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Competence Porn

The First Reader hates the term, because it has negative connotations. Competence does not mean perfect. We should all like competent heroes. Take Miles Vorkosigan for instance. He was competent, but far from perfect. 

Last week, I was in Texas (this weekend, I’m in Kentucky. I really need to settle down and spend some time at home one of these days…). I was there for other reasons, but while I was there I had the amazing pleasure of meeting up with most of the North Texas Writers and Shooters Association. It was a bracing experience for the writer in me, since I realized I’d missed the company of writers badly. The chance to talk about all the little details we get into here on the blog, but accompanied by very good food, and stories told by some extremely competent people.

One of those people was JL Curtis, who writes the Grey Man series. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. If you have, you may understand my chuckle when he asked Dorothy Grant and I over dinner ‘why do women like the Grey Man series?’ He figured a grumpy semi-retired veteran with action stories full of loving weapon details was not going to appeal to women, but here he is, with a legion of female fans. Dorothy and I may have looked at each other, looked at him in disbelief, and one of us said ‘because it’s competence porn.’

Some readers – not all, but a good chunk of the kind of readers I like (because I am one) – really enjoy a well-told story full of characters who can do things. But not perfect. They don’t get everything right. They might have to try more than once to get it done. But they never whine, and when they are knocked down they get back up best they can and dust off before diving back into it. It’s an attractive trait, competence. My First Reader, although he’ll protest when he sees this post, is a competent man. I’ll tell a little story. We were headed home with an old truck he’d picked up and when we stopped for gas, it wouldn’t start up again. Now, my beloved is many things but has never claimed to be a mechanic. While I was trying to call AAA with no cell service, he deduced that the battery connection to the battery post was loose and broken. So he walked to the hardware store, came back with a pair of pliers, and a screw. I watched while he got the screw in and snugged up the loose connector and voila! The truck started. I’d have been still trying to figure out how to call AAA in the gas station. I told him later there are few things sexier than watching a man fix things with his hands.

Hence, competence porn. It’s very satisfying to watch people who know what they’re doing. It’s almost as satisfying to read about them. And it can be hilarious to listen to a skilled raconteur tell stories about them. I can’t give you that in person, as I had the pleasure of it, but you should read this.

The trick is writing a competent character who isn’t perfect, and who isn’t perfect in a way that doesn’t make him a broken character. It’s a fine line. I was talking about how I really hated characters who seemed competent, but who had character flaws I find repugnant – that will vary from reader to reader. In my case, the example that leaps to mind are action heroes who fall into bed with every available (and some not) woman, while being a married man. I just don’t like that, but it’s a common thing to find written into action stories, in an ill-advised effort to make the competent man seem like he has flaws. Sorry, no, that flaw makes him a deeply untrustworthy man, not a competent man.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour stories. Although the man didn’t write a lot of variety, he wrote competent men I admired. I wanted one for a mate, and I got one, although he’s going to give me a look when he reads this. But you see, I actually knew cowboys when I was a girl. I’ve known a lot of men and women through my life who just stepped in and did the job when they were called on. And some who weren’t called, they just did what needed doin’ and they would object to my calling them heroic. I know competence when I see it, and when I hear their self-deprecating stories of what other people did, and when I see them shrug it off and get back to the work when they’re praised.

So what makes a story competence porn? And what books do you love that fulfil that criteria?

(Header photo from Pixabay)

103 Comments
  1. *grin* I have to agree that there is nothing sexier than watching a man fix things / work with his hands.

    November 24, 2018
    • No kidding – a man who can fix things? I’m still a bit embarrassed about the crush I had on the car mechanic who took care of my ancient Volvo … never mind about the year and location, and that he was a bit chunky, not handsome and happily married… he could fix things!

      November 24, 2018
  2. Dick Francis and Michael Crichton come to mind as authors who write about characters who are good at their jobs and use their professional skills in unexpected ways to get out of unreasonable situations.

    As a counterexample, over the summer I saw “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” on the big screen and was disappointed, primarily because Richard Dreyfuss’ character was so obviously incompetent. I couldn’t buy him as a utility line worker (his alleged career in the film). As a kid it didn’t bother me, but as an adult I kept thinking, “Whose nephew is this guy that he ever got hired?”

