"A stupid person can make only certain, limited types of errors; the mistakes open to a clever fellow are far broader. But to the one who knows how smart he is compared to everyone else, the possibilities for true idiocy are boundless."
This is a character archetype. These characters:
- Are extremely smart and/or good at whatever it is they do.
- Know it, and are probably pretty arrogant (in fact, they tend to think they're even better than they are).
- As a result, are continually driven to go farther. Usually they succeed (remember, they're really good), but their failures are spectacular.
- Often suffer some impediment, or endure some prejudice, to the point where being dramatically and demonstrably more awesome than everyone else in their field is a necessity if they're going to be seen as a success at all.
Usually these characters are protagonists (though generally not The Hero
); they're often the Foil
to Too Dumb to Fool
. If they have Blue Blood
, they could be Gentleman Snarkers
. The Smug Super
, Insufferable Genius
, or Mad Scientist
frequently acts like this. When they are antagonists, their cleverness serves them well at the beginning of the story, but their belief in their own intellectual superiority over the protagonists will always trip them up at the end.
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Anime & Manga
- Sousuke Aizen from Bleach is considered the biggest mastermind in the series, capable of playing the entirety of Soul Society in his palm. He enjoys using his cunning to manipulate everyone, but he despises Kisuke Urahara, who is perhaps the only person who can match him in intelligence.
- Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto is a child prodigy and one of the few survivors of the all-powerful Uchiha clan. However, his brother, Itachi, trashes him showing that he isn't as powerful as he thought, and even Naruto, who had always been inferior to him, manages to almost defeat him. As a result, Sasuke's confidence and inferiority complex kick in. Because of his wounded pride, he defects.
- Death Note:
- Light Yagami is impossibly clever, charming and manipulative...but for all his great plans, he ends up falling victim to his own pride too often.
- L also has traits of this. He's confident enough in his abilities that he's willing to get very close to a serial killer that can kill supernaturally.
- Lelouch in Code Geass is a brilliant strategist and turns out to be a gifted leader, but the higher he aims, the more he is prone to his goals going horribly wrong.
- Seto Kaiba in Yu-Gi-Oh! has great confidence in his skills and is a genius who can create impossibly advanced gadgets while he's still a high schooler. He starts the series as the undefeated champion of Duel Monsters, but his arrogance earns him a beating by The Power of Friendship. He never quite abandons his pride through the series.
- Sora from .hack// is at the maximum level possible in The World, has the maximum possible stats, and goes around killing people for fun. Much of his arrogance is probably due to his age. Apart from that, he also openly manipulates everyone and is essentially the most obvious sufferer of Chronic Backstabbing Disorder ever. He has information sources no one else has and is basically invincible in any of the fights he gets in, constantly killing BT. He gets called on it, but it never hampers him until finally motivated into doing something somewhat heroic (he didn't realize he couldn't get away) and taunting the big bad, at which point she turned him into a Sequel Hook, and the show ended.
- Taikobo from Hoshin Engi. He's a brilliant strategist who once managed to save an entire village by getting them drunk so they couldn't fight an army that came to capture them and then killed the leader, causing the army to scatter. He's famous for manipulating most of the cast with ease...but the first time he met Dakki, he ended up being enslaved and forced to watch members of his clan get thrown in a pit filled with crocs and snakes, one of them calling him pathetic. His ego went down in size after surviving that.
- The Riddler, one of Batman's most famous enemies. He's a genius by any standards, far less psychotic than most of Gotham's criminal elite, and has even shown himself to be an excellent detective in his own right. So why can't he just put his intellect to good use and live a life of comfort and fame? Because he would have to accept that he is Gotham's second most intelligent inhabitant. He NEEDS to prove that he is smarter than Batman, so he keeps needlessly challenging him and losing.
- In the Mickey Mouse Comic Universe, this is the flaw of the character Clarabelle Cow. She's a genuinely smart woman — certainly more so than her friend/rival/love interest, Horace Horsecollar. Unfortunately, Horace comes off especially bad against Clarabelle because he's a Know-Nothing Know-It-All, so Clarabelle has an overinflated sense of her own intelligence, which leads her to doing foolish things.
