response of the investigation team is, “Wait, why isn’t he killing him?  Why is he just writing the name down?  Is he just recording his name to kill him later?  But why would he do that when there’s such an urgency to kill him?”  It’s not until Higuchi starts screaming “Why won’t he die?” that the investigation team deduces that perhaps writing down names is Kira’s method of killing.

Another issue, not so much a “plot hole” as a missed opportunity: there’s a point at which Light suggests that he might write Ryuk’s name in the death note.  Ryuk tells him that the last person who tried this died before they could finish writing the name (the implication being, “If you try to kill me, I’ll kill you faster.”)  But the first rule of the death note clearly states, “The human whose name is written in this note shall die,” and Ryuk definitely isn’t human, so the possibility of Light killing him with the death note shouldn’t even be on the table.  (Even if Light did bring up the idea out of ignorance, a better retort for Ryuk would be “try reading rule #1 again,” rather than threatening to kill Light.)

I could go on, and I’m sure that in the coming days and weeks, someone will put together an hour-long Red Letter Media-esque video pointing out all of the various logical contradictions within the movie.  However, I don’t think that the movie is ruined by a confluence of small problems so much as every part of it is dragged down by one glaring problem:

Light’s agency (or lack therof)

My biggest gripe with the movie is how it feels like Light is stripped of any sense of agency.  It was one of manga/anime Light’s defining characteristics.  Light Yagami was smart, ambitious, ruthless, but most of all, he was proactive: the plot of the anime advances at a rate according to his choosing.  It is Light who chooses to pick up the death note after seeing it drop from afar, it is Light who chooses to write the first name down to test the death note’s powers, it is Light who decides to start writing hundreds of names in the death note without any outside prompting, it is Light who decides to kill Lind L. Tailor, it is Light who chooses to kill the twelve FBI agents, it is Light who chooses to turn himself into the police to set things into motion to kick off the “Yotsuba” mini-arc, and so on.

In the anime, Light is a character who does things.  In the movie, Light is a character who has things happen to him.

In the movie, Ryuk basically “chooses” Light by dropping the Death Note right next to him when no one else is around. It almost feels like Light Turner is tricked or coerced into using the death note by Ryuk, who tells him, “Go on, if my appearance seems unbelievable to you and you think this is all a dream…why not try writing a name down?”  Even if Ryuk wasn’t actually trying to mislead Light, consider this: when a supernatural nightmarish being that surely has other powers (such as the power to inflict death) descends upon you and makes a strongly-worded suggestion that you do something, can you really say that you chose to do it of your own volition?  Lest we’ve already forgotten, anime Light started writing names down well before Ryuk showed up.  In fact, when Ryuk does show up in the anime, he’s impressed that Light has managed to fill five pages of the death note, already having killed hundreds of people.

Light Yagami seems barely fazed by Ryuk: Light drives the action, and Ryuk is just along for the ride.  In the movie, it feels like Ryuk is the one who drives the action at the start, and Light Turner is just the person he decided to drag along for the ride.

To put it into Campbellian terms: Light Yagami steps across the threshold entirely of his own volition.  Light Turner is dragged across the threshold kicking and screaming. Literally.



Death Note and Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

A few years back, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archive) wrote a series of essays describing laws of magic systems. In the second of these essays, Sanderson posits that limitations are of greater importance than powers when it comes to effective magic systems.

Limitations are more important than powers

This notion is in agreement with a basic storytelling principle that I think many of us (readers and writers alike) instinctively understand about storytelling: what a character can’t do is often more interesting than what they can do.  Limitations and weaknesses are what drive struggle, vulnerability, conflict, and tension, many of the wonderful elements we love to see present in a story.

As a bit of an aside, I believe that this is why there is some disdain for for “wish fulfillment” and “Mary Sue” type characters, as these are narratives that are often inspired (and defined) by what the characters can do, often to the complete exclusion of any limitation or weakness.

It’s common to define and recognize magic systems based on powers.  A prominent example of this can be seen in the anime/manga series Death Note (spoilers follow).  The main magic present in Death Note is a notebook that has the ability to kill people, and protagonist Light also has the ability to specify the victims’ time and cause of death.  These are interesting story hooks.  But I would contend that Death Note is not a story about the powers of the Death Note as much as it is a story about the Death Note’s limitations.

What are the limitations of the Death Note? For one thing, Light needs to physically write the name of his victim in the book in order to cause death. He can’t just will people to die, or cause people to die by performing some trivial action like snapping his fingers. The Death Note, by its nature, leaves behind a paper trail, and thus represents a liability for anyone under scrutiny of investigation. Thus, when his home comes under surveillance, Light is forced to come up with creative ways to continue to write names in the Death Note while avoiding detection. In a sense, Light’s continued use of the Death Note is requisite, in the sense that if people stop dying when he is under scrutiny, then it becomes apparent to the investigation team that Light is somehow linked to the murders. This limitation of the Death Note represents a manner in which Light may be caught. It’s a source of tension.

The other major limitation of the Death Note is that Light needs a name and face in order to kill. This is ultimately what drives the conflict between protagonist Light and antagonist L, as Light cannot use the Death Note to eliminate L without knowing his name. This limitation of the Death Note also forces Light to creatively to circumvent this limitation, as becomes the case with the Raye Penber arc.

Death Note also provides a good example of a magic that is tied to a powerful cost. Light has access to another magic power apart from the Death Note itself: the “shinigami eyes,” which allow the user to see someone’s name by looking at them. However, this power comes at the cost of half of his own remaining lifespan. Light decides not to trade half his remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes, which reinforces what we are taught about Light during the series: first, by declining the offer, he is demonstrating a certain level of pride, or confidence in his own ability. The ability to see someone’s name simply by looking at them is a potent power that would greatly advance Light in the pursuit of his immediate goals, but he’s confident that he is skilled enough to defeat his foes without resorting to this costly power.

Second, Light’s decision to decline the shinigami eyes reinforces the idea that Light’s mission to eliminate criminals isn’t ultimately driven by altruism, but by megalomania.  Light doesn’t consider it enough to simply create a “better” world that is free of criminals; he also wishes to preside over this new world as emperor.  Making the trade for the shinigami eyes would allow Light to more quickly overcome the immediate obstacles in his path, so Light is forced to make a decision: does he take the eyes and achieve his vision of a “perfect world” that much sooner?  Or does he decline the eyes and give himself more time to sit on the proverbial throne?  He opts for the latter, and that is a powerful statement about his character and true motivations.

Later in the story, we see other characters who also receive the offer to trade half their remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes.  And each of those characters, in turn, reveals an element of their character and motivations based on the decision that they make.

The conflict between Light and L is one of the most interesting parts of Death Note, and if Light had the ability to see others’ names, that conflict would end quite swiftly.  However, because the power is tied to a significant cost, it can be included in the story without undermining that central conflict.

Limitations are what drive the conflict of Death Note: Light must continue to write names in the Death Note without alerting the investigation team that is monitoring him, and Light must also ascertain L’s true name. Without these two limitations in Light’s magic power, we don’t have much of a story. With them, we have a manga that has become one of the most successful manga of all time, running for 108 serialized chapters, selling over 26.5 million copies, and receiving numerous accolades.

A story with fantasy elements doesn’t necessarily require detailed rules defining the limitations of the powers that exist within its universe.  But if you want to tell a story that is about conflicts based around magic powers, a good first step would be to consider what the limitations of those magic powers are.