Writing Excuses 9.26: Adjusting Character Competence
Key Points: Three sliders: sympathetic, competent, and proactive. Today is competency. Competency makes a character more sympathetic — we like to see “can do” people. But too much competence may make it hard to find conflict. Start low, and show progress, difficulties, and conflicts. Push characters out of the realms where they are competent. If a character is competent over here, and incompetent over there, over there is seen as difficult. Great characters have something you admire about them, an area where they are competent. Heist formula usually has a mixture of competencies working together. Showing other characters failing can demonstrate a character’s competence. To raise the bar, give your character a good antagonist. Show failure! Put them in a new realm. To increase competence, use try-fail cycles. Moving the bar can be a plot, a character arc. Try having the character transfer expertise in another area into this new area.
[Mary] Season nine, episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Adjusting Character Competence.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we are totally that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard. And I trust Dan on this because…
[Mary] He is competent.
[Howard] Wow. How did you convince us of that, Dan? That was amazing.
[Brandon] So. Competence. Character competence. How do you adjust the sliding scale of character competence? This is in reference to previous podcasts we’ve done, so if you haven’t listened to those, go back and listen to them. We are talking about how to make a character more or less competent. My question is, to the podcasters, why would you want to go one direction or the other?
[Mary] Again, this gets into making characters that people want to root for. Sometimes if your character is too competent, it becomes difficult to root for them, or to take any satisfaction in them achieving something. An example of this, I have a friend who has a partial hand. She says that people get amazed when she can open a jar of salsa. She’s like, “But it’s just a jar of salsa.” That other people, you just open a jar of salsa. So that competency slider makes you root for her more when you see her approaching the jar of salsa.
[Brandon] Right. Just naturally. That’s a great metaphor. I would say that with this idea, number one, competence will make a character more sympathetic to an extent. But pulling down the competence… If you do have your sliders, all three, high, you’re going to have number one a character who can’t grow as much. At least in these areas. And you’re going to have a character then number two that’s going to have a harder time finding any sort of conflict. If you move down one of the slider bars, competence is a great one. If you move down competence, then you can show progress as they become better at something. You can show difficulties because they are not capable of fixing this problem yet. They have to find another way around it. It gives you all sorts of great storytelling conflicts that you can deal with.
[Mary] The other thing…
[Howard] At… Oh. Okay. You know what. I was… We were at… I don’t remember which of Mary’s writing retreats I was at, at Mary’s place, but I was trying to write a horror piece and I said out loud, “I’m trying to find a way to make this character incompetent.” Mary said, “No, no, no, no, no. You’re trying to find a way to push this character outside of the realm in which she is competent.” Because I was writing horror, I realized, “Oh, that’s exactly what I need.” Because some of the worst nightmares that we as human beings who dream have are when we are dreaming and there is a thing that we should be able to do that we just can’t do. That’s kind of terrifying.
[Mary] That’s actually one thing that I… Very close to what I was going to say is, you can demonstrate a character is competent in one area and not competent in another. By demonstrating their competency in one, you know that the character isn’t stupid. So that also means that the area that they are incompetent in, it raises the difficulty level of that area. That’s useful.
[Dan] I love the way that the most recent Bond film played with this. By having Bond go up against a computer programmer as the main villain. So he’s incredibly competent in his area of expertise of shooting things and beating them up, but then he’s up against the guy who can hack into whatever he wants and so the story then becomes about Bond trying to change the playing field to one that suits him better and… Very well done.
[Brandon] It’s an excellent way to take a character who is hyper-competent and still give them these vulnerabilities we talked about in the last podcast that will make them sympathetic. I love this idea in particular. It really is… When we talk about moving the competency bar up and down, really what we’re talking about is moving some areas down. Really every great character will have something you admire about them. Even if… When we did this first… The podcast on this, I mentioned Samwise Gamgee as someone who had sympathy, but not competence and not proactivity. Well, that’s not 100% true. He had sympathy bars way to the top. His competency is down, except in one area. He is loyal. He is extremely competent in his little realm, he’s just completely outside of the realm.
[Howard] He’s a really good gardener.
[Brandon] He’s a really good gardener. He’s a really good friend. He’s incredibly loyal. He has some of these competencies. It’s just when you compare him to Gandalf and Aragorn and some of these people, he has no competency in the realm that he’s in. But having these little ones that he can do, the things that Sam can do, make us like him and work really well.
[Mary] A lot of times, having an everyman character like that is someone that is easier for the audience to relate to. Sometimes even if they’re not your main character, they can be the viewpoint character, the character through which you enter the story. In film, this often works sometimes better, or theater. But it’s the character you’re like, “Oh, that’s what I would be like on this. I would like to be like those other people…”
[Brandon] But this is the person I like to be.
[Mary] This is the person… Yeah.
[Dan] Another where… Another… Excuse me. Another place where you can see people playing with different levels of competence is in the heist formula. Where you have five different levels. Super competent in one area, and then not competent anywhere else, and they have to work together. Most quest books are the same.