    Thinking back, I see CE3K as a trendsetter in the now-common trope of male leads whose lack of what I would consider basic adult skills is played for laughs throughout the film.

    November 24, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      As long as Dick Francis’ heroes stuck to racing their competence and skills were fun, yes.

      When he started branching out to other professions… not nearly so much. Some of those later books were dire warnings about the perils of assuming you’ve done your research. (Speaking of which — better make a note to run that scene with the dragon and the grenade launcher past the Guns And Stuff expert)

      November 24, 2018
      • OK, I have visions of a dragon with a shoulder-mounted grenade launcher muttering, “Lance this, armor boy!”

        November 24, 2018
        • Hunting Guy #

          Write it.

          I’ll buy it.

          November 24, 2018
        • Mary #

          We look forward to reading that.

          November 24, 2018
  3. I’ll recommend my Hidden Truth Series for readers who enjoy competent heroes accomplishing great things despite overwhelming odds… http://amzn.to/2KAAQ8h

    November 24, 2018
  4. Mark Thompson #

    One of the good things in the Nero Wolfe novels is watching how competently the narrator, Archie Goodwin, handles all kinds of tricky situations: getting someone to come talk to Wolfe, discovering a body and both following the law and protecting Wolfe’s investigation, etc.

    November 24, 2018
    • Mark H. #

      Agreed. I’m just working through the series again and realizing how much work Archie does to get “genius” Wolfe to spend his few minutes (or occasionally few hours) in cogitation to solve the cases. But Archie has no serious flaws, except perhaps his ego.

      Wolfe is flawed by both anger (at having his normal life disturbed) and fear (especially of travel). This would make him intolerable if he weren’t highly competent as a detective, and balanced by his love of food.

      Together their talents and flaws complement each other, and make the series readable and memorable.

      November 26, 2018
      • Ben Yalow #

        And, on a pure side note, the Godwin/Wolfe team is Tuckerized in Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians. As are more real and fictional characters than I’ve been able to identify — but there are lots of them. Identification is much easier if you know foreign languages and puns and strange literary/media references.

        And, of course, all of the characters are competent. And it’s hard to write good mysteries in a universe with magic, but but Garrett pulled it off brilliantly with all of the Lord Darcy stories.

        November 26, 2018
        • TonyT #

          I wish there were more Lord Darcy stories…
          But there’s not the same level of pairing between Lord Darcy and his assistants (including Sean) as there is between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – the interplay and dialogue between them are a big reason why I’ve read all of the stories.

          November 26, 2018
          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

            In case you misunderstood, Lord Darcy worked with the clone of the Godwin/Wolfe team.

            Mind you, Lord Darcy was somewhat a Holmes clones and Lord Darcy was related to the Wolfe clone. IE Sort of the Sherlock & Mycroft relationship.

            Of course, Wolfe could be seen as a clone of Mycroft Holmes.

            November 26, 2018
            • TonyT #

              I’d have to refresh my memory of Too Many Magicians (which is hiding somewhere at home) – but I’ll note that Lord Darcy’s brother wasn’t important in the other stories.

              November 26, 2018
              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

                Technically the Wolfe clone was at most a cousin but you’re correct that he doesn’t show up in later Lord Darcy stories.

                November 26, 2018
              • Ben Yalow #

                And Godwin is a named (in a typical method that Garrett used everyplace in this novel) character, with Wolfe described reasonably well when introduced.

                November 26, 2018
          • snelson134 #

            Note that there are 2 “sequels” by a gentleman named Michael Kurland, with the original characters. They are interesting but not quite as good.

            November 26, 2018
        • Mary #

          Though Too Many Magicians is my least favorite because it’s not a Fair Play Whodunit.

          November 26, 2018
  5. Sandy #

    Indiana Jones, for Pete’s sake!

    November 24, 2018
  6. The novelization of Close Encounters, IIRC, spends a lot of time making Dreyfus’ character be competent, but driven by the alien encounter to do inexplicable things.

    November 24, 2018
  7. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    Part of it is the question of how one becomes competent. Or at least develops the qualities we describe as competent when other people have them. (Me? I’m not anywhere near competent in all the areas that I want to be competent, or am working to be competent.)

    You have to pay attention to a wide range of people, listen well to everyone, figure out who is competent, and weigh their advice and behavior carefully. The really impressive folks are far from only being good only from book work or only from personal experience.