- Happens all too often to Donald Duck, of all people: he'll start a new job, quickly become a master and then go beyond it, and then his magnus opus will ruin him due him not listening to the obvious suggestion than someone less expert (usually his nephews) will give him.
- Knights of the Dinner Table: Brian Vanhoose has a streak of this. He's able to pull off a lot of brilliance, but he always pushes it and eventually his plans come tumbling down.
- Linus seems to have this trait in Peanuts. He often explains things using scientific facts and theories (most of which are true), quotes philosophers and the Bible, and often compares simple things to famous works of art. On the other hand, there are times when he acts naive or downright foolish; his well-known belief in the Great Pumpkin is mocked by the other characters, even by his usually-tolerant friend Charlie Brown.
- Jason from FoxTrot is incredibly intelligent, excels in school, and is an overall technical wizard. But he frequently does incredibly stupid things, potentially getting himself hurt or in trouble in the process.
- A large portion of the plot of the Alexandra Quick series is driven by the title character's tendency to do incredibly stupid things in incredibly clever and Badass ways.
Films — Animation
- Megamind. Megamind's intelligence is hyper-advanced compared to Earth standards, he's a genius inventor, and his hobby is creating grandiose revenge schemes against the kid who bullied him in elementary school. Worth mentioning that these schemes don't just fail, they fail... Until one day they don't, setting the plot in motion.
Films — Live-Action
- Mark Whitacre, the title character of The Informant, is an accomplished scientist who speaks several languages and sorely overestimates his own prowess when he gets between his company's corrupt leadership and an FBI probe. Not only that, but it turns out he's been embezzling millions from the company and spinning outrageous lies to make himself look good, both in the company and in his personal life. Not that he isn't brilliant (he earns two PhDs while in prison), but he's determined to succeed big and when that fails, he fails big.
- Katharine Parker in Working Girl, a high-ranking business woman that speaks fluent German and views herself as a trailblazer for women in the business world, with a giant head to match. When it's discovered that she stole a brilliant idea from her equally intelligent secretary, she's promptly (and satisfyingly) fired and disgraced.
- Detective Kujan from The Usual Suspects condescendingly tells Verbal Kint, the prisoner he is interrogating, that Kujan is smarter than him, that Verbal is stupid, a cripple, weaker than the criminals he associated with, and that Verbal will not be free until he will tell Kujan exactly wants he wants to know. And then The Ending Changes Everything.
- Mister Miyagi in The Karate Kid is less arrogant than most examples of this trope. However, he still seems unable to resist opportunities to be clever, even when it goes counter to his goals. His Wax On, Wax Off teaching regimen in the first movie (or rather, his refusal to explain it) almost drove his student away. His impromptu bet at the bar in the second movie may have paid for Daniel's college, but also humiliated the man he was trying to talk out of a duel to the death with him. His "sweep" joke in the third movie drove Daniel straight into the arms of the Evil Mentor when he needed support.
- This is the basic accusation leveled at the showrunners and scientists of Jurassic Park: they were so eager to actually clone and revive the extinct dinosaurs that they didn't stop to consider if this was in any way a good idea. It wasn't.
- Loki tends to follow a pattern in Thor and The Avengers: he'll devise a clever plan, successfully manipulate everybody, have them where he wants them...and then he'll Kick the Dog, giving the heroes the motivation they need to bring him down. He seems to have gotten smarter in Thor: The Dark World.
- The Vorkosigan Saga: The titular Miles Vorkosigan, as illustrated by the following quote from Mirror Dance
"My game plan all my life has been to demand acceptance of this," a vague wave down the length, or shortness, of his body, "because I was a smart-ass little bastard who could think rings around the opposition, and prove it time after time."
- Incidentally, he succeeds. Mostly.
- Moist von Lipwig of Going Postal and Making Money is a con man turned government official, who runs his government offices as though they were successively more complex con games. Which of course, in a very real sense, they sort of are.
- There's a phrase that appears in Discworld novels fairly often (though it's considerably older) that actually describes this: "So sharp he kept cutting himself, as my grandmother used to say."
- Ponder Stibbons as well; his impediments are the rest of the staff.
