The Thinking Man

Professor X vs Magneto

Bradford Walker contrasts the thinking man's pulp hero with the more familiar Man of Action over at PulpRev.com.
The Fighting-Man is the default protagonist, but there are other archetypes. They arose out of defining themselves against the Fighting-Man, often in the form of a tradeoff: he's really good at (X) but terrible at (Y) because (Reasons). The first of these to arise was the man who succeeds in his challenges through his superior wisdom or cunning- he out-thinks his opposition. I'm making this simple and call it "The Thinking Man".
He's defined by not being a Man of Action. He's not the sort to throw down, and his chase performance pretty much relies on him not being on foot. He relies on something that represents his superior intellect, wisdom, or cunning to handle any situation that would get a Fighting-Man into displays of athletics or skill at arms. Here is your Wizard, your Shaman, your Gadgeteer- and your Trickster.
You'll find this character archetype as the protagonist in genres of fiction where being a man of action isn't a strength as such, usually mysteries (e.g. Detective stories) or horror, and in other genres you'll routinely find this archetype in a supporting role for a Fighting-Man protagonist.
That's an excellent summation of the Thinking Man protagonist. Now, Bradford's Thinking Men may remind you of my much-despised Big Men with Screwdrivers. There is a key difference, though. Whereas Bradford's Thinking Man subsists within a pulp framework, the Man with a Screwdriver is an almost exclusively Campbellian trope.

What change did Campbell usher in that replaced Charlie Chan with Hari Seldon? Bradford nails it [emphasis mine].
Be it a mystery, or some other puzzle--and there should be some form of puzzle--requiring his intellect or cunning to solve, there is always a moral element to the matter. The power of the Thinking Man is not only knowledge of expert topics, however narrow, but also observant of people and patient in making use of those observations. Gandalf the Grey displays this in his experiences, where his use of power is tightly constrained and so much rely on lore and people skills more than his inherent power (or that of the Ring he's entrusted to use) to solve matters.
As Castalia House blog editor Jeffro Johnson has convincingly shown, the pulps took Western values, specifically Christianity, for granted as the moral basis of their tales. In contrast, here is the moral outlook of Campbellian and post-Campbellian heroes, according to science fiction grand master John C. Wright:
This is the point of view of a Western man, raised in a culture seeped  with Christian notions of chivalry and fair play and equality and nobility, but who has lost confidence in the center.
Bradford closes with a few examples of how Thinking Man protagonist/antagonist pairs can provide fertile ground for epic conflict.
You will also see this with ensembles as the leaders of competing factions--Charles Xavier vs. Magneto, for example--but these are usually positioned, in narrative terms, as supporting roles (what TV Tropes will call "Big Good" and "Big Bad" respectively). Their Duel of Wits fades into the background but their moves form the basis of the actual protagonist's stories, creating opportunity for these masterminds to become protagonist/antagonist at a meta-level; challenging, rarely pulled off, but when it does you get genre-defining examples such as Mentor of Arisia vs. The Innermost Circle of Eddore (to whom Gharlane of Eddore played Starscream to its Megatron).

I'm partial to the Fighting Man protagonist vs. Thinking Man antagonist conflict. In fact, I got a lot of mileage out of it in my well-regarded debut novel Nethereal where Jaren Peregrine and Marshal Malachi respectively fill those roles. To give you an idea of how intense a Man of Action vs. Chess Master conflict can get, their rivalry ignites cosmic-scale destruction, and that's in book one.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier


  1. I will say that I greatly enjoyed Marshal Malachi as a villain. He was fantastic and I loved how he would use his intellect to stay one step ahead of Jeran. One of the better scenes is in the beginning where Malachi meets with his predecessor on Tharis and slowly reveals his deductions and suspicions. I was hooked by that point. And I wish Marshal Malachi appeared more than he did in the novel.

    That said, smart "thinking-man" villains can fantastic antagonists/villains if pulled off right.

    1. Thanks for the helpful feedback!

      NB: I have something special planned for Marshal Malachi fans in The Ophian Rising.

  2. Brian
    This post reminds me of St Tomas Aquinas that there are 2 paths: some are called to the active life while others are called the competitive life I think we need to recover not only Aristotle but also the medieval thinkers. Another path to regress harder :)

    1. Brian :)
      The second path is of course the completive life. Stupid autocorrect.
      In any case, I look for thinking man bad guys. Any suggestions from the canon both the traditional works and the pulps?