    What does that mean, culturally speaking? These are among the folks who listen to refugees from communist regimes, or to veterans of wars against the communists. They aren’t sparkly eyed ahistoric morons that are supremely confident that the US can become a communist regime without a lot of people ending up dead.

    So, thinking in terms of culture war, they are a target for a certain faction. Promoting the idea that men can never be competent and respectable, except by reflected respect from institutions like academia, makes perfect sense for that faction.

    November 24, 2018
    • mrsizer #

      Part of it is the question of how one becomes competent.

      I recently ran across this in a mil sci-fi book, it sounds authentic: Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.

      November 26, 2018
      • I’ve seen that attributed to Will Rogers.

        November 26, 2018
  8. The movie Apollo 13 … “We have to make this fit into that using only these things.” My favorite scene, followed by — first take off your sock —

    Also there is a NOVA video about fixing the Hubble telescope in 2009.

    Even though there is a cast of thousands each one matters and I think we as a society have lost that idea. Yes, what you do matters intensely.

    November 24, 2018
    • Margaret Ball #

      One of my favorite scenes too! In a favorite movie. You’d think that by now I’d have internalized that the astronauts get back safely every time I watch it, but nooo, I still wind up biting my fingernails towards the end.

      The Martian was a nearly unbroken sequence of similar scenes like this. I expect its success was largely due to competence porn… but while I enjoyed it, I felt that the very plethora of such scenes caused them to lose emotional impact after a while.

      November 24, 2018
      • They worked much better in the book. I felt like the movie drained the tension out of a lot of his life-saving tactics by making it all look easy.

        November 24, 2018
        • Margaret Ball #

          Yes, I think the movie works best if viewed as an illustrated appendix to the book.

          November 24, 2018
          • And Misha’s taxonomy is useful here, too. The Martian is both skilled and virtuous. His virtues include dedication, focus, and courage. At the surface level he looks to be one of the elect in that there are so few astronauts. However, astronauts go through some grueling selection and training processes, so I think that pushes them into the skilled column.

            I read an early snippet of Artemis. The MC looks quite skilled, but in a non-admirable way. I loved the Martian but still haven’t picked up Artemis to read the whole thing because it’s missing that manic, type triple-A, Boy Scout personality of the Martian. I’m sure I’d like Artemis, but it’s not at the top of the list yet.

            Writing an interesting virtuous person is really hard, so it seems to be rare. It’s very exciting when we come across a character who can be both.

            November 24, 2018
    • Uncle Lar #

      That cast of thousands still exists in reality. From the Apollo days, through the Shuttle missions, and now with ISS the ground support personnel take pride in making sure that they have the backs of the astronauts on orbit.
      What’s changed from the movie?
      Nobody smokes on console any more.
      They stopped making us wear ties.
      Hopefully we’ve learned from past mistakes enough not to repeat them.
      Have to say that the movie makes it much easier for me to explain to folks exactly what I did for 25 years with NASA, just watch the movie then I’ll tell you what’s changed. Actually not all that much.

      November 24, 2018
      • Have you seen the Space Brothers near-future JAXA and NASA anime? I liked it a lot, but it felt like there were some in-jokes I was not getting. You might be more aware!

        Excruciating accuracy in their depiction of Florida, to the point that the Crunchyroll viewership kept noting things like “there’s my favorite spot on the beach”. The depiction of NASA engineers was extensive and varied.

        The most embarrassing moment was when I thought one of the real life NASA training facilities was one of the near-future developments! Yup, you can tell I stopped paying enough attention….

        November 26, 2018
      • Mike Houst #

        The problem with neckties is they lost their function, and never gained a new one.

        As I understand the history of neckties, originally their purpose was to be a worn napkin. You put them on for meals and took them off afterwards. then folks started getting fancy with them, and started wearing them sooner before, and longer after, meals to show them off and for bragging rights.

        Somehow they got to being used all the time to cover up the fact that your shirt had buttons; which strikes me as a pretty dumb reason to wear them. and then there’s the whole power color business and photogenic-ness factors.