- The Klatchian mastermind behind the international incident in Jingo may qualify as this; he is certainly clever, and his plan would have worked very well, apart from one small problem: his opponent is Vetinari. As a result of this little oversight, his failure is truly monumental and extremely humiliating.
- The cleverness of these characters actually provides a good contrast with Vetinari, who is indisputably Discworld's premiere Magnificent Bastard. On the very rare occasions when he does make a mistake, Vetinari always recovers and learns from them. Also, he knows better than to push his luck, (his family motto is translated as "If it ain't broke, don't fix it"), and has thus so far avoided any spectacular cock-ups.
- There's also mention of a dwarf who asked his king for an impossibly vast reward similar to the wheat and chessboard problem. The Dwarf King, upon realizing how vast such a reward would be, threatens to execute the dwarf who is "too [dwarven expletive] clever by half." The dwarf hastily amends his reward to "all the gold he can carry". The king agrees to this, after breaking one of the dwarf's arms.
- High Elves (Noldor) in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Also Men of Nûmenor.
- The eponymous character from Artemis Fowl.
- And also Opal Koboi, who in the fourth book has her ears surgically rounded and a human pituitary gland inserted into her head so she can pass for human - but it also drains her fairy magic, making it so that she inadvertently uses the last of it to convince an old Italian widow that she is her daughter and she works with her on the farm. When Opal realizes her mistake and tries to backtrack, it fails so miserably that she's actually happy to get arrested by the LEP a week later.
- Locke from The Lies of Locke Lamora and its sequel by Scott Lynch. He spends his life running elaborate (and usually successful) cons on nobles while posing as a petty thief. The end of the second book covers a massive failure; he's spent the entire book on a plot to rob a casino, and it goes off flawlessly — except that the paintings he steals are fakes, put out for the express purpose of being stolen.
- Kvothe from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. A child prodigy, he talks his way into his world's premier university at the age of fifteen, after having spent three years as a beggar, and promptly antagonizes both one of the masters and the wealthiest and most politically connected student in the university. Between that and his perpetual poverty, he spends most of his time doing absurd things (learning an entire language in a day and a half, getting certified as a musician on a lute with a broken string) just to keep his head above water.
- A Song of Ice and Fire
- Tyrion Lannister. As a dwarf, quite literally... And unlike some on this list, he's fully aware that he's pushing his luck in most of the stunts he pulls.
- Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish is described using this exact phrase by Ned Stark. He is, however, an unusual example of this trope because (so far) he has gone from strength to strength without anything more serious than some minor setbacks, to which he quickly adapts.
- Grand Admiral Thrawn of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, especially The Thrawn Trilogy. He'd probably claim that he's not arrogant, and it's true that he has no qualms about accepting a good idea just because it's not his, but he definitely has an ego underneath his self-control. He's an alien in a xenophobic Empire whose talents caused him to get that rank. To a lesser extent, Talon Karrde.
- In the Star Wars Wraith Squadron trilogy both of the computer hacker characters fall to this somewhat. Grinder falls to this in that Face catches him pulling pranks as he was the only one who could have defeated the security on Face's X-wing. However when in the field, he is quite cautious, unlike his replacement. Castin falls to this in a much worse fashion when he opens an access panel without scanning it first, triggering a hidden layer—which ultimately led to his death. Grinder had previously dealt with a similar system and had the foresight to scan it before opening it.
- Harry Potter
- Hermione is the smartest person in her classes, tends to be rather rudely disparaging of her peers' intelligence, and is discriminated against for being a muggle-born.
- Dumbledore is also qualified for this trope. He is one of the smartest and most powerful wizards in the setting, and he knows it. However, Dumbledore is a reformed version of this trope. He used to be arrogant and controlling, until an unfortunate accident led him to realize what he was becoming. At that point, he decided to settle down and become a teacher, because he felt he could not be trusted with any real power. During the story, of course, we do get to see him affording himself more power to bring down Voldemort, but no more than necessary.
Dumbledore: Being, forgive me, rather cleverer than most men, my mistakes tend to be correspondingly huger.