[Brandon] This is why I love the movie Sneakers which I often bring out as my favorite heist story because they’re all hyper competent in one area and then they’re often buffoons in a lot of other areas…
[Dan] In every other area.
[Brandon] And it makes them funny and fun and they have to like arrange their competencies to work really well. It’s great when you can do this.
[Howard] Well, there’s that moment where… Was it Robert Redford’s character was blindfolded, in the van, and he says, “I hear a cocktail party? I hear a cocktail party.” The guys are like, “What are you talking about, you hear a cocktail party? It’s a gaggle of geese.” The blind guy who is listening on the headphones says, “We’ll make a blind person out of you yet.” You identified what you were hearing well enough to be, in the blind guy’s eyes, an honorary blind guy. Really neat moment.
[Brandon] It was one of my… That’s my favorite moment of the whole film, is where they are describing where he went by the sounds.
[Mary] That’s another thing that you can do to demonstrate a character’s competency is show other characters fail. A lot of times when you’re dealing with trying to… Especially if you’re dealing with trying to establish competency in something that you have made up, like magic or anything else, we don’t know how hard this is. Unless we see somebody else try and fail, and then you step in and your character succeeds, you’re like, “Oh. I guess you’re good at that.”
[Brandon] Exactly. No, this is perfect. You see this a lot.
[Howard] That’s one of the places where a lot of people who are building in writing genre fiction settings will get it wrong. They try and say, “He grunted and strained and then cast the spell and everything was okay.” We’re like, “Well, okay. I don’t know how hard that was. I saw you making the faces of exertion, but I don’t really understand because I don’t know… I don’t know what incompetence looks like. I don’t know what failure looks like.”
[Brandon] This happens in the Matrix where fighting an Agent is not something you can do. They show Trinity fighting an Agent and failing. They show how hard this is. They show… Then when the moment when Neo has to fight the Agent, you’re like, “This is impossible. I have seen the whole movie, them trying to do this and not being capable of doing it.”
[Dan] We talked in the past about how Indiana Jones is a character who’s very proactive, but not super competent. At the end of the third movie, they do this where he’s going through the series of tests and traps and they’re very careful of always having somebody else go first…
[Brandon] And die.
[Dan] Through each trap and they die and something horrible happens. Then we get a moment of competence from Indiana Jones being smart enough to figure out a way around it.
[Brandon] But once again it’s the Jackie Chan thing where he’s… You get the sense that he’s always right at the edge of his ability, and maybe one step past it. It’s only dumb luck that sometimes gets him through it.
[Howard] That was also accomplished with…
[Dan] Dumb luck and…
[Mary] He is…
[Dan] One of his competencies is adapting to an unfamiliar situation.
[Mary] He is a darn good archaeologist. I mean, like his knowledge of history…
[Brandon] That’s true.
[Mary] Is really good [garbled] languages.
[Howard] In order to cast it in a way that we felt tension, we have him going through it at the same time his father is dying and remembering these pages from the notes and trying to puzzle through this and is very concerned that his son is just not smart enough to figure this next one out.
[Mary] Well, you also see the effort that Indiana is going through. That’s another thing when you’re showing an area of competency, particularly for something that is cerebral. That actually watching someone go through the steps will lower the competency bar in some way because you see the amount of effort. Whereas if you just have someone… Dr. Who does this all the time, and Sherlock Holmes… Where he just looks at it and he announces the solution. You don’t see the steps. That raises the competency bar, but it also makes it a little harder to relate to.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan. You have Republic of Thieves that you were going to promo.
[Dan] Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch is a wonderful example of how an author is playing with competency of these different characters. The series… It’s the third in the Gentleman Bastard series, which is basically heist movies in a fantasy world. The characters are very good. We’ve seen them in two other books being brilliant. In this one, what he does is, first of all he’s telling two different stories at the same time, jumping back and forth between the present day when they’re very, very good at their job and then in the past when they still weren’t very good yet and they’re figuring it out. So you get to see that contrast of competency. Then he kicks it up further. We’ve been waiting three books now for Sabbatha to appear. She is always rumored, she is this almost mythological person from their past. When she shows up, Scott Lynch hits it out of the park with her. She is an absolutely amazing character. The battle of minds between her and Locke is just stellar. A fantastic competent thieves outdoing each other in layers upon layers of battle. Very good book. It’s probably my favorite in the series.
[Brandon] Excellent. Now this does come with a content warning.
[Dan] A very strong content warning.
[Howard] Strong, strong. Audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Start a 30-day free trial membership and get book 3 of the Gentleman Bastards series, The Republic of Thieves, narrated by Michael Page and written by the reasonably competent Scott Lynch.
[Brandon] So. Let’s get back to this. We are trying to move our bar up. You have found that your character is just getting through things too easily, and you want to move their competence down a bit without making them unsympathetic. What can they… What can the author do?
[Dan] Okay. One first thing to do is to make sure you give them an antagonist who is up at their level. So they are picking on someone their own size.
