Writing Excuses 9.26: Adjusting Character Competence

This podcast references episode 9.13 where we introduce a three-slider model for characters.  In this episode we’re talking about how we adjust the reader’s perception of character competence, and why we might want to make the character more or less competent (or seem more or less competent.) We also talk about how competencies vary between domains, and how important it is for our characters to move between those domains.

Techniques discussed include showing failure, giving context, raising the stakes, and having competent antagonists.


Take a very minor side character and make them hyper-competent at something.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch, narrated by Michael Page

9 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 9.26: Adjusting Character Competence”

  1. I love you guys, but I have to disagree on Indie. Yes, like Mary says, he strains a bit to get through the clues and past the traps (and Ford does a great job of showing that), but he always gets his artifact. The problem is he always gets his artifact taken away from him. That’s a thriller trope: the hidden antagonist who knows something you don’t (like I’m waiting to snatch the idol when you dive out of reach of the giant round boulder). He’s incompetent at keeping the stuff he finds and extracts, but he always finds and extracts it. And in the three sequels, he chooses to give the artifact up. Actually, he does that in the first one, too, but not at the end.

  2. Speaking of The Matrix, its third act is a great case study in building up the core competency of the hero. Especially since the plotting runs into a dire conundrum, and it’s solved in a brilliant way.

    To achieve the ultimate goal of defeating the Agents, Neo has to became the One. For maximum drama, this should happen as late as possible. On the other hand, the rescue of Morheus needs to be extremely dangerous and difficult, to raise the stakes for Neo’s (and Trinity’s) decision. Therefore, it has to involve fighting the Agents.

    Consequently, the plotting problem: Neo needs to become the One in order to defeat the Agents, Neo needs to rescue Morpheus in order to become the One, Neo needs to defeat the agents in order to rescue Morpheus. Now what?

    Solution: Becoming the One is a stepwise process.

    Step 0: Neo makes the decision to put his live at risk to save Morpheus

    Step 1: Neo can dodge bullets and thus outfight the Agents with Trinity’s help, and thereby rescue Morpheus

    Step 2: Neo does not have to dodge the bullets any more and can defeat the Agents on his own

    Cutting the climactic battle in this way, and highlighting the difference between steps 1 and 2 with the dogde/not dodge theme is IMHO wonderful storytelling. This theme is well set up by an early dialog between Neo and Morpheus, it’s consequently used in the plotting of the action sequences, and it’s beautifully expressed visually.

  3. This is a great podcast! I was working on a movie (On hiatus, now) and in the script the main character is shown as extremely competent (he’s a professional killer) but when his mother gets sick, he’s completely out of his depth. He can’t just shoot the doctor, and he knows it.

    I pictured this as Superman holding a crying baby. He can move whole planets, but none of that helps him in figuring out what the baby needs.

  4. I just want to say how helpful I’ve found this episode. I’m nearing the end of a book and I realized that I do need to adjust the competency of my characters. :) and a minor character will have a bigger roll in it when I go to start editing tomorrow.

    I want to say, if people are interested in this and heist movies, ya’ll need to watch Leverage. It only has 5 seasons but it has EVERYTHING that’s talked about in this episode. There is a moriarty like character to the Sherlock like character (though less deadly) and the team do have try and fail cycles. They learn from each other and it’s just a really amazing show.

    As a kid. I also watched Sneakers a thousand times. I love that movie and I think I need to have it on while I finish my book. :)

    I also think that one of my River Town Novel’s will be a Heist story. :) I’m practicing by writing fan fic for Leverage. Anyway. Yeah.

    I enjoyed this episode a lot. Thanks for all the help.

  5. @Kara: Seconding “Leverage,” it’s really educational to watch. It’s loaded with tropes and as-required-by-TV shortcuts, but because the premise of the entire series is “team pulls off heists” we get to see the two principal heist formulas (“show us everything and the heist goes south” vs. “hold information back and let us THINK the heist has gone south”) deployed in lots of different ways, and even subverted and morphed nearly beyond recognition.

    Add to that the fact that they’re an ensemble cast in which each character starts the show at the top of his or her game and the top of his or her field, and yes, the sympathy and competency sliders get scooted around a lot.

    I especially liked the finale for Season 1.

  6. Pretty good episode. Just a few minor things…

    In reply to the episode…

    Be careful, though, to not do Inspiration Porn… http://bit.ly/1kehak9
    Disability shouldn’t be used to “inspire” others and I heard some of that being said in the podcast… so be careful that you aren’t making a big deal of the person opening the jar. I side with the person opening the jar in Mary’s Story rather than the people being amazed. It *shouldn’t* be a big deal.

    Indiana Jones isn’t really an Archaeologist. He’s a fictionalized archaeologist who spouts some really horrid archaeology. But then you have to take archaeology in order to figure that out. Archaeology is still a long and frustrating job, according to my archaeology prof. Rewarding, but still long and frustrating.

    How about in over their heads level of competence, thus the underdog model, where Cinderella has to “level up” to get her prince? So the villain is out of reach, and out of their league, and though there is some ground gained, say a carriage, they still can’t quite reach them, until they gain enough ground to finally bring that villain down. High sympathy bar, but they might have basic skills to get to the top of their game.

  7. my main character is the opposite of most. She’s competent of the extreme situations and just a total jackass in the normal, everyday stuff. So when things go horrible she’s the best there is, but when she’s just regular girl she’s the worst person there is. I compare her to Dr. House without the bitterness.
    her partner is the opposite of her, able to handle regular life like a champ but not as well able to handle the extreme situations.

  8. Actually, the point of Moriarty was to give Holmes a good death. Supposedly, Arthur Conan Doyle complained that he was spending too much time with these silly short stories and wanted time to persue serious writing. But he didn’t want to just do a stupid kill, since Holmes is such a competant character. Within a couple of stories of his introduction, the grand finale with Moriarty happens, which I always felt robs us of what could have been the best of Holmes…so much of the original format of Holmes is much like Batman without Joker (and friends) – more intellectual, yes, but similarly outclassing everyone by so great a margin it becomes absurd. The post-Moriarty stories came about because his massive fanbase whined too much – at first he wanted to just give them Hounds of the Baskervilles (which is retconned into the pre-Moriarty timeline), but he ended up coming up with a plausible survival story and writing more Holmes (since writing popular stuff is more profitable than unpopular fancy stuff (Popular fancy stuff is even better, of course, but the point is that popularity is what makes you money; literary significance is for getting awards, lasting fame, etc.)

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