- Voldemort is a half-example—he's a magical genius, yes, but he tends to generalize this and assume it means he's smarter than everyone at everything. Given that he is in actuality not even remotely competent at long-term planning, he manages to get all the downsides of this trope with scant few of the benefits. His main flaw as a strategist is that he'll get so carried with a clever plan that he forgets his opponents are also clever, and so follows predictable patterns.
- Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently. In a scene where he tries to outwit the local Inspector Lestrade, and fails miserably, the inspector sensibly points out that Dirk may be really smart, but the weakness of really smart people is that they assume everyone else is stupid.
- Foxface in The Hunger Games manages to survive without killing a single soul, simply stealing food and hiding. It bites her in the ass when she steals some berries Peeta had picked without either of them realizing that they were poisonous.
- Or DID it bite her in the ass? In the movie especially, there are hints she committed suicide on purpose and covered it up so that her family back home didn't get in trouble with the Capitol. Foxface: cunning to the end.
- Katniss actually wonders if Foxface is the most intelligent out of all the tributes. As the Games go on and she realizes that Foxface has lasted so long without a direct confrontation against anyone, Katniss wonders if Foxface, not the intimidating Thresh or the totally batshit Cato, is the real danger.
- Kendra in Beastly. She has a history of using her magic to punish rotten people like Kyle, but it bites her in the ass when it attracts too much attention and gets her in trouble with other witches. While her grand plan to improve Kyle via the curse she puts on him does work perfectly (it's designed so that he really can't break it without improving himself), it's also what convinces the other witches to banish her from ever going home. Leastwise, until Kyle accidentally puts a loophole into the spell that lets her go home after he breaks the curse. In the book Bewitched, Kendra apparently had a knack for this even before she had a lot of experience as a witch.
- Themistocles Papadapoulos in the bridge book series Bridge in the Menagerie. He delights in deception plays, which frequently confuse opponents into making the one play that can defeat his contracts or ensure theirs when he's defending. One chapter of the second book has an entire section on him called "Too Clever By Half."
- Steerpike in the Gormenghast books. He's extremely clever and a master Manipulative Bastard, but his first real failure comes from arrogance, overplanning, and underestimating his opponent.
- A key trait of Dr. Impossible in Soon I Will Be Invincible, who starts the book by narrating about it.
"Has the world's smartest man done the smartest thing with his life?"
- Said verbatim by Pierce to Jeff on Community, but it was used incorrectly to be an example of the trope.
- Rodney McKay from Stargate Atlantis is one of the smartest humans from earth. Despite everyone in the Stargate program being top in their fields, he's the only one to make such a huge deal out of his intelligence. And on number three... while he regularly makes astounding accomplishments while under threat of imminent death, his biggest failure? Blew up a solar system (well, five-sixths of a solar system), and almost destroyed two universes. His pride is so great that he often refuses to work with other scientists on the team because he's convinced they'd just slow him down. This gets pointed out magnificently in an episode where he's working with Real Life celebrity scientists Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or rather, refusing to work with them. This gets taken to a literal level when an Ascension machine rewrites his genome. He creates a new form of math just to keep up with his new discoveries. After being forced to choose between ascending or dying, he invents a cure for himself, returning himself back to "normal" genius levels, not realizing he was in spitting distance of ascending. For a kicker, all his notes and his new mathematics are so complex that even he can't figure out what they meant, making virtually everything that happened completely moot. Did get a nice Deus ex Machina out of it for the next season opener, though.
- Samantha Carter from Stargate SG-1 isn't arrogant, but she knows how smart she is, is constantly being expected to do more and more impressive things to save humanity's collective asses, usually succeeds at saving the day but occasionally has some pretty spectacular screw ups, and gets discriminated against for being female and human by Ba'al and the free Jaffa.
- Dr. Nicholas Rush in Stargate Universe is, quite possibly, even more arrogant than McKay. At the very least, he loves to put other scientists down. At the same time, he sees Eli as a protégé of sorts and isn't as hard on him as on others. In fact, on at least one occasion, he told another crewmember that Eli is actually smarter than him.