        Now neckties can make pretty good bandages if made from cotton instead of silk. Silk doesn’t absorb blood very well, and the threads are too slippery to tie well. Cotton and linen don’t have that problem. The major detractor for using ties as bandages is that neckties are some of the worst collectors of bacteria in a man’s apparel, and that goes back to the fact that their best function was the original one, being a worn napkin for food spills.

        November 26, 2018
        • TonyT #

          IIRC, there was also a snob reason:
          Different elite British public schools (= private schools in the US) had different patterned ties, so status signalling become another reason

          November 26, 2018
  9. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

    Like!

    November 24, 2018
  10. I think the biggest challenge with competence porn is to make a protagonist who’s not a Mary Sue. I’ll define Mary Sue as any character (male or female) who enjoys so much favoritism from the author that it destroys suspension of disbelief.

    I think a couple of key things that save a competent protagonist from turning into Mary Sue are a) the competence is in a limited area b) the problems take time to solve and c) the solutions often come with a cost.

    Mary Sue is not just competent–(s)he’s the very best at everything. A good competence protagonist should have a relatively small area of expertise, and that needs to have been earned. (E.g. “I spent twenty years doing this when I lived on Mars.”)

    When problems arise, Mary Sue knocks them down in a paragraph or two. But in a good story, problems should take enough time for other problems to arise. In fact, when the big problem is solved, the story is usually over.

    Mary Sue never pays any price for his/her solutions. (Or the price is trivial.) But a story is far more satisfying (and realistic) when there are difficult tradeoffs.

    And I agree entirely that making Mary Sue into a bad person doesn’t fix anything. In fact, I’d argue that it makes things worse.

    November 24, 2018
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      Mary Sue is probably not a common failure mode for someone who can produce Competence Porn.

      You have information that a Mary Sue is competent because the narrator or another character asserts that it is so.

      You have information from good Competence Porn that someone is competent because you see portions of their problem solving process. It’s the details that are key for that sense of verisimilitude. Okay, depending on the person it is written in, you may only see the information that causes them to think a problem exists, and the actions taken to address it.

      Mary Sue versus Competence Porn is partly a category error. Mary Sue is basically a critical theory that is most valid for certain ways of telling a story. Competence Porn is a genre or flavor that involves problem solving processes.

      A style of storytelling that obscures the problem solving processes, providing only assertions about the outcomes, might lead to such confusion.

      Competence Porn need not be narrow, if the storyteller well establishes the solution of a wide range of problems.

      November 24, 2018
      • Margaret Ball #

        “You have information from good Competence Porn that someone is competent because you see portions of their problem solving process.”

        Part of what makes Peter Grant’s books so much fun!

        November 24, 2018
      • Zsuzsa #

        I think it’s fair to say that characters in Competence Porn don’t tend to fall into Mary Suedom for that reason. I think they can still end up as Mary Sues if the author is too in love with the character and too insistent that the reader needs to love her too.

        November 24, 2018
    • I see the issue as being what is it about the character that allows her or him to succeed. A while back I wrote a post in which I characterized stories into Tales of The Skilled (in which a character succeeds through being good at something) Tales of The Virtuous (in which a character succeeds though holding fast to a virtue like bravery or compassion) and Tales of The Elect (in which a character succeeds by some outside force or destiny.)

      Indiana Jones wins through his skills. He exhibited bravery and fortitude, but it was his understanding of archeology and legends that allowed him to a) find the Ark and b) survive the opening of it. Without his knowledge all the guts in the world would have meant nothing.

      In the first Star Wars, Luke is a skilled pilot, but it was his faith that let him destroy the Death Star–he chose to trust the Force rather than his targeting computer at the critical moment.

      And Harry Potter, for all his positive qualities (there must be some, right? People love the character for some reason) wins at the end due to something that his mother did when he was an infant. Without that, he could never have stood up to Whats-His-Face.

      November 24, 2018
      • Margaret Ball #

        A useful taxonomy!

        Accounts for the 95% of fantasy that I refuse to read: it’s all Tales of the Elect. (Hmm, and why does that trope dominate a genre that’s currently, at least in trad publishing, dominated by the soi-disant Elect? (looks for tinfoil hat))

        November 24, 2018
        • Mary #

          Tales of the Elect have been popular a long time because the Ancient Prophecy makes an adequate substitute for actual motives and reasons.

          November 24, 2018
          • Bob #

            There is something to be said for a character who is Burdened with Terrible Purpose.