[Dan] A good example is the TV show… I guess I should say the TV, but the Netflix show House of Cards. The main character is competent to the point that he’s not interesting, and then in the latter half of the second season, they give him an antagonist who is a match for him. Suddenly the stakes matter again, and the character’s cool.
[Howard] That was the whole point of Sherlock and Moriarity.
[Brandon] The whole point of Moriarity. Yeah. The whole point of Moriarity is to do this.
[Mary] What that does is it introduces the risk of failure. That, I think, is one of the key things to introduce showing… Either demonstrating by having somebody else fail, but having them fail or almost fail or making it clear what will happen if they fail. But making the potential for failure present.
[Howard] One that I like is for us to take… For the character to do a thing we’ve seen them do before and do it the way they’ve done it before looking supremely confident, and we pull back and we realize you’ve just made things disastrously worse. Because now what we see is the level of competence that you’ve been exercising really isn’t in fact up to this task. I think that’s a great way to raise the stakes.
[Brandon] Or you can take something they’re good at doing and when they do it in this new realm, it doesn’t work anymore. It’s no longer good enough. I am… You see this a lot in the archetype of for instance I am a really great… I’m Earth’s greatest football player. You go play space football and suddenly Earth’s greatest football player is nothing among the space football players.
[Mary] This is like the… All of the dance movies where… Or the ice-skating movies where the hockey player gets paired with the… All of these are following that exact thing. In fact, if you actually want to watch this arc… Strangely… One of my favorite TV shows is actually Dancing with the Stars because it takes people who are at the top of their game in whatever their field is in it puts them in something that they suck at. Watching them attempt to gain competency is an interesting journey. And also pretty costumes and dancing.
[Brandon] Now what about the other direction? You want to make a character more competent in their area. You want to show them being competent, but you don’t want to turn them into a Mary Sue.
[Mary] That’s what the try-fail cycle is for. A lot of it is the… Seeing them exert the effort, and then improve. Then they exert the effort, they still fail, but they improve. The third time or whatever, you actually nail it. That’s one way to demonstrate… If you want to raise it during the course of the thing.
[Brandon] I should mention that just like the other bar, and we will see this with the third bar as well, moving the bar is a plot. Is an arc, unto itself. If you take… When you take that bar and through the course of a story, you move it one direction or the other, you are creating an arc. The entire epic fantasy quest genre exists… The whole, what we call the eternal apprentice, the farm boy on a quest, exists to take this bar from stage one to stage ten through the course of the series.
[Howard] Let me qualify that statement real quick. If… And I’m going to qualify it by flipping it on its head. If the moving of this bar from the position where it is in the beginning of the story to some other point in the story… If the moving of that bar does not have an arc associated with it, you’re probably not moving the bar correctly.
[Brandon] That’s true. That’s a good point.
[Dan] It occurs to me that one way to reduce a character’s competency is to literally make them too competent for their own good. The example that comes to mind is Westley in the Princess Bride. He beats the swordsman, he beats the giant, he beats Vizzini, he has beaten every challenge. Then he is presented with a challenge which is… He basically is forced to sacrifice himself to save Buttercup. So he just continues being competent and noble and amazing, but then is reduced to a shell for the rest of the story.
[Brandon] Well, that story also works, we should mention, because it is partial… It is satire and humor. Having a hyper competent character doesn… When you’re matching that with these other sorts of bars we haven’t even talked about, you can have a character who’s proactive, competent, and sympathetic because you’re making it all funny and it’s about all of these different things.
[Mary] The other thing about that also is that you know that he had to pay a price for all of those competencies. Although that price happens offstage, you know that it occurred because of how long he’s been gone and because The Dread Pirate Roberts who we’ve heard so much about. You know that there was a price paid for that. Which is another way to make the… You not resent someone being that good is to make that…
[Howard] When we position…
[Brandon] [garbled – sure to make that cost?]
[Howard] I say we… When Goldman positioned Westley’s bar where he did, he did it by positioning the swordman’s and the giant’s bars for us, and the positions of those bars become critical in the final act of the story. That’s part of what’s so brilliant about it.
[Brandon] I really love how that’s… This is a great example of a character whose bars are, for most of the story, are all the way to the top, and still is a great character. It’s an example of me saying you can write stories that these bars are all the way at the top and make it work.
[Mary] Absolutely. The other thing that you can do, I think, is to have your character apply a scale from another area of their life into something that is completely unexpected. One of my favorite moments of that is the Donna Noble character in Dr. Who. There is this moment where they’re going through and there’s these random numbers. The doctor can’t figure out what are they. Donna’s like, “It’s a filing system.” Because she has brought her experience as a temp into this strange alien spaceship and she’s like, “I… If there’s anything I know, it’s filing systems.”
[Brandon] The entire movie Legally Blonde hinges on one of those moments.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go and have a writing prompt which I have come up with. I want you to take a very minor side character in a story you’re working on, and make them hyper competent in something and see how that changes your story. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.