- This seems to be a recurring theme for advanced alien races throughout the Stargate universe. Once they reach a point in their technological development where they could be mistaken for gods, on some level they start to actually believe it, and as a consequence they develop blind spots in their thought processes you could steer a Goa'uld Mothership through:
- The Asgard have become so dependent on their technology that they are literally incapable of thinking outside the box. They were very nearly destroyed by the Replicators because they kept throwing more-advanced weapons technology at an enemy that eats technology; they simply can't conceive of any other way to deal with the problem. It took Humans - less advanced technologically, but with more flexible thought processes - to help them gain an advantage. To their credit, they realized and repeatedly come to humans for help.
- The Ancients are For Science! to such a degree that they never consider the long-term consequences of their actions. They tend to create massive, ambitious scientific projects which fail just as often as they succeed. And because these projects are so huge and ambitious, dealing with things like genetic engineering, quantum mechanics, and the nature of reality itself, the consequences of those failures are catastrophic. If they're lucky, their inventions merely explode spectacularly. If they're not so lucky, they can rip a hole in the universe. Sometimes, projects that initially seem to be successful develop long-term side-effects that are even worse than the problems they were designed to solve. The Wraith, a hostile mutant race inadvertently created in a world-seeding project, are only the most glaring example.
- Doctor Gregory House. Hell, his choice of role model and reason for becoming a doctor (a burakumin medical genius working as a janitor in a Japanese hospital) was almost explicitly one of these, although without the implied arrogance.
This guy, he knew that he wasn't accepted by the staff, he didn't even try. He didn't dress well. He didn't pretend to be one of them. The people that ran that place, they didn't think that he had anything they wanted. Except when they needed him. Because he was right. Which meant that nothing else mattered. And they had to listen to him.
- Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory is a brilliant theoretical physicist. He's also insufferably arrogant and ignorant of basic social interaction. At least once the other characters acknowledged that if he wasn't Leonard's roommate they wouldn't hang out with him.
- Doctor Who: The Doctor has a tendency to drift in and out of this trope, possibly more so in his third incarnation. The Tenth Doctor is especially given to telling people how clever he is.
- Villainous example: Orta from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Ensign Ro". Extremely good Bajoran terrorist with many impossible victories against the Cardassians, but his failures cost him his right eye and the ability to speak without a voice synthesizer. Over the course of the episode, Picard and Ro find that Orta did not make a strike they were investigating, because he didn't have the resources to do so (his freighter could only move at half impulse, for example)...because his rep was such that others were terrified in dealing with him.
- Gul Dukat in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine managed an extremely elaborate set of nasty surprises for anyone hijacking Terok Nor, then managed to get himself caught up in them because he beamed over to gloat at the crew for tripping them.
- Sikozu of Farscape definitely fits this trope, especially given her arrogance over her high intelligence.
- Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear is a Badass Driver version. He can do astonishing things with a car (or a hammer) but his devotion to Tim Taylor Technology means his failures are spectacular too.
- Likewise, James May. He's extremely intelligent with an impressive understanding of engineering, physics and other disciplines that aid him whenever a construction challenge is made. However, his too-cautious approach, tendency towards technically complex creations and at times a lack of common sense (not to mention a lack of direction) tend to have him either win decidedly or fail spectacularly.
- Sherlock Holmes from the BBC's modern-day adaptation, Sherlock, is a perfect example. Yes, he's very, very clever; but it does have its disadvantages in that he can't "turn it off" and stop being an Insufferable Genius, even when doing so would be much more prudent. (Not a million miles from The Doctor — which, given that the show is scripted by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, is...not that surprising, really). note
- Shows up often on Survivor.
- Russell Hantz, for example, has some savviness as to the mechanics of the game, finding Immunity Idols before receiving any clues to their location for example - but lost, three times, for being completely insufferable, not grasping that you have to avoid getting on the other players' bad sides. (The third time he played, his tribe was aware of his previous two times and made a point to throw him out fast so they wouldn't have to deal with him.)
- "Boston" Rob, on both this show and The Amazing Race is another great example. He definitely has a talent for this stuff, but... well, on Race he decided to screw with other players by making them think there was an earlier flight. While he gloated about sending them into a panicked search for a nonexistent flight, they found one.
