Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.


This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.


  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.


Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

7 thoughts on “Portraying the Transhuman Character

  1. Interesting discussion, Rick. In terms of showing superiority, something like playing the violin would be hard to depict. But having them knock together a technological breakthrough using only kitchen implements and a handful of grass cuttings would get the point across without having to delve into embarrasingly absent details.

    And the technique with Sherlock’s fighting was masterfully done IMO. The BBC series “Sherlock” also exposed his deductive techniques well, and hinted at both Sherlock’s and Mycroft’s superiority many times, such as how quickly one of them could learn an unfamiliar language (“A couple of hours” … “you’re slipping”)


    • Ah — the MacGyver approach — I like it. (Reminds me of a lot of my favorite science-engineering genius-heroes from the Golden Age of SF. 😉 )

      I thought the Sherlock sequences were well done also. I do hesitate slightly at the underlying idea that intellectual powers can foresee the potentials of a fight in a way that gains quite such an advantage. Of course we saw something like that in _Dune_ as well – I kept meaning to reference _Dune_ in the post and forgetting to do so. 🙂 The other factor, of course, is that the fighting requires not only deciding what to do, but being able to execute it — “muscle memory” and such — but we can assume Mr. Holmes has trained in that aspect as well.


  2. Love me some of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but the best stories in it were those with human protags, in which the Endless were interfering as more or less numinous forces, rather than the Endless Family Drama that was the connective tissue of the series.

    In my estimation, of course.

    And this was precisely because the Endless were simply too human in their drama, that I couldn’t quite take them seriously as consistent with their own universe. Something similar applies to the Greek or Norse gods. I love Greek mythology, but those were best viewed as, essentially, soap operas with superheroes rather than stories involving forces of nature itself.

    Lovecraft, for all his faults as a prose-maker, got this aspect of godhood exactly right; it is awful, in that old sense of awesome. (By the by, I recommended a Distributist video a while ago on this here blog; hopefully not the same one as now, but this one is apropos the discussion of awful/awesome, Lovecraft, and godhood).

    On the topic of bad tropes meant to show a character is super-smart, another one is, they have a bazillion PhDs and/or are very young when they get their degrees. An example would be Elizabeth Shaw from Prometheus, who must be in her mid-late twenties or early thirties but has five doctorates, as revealed in an extra scene.

    There’s obviously a kernel of truth to this– many prodigies in science were child prodigies. That said, not many of them had many PhDs. That’s simply not how academia works, even in these days when getting a PhD is in the first stages of a process of devaluing from genuine scientific achievement to borderline necessity for a career.



    • “Soap operas with superheroes” — right. Entertaining as these characters are, they don’t impress me as “gods” at all.

      Lovecraft comes up in the next installment. 🙂

      Child prodigies can be fun. Ariane Meadows, in the novel I’m shopping around, is just such a one: she’s too young to have a Ph.D., but her actual accomplishments and skills qualify as the equivalent. I’m also fond of Candy Smith-Foster in David Palmer’s obscure novel _Emergence_: she’s too young for high school, but clearly a Ph.D.-equivalent — not to mention a superhigh-level karate master.


  3. The Niven story you’re looking for is “Grendel,” one of the Beowulf Shaeffer tales. (I just went back through Niven recently, or I wouldn’t have turned that up!)

    Palmer’s Emergence! Thanks for the reminder. I’ve got that, and I don’t think I ever re-read it. I’ll tackle that one again soon-ish. (I find that writing a lot means I’m not reading a lot.)

    Before I forget: Excellent post as usual. Comprehensive!

    Finally, your mention of being preternaturally wise sparked more thought for me. (Sorry to go on at length, but I’d rather show than tell.) Talbot Mundy, who was quite a character, and had a great background for a writer (around the world on a tramp steamer, walked the length and I think breadth of Africa), wrote a series set around the time of the late Roman Republic about a sea captain named Tros of Samothrace. The first three books are very good historicals with fantasy touches, but the fourth, The Purple Pirate, is one of my all-time favorites. Mundy wrote it in 1925 – he was ahead of his time!

    The thing is, Tros shows in this novel in particular his exceptional wisdom. He’s a smart man, and extremely knowledgeable. But most of all he understands people.

    The thing is, Tros shows in this novel in particular his exceptional wisdom. He’s a smart man, and extremely knowledgable. But most of all he understands people.

    He’s questioning a man he captured early in the novel, and it’s already clear the guy is utterly untrustworthy. What should he do with the guy? There’s already enough intrigue going on, he doesn’t want to give this guy anything he can use, because he’ll use it against Tros.

    But Tros understands the man, and knows what to do. Setting him a task would mean giving away valuable information about Tros’s goals. Browbeating or bribing or bargaining won’t work, because betrayal is the other man’s nature. Tros is wise enough to avoid tactics that will fail.

    Tros simply sets him free. When the guy wants to know what Tros will pay him to act on Tros’s behalf, Tros tells him this:

    “Your life. Your liberty. I will set you ashore, to continue to serve [yourself]. You may sell me to the highest bidder. Take what profit you can.”

    Tros knows the man, knows his nature, and simply trusts him to follow that nature. Which, in the end, is how we can trust anyone to act, isn’t it?


    (The trick, of course, is to understand others enough to know their nature. That’s the other half of wisdom.)

    As far as portraying this as writers, do like Mundy and have strong characterizations with some subtlety to them. Then let the wise person show they understand the subtleties of the other characters. Worked for Tros!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Now I can find the Niven story . . .

      Quite right: understanding of other people is a superpower in itself, so to speak. I haven’t read Mundy, but it sounds as if he managed to depict Tros as someone with exceptional ability to “read” people — which is even harder to pull off than cleverness or wit.


  4. Pingback: Describing the Indescribable | Rick Ellrod's Locus

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