We all love characters who are good at what they’re doing. Nobody wants to root for someone who screws up constantly or walks into traps we can see a mile away. But at the same time, it can be hard to love someone who’s too perfect. So how do you make us believe in, and love, a major badass?
So I’ve been working for a couple months on this essay about how to make a character competent and believable/relatable. And with this week’s tempest-in-a-stormtrooper-helmet about whether Rey is somehow TOO competent, this issue became suddenly timely. So here are the thoughts that I was already noodling on for the past several weeks.
The rise of the super(smart) humans
It’s hard to deny that characters in fiction, and especially heroes, have been getting more competent over the past 20 years. There are a few reasons for this trend.
For one thing, pop culture is full of “competence porn”—stories where part of the enjoyment is watching super-clever people solve problems and make decisions. If you consider procedurals (on television) and techno-thrillers (in books) to be competence porn, then this is arguably the most important type of fiction there is.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we are in an age of information overload and technological miracles. We all have access to vastly more data than our ancestors, and can do things with bioinformatics and robotics that would have seemed insane not long ago. Our biggest fantasy is to be the undisputed master of our own creations.
We’re also living in the age of “the smartest man in the room,” the Sherlock Holmes-inspired archetype of the dude who is always 27 jumps ahead of everyone else and is great at everything (except for social skills.) This character is pretty much always a man—but because of his ubiquity, he raises the floor for all other characters, male and female.
And finally, even most casual consumers of pop culture are experienced visitors to imaginary worlds at this point. We’ve all been to Narnia and Westeros enough times to know what to expect. We wouldn’t eat any fucking Turkish delight, because we’re not assclowns. We’ve endlessly dissected the dumb decisions and failures of our imaginary heroes, and we want to identify with people who at least have a level of ball-handling that matches our own familiarity. People complain whenever they figure out key plot information in a story before the characters do.
(You could argue this is also one reason why there’s less “portal fantasy” and more fantasy about heroes who were born in the magical world and know their way around. But that’s a topic for another day.)
And yet, even as audiences have increasingly less patience with characters who don’t immediately get the hang of things, there’s a contrasting problem, which threatens to turn the whole thing into a no-win situation.
It’s hard to identify with people who are too smart
At the same time as we demand characters who have a PhD in spaceships, we also have a hard time identifying with characters who are too brilliant. This is kind of a catch-22, and it’s probably more of a problem with female characters than male characters. (Again, see “the smartest man in the room,” who never has to be relatable as long as he’s witty and cute.) But even male characters risk becoming annoying if they’re too sagacious.
Part of the problem is that we don’t just want to admire these brilliant characters—we want to identify with them. That means that they have to be recognizably us, only much, much better at everything than we are.
You can’t really identify with a character who does everything right, or who never faces any insurmountable challenges. And there’s also a suspension of disbelief issue, if a character becomes so smooth and kick-ass that you start to question if such a paragon could actually exist.
So it’s sort of like walking a narrative tightrope: You gotta make your main character(s) good at their job, but not TOO perfect to believe in. On the one side: snapping crocodiles. On the other side: burning lava. But the good news is, this tightrope is more like a super wide bridge and there’s a railing. So really, it’s fine.
So how do you avoid falling into the lava?
The first, and most important thing, is to recognize that “competent” does not mean “infallible” or “unbeatable.” You can be the most careful driver in the world, signaling before making a turn even in there’s nobody else on the road and checking your tire pressure regularly, and all that good stuff, and still have an accident. We’re not talking about omnipotence here.
In fact, I’d argue that people want to invest in, and look up to, characters who are really, unusually, good at what they’re doing—so that they can then watch those characters make mistakes and deal with huge setbacks. Nobody is ever going to enjoy a story where the plot synopsis reads, “And then nothing bad ever happened and everybody drank hot cocoa in front of a nice fire, the end.”
The interesting part is not watching screw-ups screw up, but watching incredibly smart people make fatal errors. And luckily, most smart people are highly error-prone, so this is not a huge stretch.
People can make mistakes for all sorts of reasons. They can make dumb choices due to emotion, or their own blind spots. You can be good at all sorts of things, but still make bad decisions in the moment. And this doesn’t just have to be a case of a normally level-headed person making a sudden rash decision—sometimes, hyper-competence can be its own downfall, because you can actually be too cautious or in control. Also, being excellent at many things tends to make one overconfident.
To get personal and a bit self-promotey for a second, there are parts of my novel, All the Birds in the Sky, where the drama would have been massively heightened if my characters were just a bit dumber. If they were less good at handling themselves, or if they were slightly easier to manipulate. I toyed with pushing them in that direction—but every time I did, it felt like I was going against the grain. My witch character, Patricia, and my mad scientist character, Laurence, get to be the protagonists of the story in part because they’re among the best at what they each do. And they’re clever people. But then I found that because I had avoided making my heroes too easily confused or duped, I was even more able to torture them in other ways—and it was that much more emotionally wrenching when they made horrible, totally avoidable mistakes.
Most people are bad at some stuff
Also, there is not a simple X-Y axis between super-competent and incompetent. Most people are good at some things and bad at others. To pick on this week’s shibboleth, The Force Awakens makes a big deal out of the fact that Rey is bad at shooting a blaster, and never quite gets the hang of it. She’s also not particularly great at negotiating with Simon Pegg.
You can also make people miss the obvious, while being hyper-aware of stuff that everybody else has missed. You can leverage their goodness at certain skillsets and not at others by showing how their blindspots lead them into trouble.One easy way to make someone believably competent is to make sure we see them being bad at unrelated stuff—the usual go-to example is cooking. No competent protagonist knows how to cook, except for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. But it could also be singing, driving a car, or sex. As long as they’re bad at something unrelated to the plot, we can forgive them being abnormally good at their main skill.
You can also create a team of people, who together add up to one competent person. This is what a lot of procedurals seem to do, and it’s also a thing in superhero comics. That way, there’s plenty of flaws and mistakes to go around, but the group self-corrects because each member has one core ability that compensates for the weaknesses of the other members.
Also, unlike wizards and giant robots, competent people exist in real life. There really are people who are better at computers, or surgery, or rockets, than pretty much everybody else. These people are out there, and you can study them, albeit maybe not up close. There are habits of thought, and ways of preparing, that go along with being really good at stuff—not saying that it’s a personality type, or that all smart characters need to be socially awkward or emotionally shut down, but that there really are people in the world who are reasonably deft.
And finally, the most important secret of making characters into living, breathing people whom the audience can care about is just making sure they have enough of all the other stuff that characters need. Make sure they want something. Don’t let them all talk the exact same way. Give them memorable characteristics unrelated to their plot utility. Make sure you’re picking the main character who has the most at stake. And so on.
But anyway, once you’ve got a believable character who’s also absurdly smart and good at what they’re doing, then you can get down to torturing him or her properly. And that’s where the fun begins!