- Jimmy McNulty from The Wire had to drop out of college due to his girlfriend becoming pregnant. He became a detective who has no respect for his commanders and that'll do anything to get a case solved.
- Starter Villain Victor Dubenich is this in the pilot. The entire plan depends on his ability to realize that they are coming after him.
- In "The Gold Job" Hardison makes this mistake as well. As he is planning his clever system for forcing the mark to pay for their client, he makes the mistake of causing them to question all of the hoops they've had to jump through during the con. Nate explains to him that he always avoids this by having a relatively simple backup plan.
- Dr Ty Wilson from Monday Mornings has nearly all traits of this archetype. Only thing which doesn't quite fit is that he's not insufferable in the least. He has sweet bedside manners and he's also very nice to his colleagues, which makes him popular. He's an extremely smart and brilliant neurosurgeon with magical hands. He knows it, and doctor Hooten often calls him on his medical arrogance, especially his reluctance to consult with his colleagues who as as brilliant as himself. note The series kicks off with a patient dying on his table. It's rare for him and he feels badly, but even more so when he learns that he didn't check all relevant medical history of the patient's father. He screwed up, big time, and has to deal with his Heroic BSOD.
- Sometimes, these are the chefs that Gordon Ramsay runs into in Kitchen Nightmares. One example from the U.K Series was Nick Anderson of Rococo's. He was a renowned chef in the mid-nineties in England, but a decidedly nasty partnership break-up with the owners of a high-class hotel put him in a deep depression, a creative slump and financial trouble. When Gordon comes to his restaurant, his inflated ego, inability to update his style and his obsession with his past successes meant that he had alienated his customers with a business surviving on the charity of friends.
- The eponymous character in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus is one of the best examples of this trope. His own brilliance in all things academic (and belief that he can do even more than he has) lead him to explore Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. The results are predictable.
- Suspiria, Insufferable Genius mage prodigy from Flipside. She really is a phenomenally powerful mage, but given her youth, she lacks both the experience and stamina of other mages of her rank, making her a much less formidable opponent than she should be. This has bitten her in the ass twice, in-story (the first with tragic consequences, the second costing her the other main characters' good will and respect and any sympathy the former granted her).
- The Order of the Stick:
- Many, many characters on Homestuck. Rose is one of the worst, admittedly very intelligent and knowledgeable but constantly getting outplayed and biting off more than she can chew. Vriska is slightly more self aware about her overly complicated plans and double crosses but still cheerfully forges ahead, admitting she be bored if she wasn't either succeeding awesomely or crashing and burning in Shakespearean fashion.
- Many devisors and gadgeteers in the Whateley Universe get this, but the biggest of all must be Jobe Wilkins, Prince of Karedonia. A literal child prodigy even before he started breaking the laws of reality — and a first-class Jerkass — he sets about making a nanotech formula to transform anyone into his ideal wife. And then he injects himself with it.
- Galileo appears to have been one of these (see his entry under Instructional Dialogue), assuming Simplicio really was a caricature of the Pope. Even before he earned the attention of the Inquisition, he alienated the University of Pisa (which prompted his relocation from Venice to Florence—he needed new patronage) and pushed matters so hard that even the powerful Medici family began to find him a liability. The man just didn't know when to keep his mouth shut.
- You might find this in education, when the instructor uses the Socratic Method—feigning ignorance of the subject and asking questions of the students to draw out the correct answer. The intelligent or well-read students will often try to bring out information which, while interesting, either doesn't get to the heart of the matter or assumes that the central question has been answered when it hasn't. This typically leads the instructor to shut the student down—or try to, as such students tend to be stubborn. This is particularly common in American law schools, where the Socratic method is standard. Free advice: There's a reason that Socrates' most famous statement is "I know that I know nothing."
- The Nazis. Most of the senior politicians and generals were brilliant (when the IQ test had been performed on the Nuremberg defendants, most were high above average in the 120-138 range, while the most stupid and clearly insane of them, Julius Streicher, still scored a bit above average) and their military industrial complex had been staffed with tens of thousands of equally brilliant officers, engineers and bureaucrats who used the most advanced technology of their time. They managed to convince themselves so surely of their own superiority that they willingly walked into an unwinnable war.