In Praise of Incompetence

Critical failure: it happens to everyone.

Never underestimate the value of incompetence. In characters, I mean, not in real life. Try to be good at shit in real life.

But that’s the point: we try to be good at stuff in real life. And we’re not. Not at everything. There’s some stuff you’re good at, and then there’s everything else. Some of it you’re average at, and some of it you downright suck at.

So why, in aspiring writer communities, do I end up reading about so many protagonists who are awesome at everything? It’s not only not realistic, it’s boring.

We want our protagonists to be good at stuff because we want to be good at stuff. But it’s boring to have someone succeed all the time. There’s no struggle. There’s no stakes.

They don’t have to be completely fucking incompetent, because no one wants to read about someone who has to have their ass saved by other, more competent characters all the fucking time.* But they shouldn’t be unrealistically awesome at stuff that they have no reason to be. A woman raised in a nice, normal middle-class family in suburban Canada probably doesn’t know much about handguns. A man whose only driving experience is his daily commute to the office shouldn’t be able to pull off a perfect bootlegger turn when shit goes down.

Clearly, there are exceptions, but the point of exceptions is that they are exceptional. And, yeah, it’s awesome to have exceptional characters. But, one, their exceptional-ness should make sense in some way. Maybe the lady mentioned above can tell a Glock from a Sig Sauer because her grandfather was in the army and retained a love of firearms that he passed on to her. Maybe the driver knows how to do a bootlegger turn without crashing into the trees because his wife once bought him a week-long stunt driving course for their anniversary. There’s some interesting story mileage in those scenarios, but it’s not a given. There’s a reason.

And, two, they shouldn’t be exceptional at everything. Everyone struggles. And they should, because that’s where the story is.

Besides, it’s not very interesting to have someone start out completely bad ass. It’s far more fun to watch someone become that way, through trial and failure and teeth-gritted, balls-to-the-wall effort. It means something then. If it comes too easy, it’s not a story, it’s a foregone conclusion.

Better to have them fail. And then try again. Because that’s what the rest of us do.

*Note that this is my problem with Y:The Last Man, an otherwise interesting series. Yorick is pretty fucking useless, and more interesting characters died repeatedly in order to save him. He might improve, though. I’m not done yet.


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