            I re-read some bits of the early Wheel of Time books recently. While I’d gotten bored with the series and didn’t care for the ending, and Rand had become whiny and irritating, the initial books were gripping: a man realizing he is the reincarnation of a cursed hero, doomed to murder his family and friends and wreak untold, world-ending destruction, because the alternative is even worse.

            November 24, 2018
      • Bob #

        What about the argument that you can’t separate Virtue from the Elect? The elect demands or fosters or teaches virtue, and a character who abandons virtue can lose the elect-status.

        November 24, 2018
        • Mary #

          The worse story of the type just have the character win because of the Ancient Prophecy, not because of any virtue. Not even the virtue of humility enough to do stuff he doesn’t get because he knows the direction writers were wiser than he was.

          November 24, 2018
          • Michael Stackpole’s Once a Hero has a great subversion of the prophecy trope: the protagonist had prophecies at his birth that he was going to be a great war leader, so his tribe got him the best trainers in military theory that they could find. (Plus various and assorted weaponry training as well, of course.)

            November 26, 2018
            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

              In David Eddings’ Belgariad/Malloreon, there were two conflicting set of prophecies and none of the characters knew which set would be accurate.

              Oh, the choices of the characters were part of the deciding which set would be the accurate one. 😉

              November 26, 2018
        • I would say that if you can lose it, it’s not election. Which is why I don’t care for “chosen one” stories, there is no sense of moral peril, which is something I consider vital for a thrilling story.

          I don’t want the hero to get eaten by the dragon, but I do want to believe that there is real danger of it happening, that the hero is (as Chesterton said) an edible hero.

          In the same way, I don’t want to hero to succumb to temptation and fall from grace. I want the hero to remain virtuous, but I also want to be feel that he is a damnable hero, that the danger of damnation is real.

          I never felt that about Harry Potter. There were times when it looked as if he could fail, but never fall.

          November 24, 2018
          • Mary #

            “In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero.”

            Dragons would work better, I think.

            November 25, 2018
      • Loyalty based on love. Harry Potter, Snape and Riddle are three types of ambitious, abused, young men each offered the choice between pride and resentment or humility and love. Harry goes all the way in choosing his friends: to love and be loved, even up to being willing to die for them.

        November 26, 2018
    • Except that I know, or have known, a few guys (and maybe a woman or a few) who really were competent at just about everything they tried to do. Not perfect, and it may be that there were things they didn’t try that they wouldn’t have done so well at (or failures I didn’t know about). But I have been amazed at the skill set of a few people — one friend from a fairly young age, too (he was in his early thirties when I met him) AND he’s teaching his (homeschooled) children to be just as competent as he is! I really admire that!

      November 24, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        Yeah. There are a lot of experts of very narrow competence, there are a lot of fools bad at everything, but there do seem to exist people of very very broad and deep competence. And a forty or fifty year old who hasn’t been lazing around can be, in terms of skillset, fairly amazing in the eyes of a teen of no particular accomplishment.

        November 24, 2018
      • Mary #

        Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to make sense.

        November 24, 2018
    • John R. Ellis #

      There are levels of competence, of course. One can’t mix up, say, Miss Marple with Doc Savage.

      TV Tropes and myriad other fan sites have spent several years labeling any and every character who displays even -mild- competence in a work of fiction as a “Mary Sue”, to the point that the term seems to have lost any meaning. I’m old enough to remember when it meant an obvious self insert character of an established setting who canon characters automatically and innately adored/or if the fan author did not like them, despised.

      Now it seems to mean “Any character I don’t like, who ever successfully pulls anything off, EVER.”

      There are levels of competence, of course. One can’t mix up, say, Miss Marple with Doc Savage.

      November 25, 2018
      • Miss Marple and Doc Savage team-up. Yes, that would be hard to pull off, but wow.

        Also, I am pretty sure that Jane Marple could set Doc up with a nice girl to marry, so maybe there are Cosmic Reasons that it could not happen.

        November 26, 2018
    • Mike Houst #

      MacGyver is not a Mary Sue for the simple reason that while he has a solution for everything, all of his solutions are short-lived, have a high risk of failure, and the possibility of dire consequences if they do fail. His super power is obviously suspension of the laws of probability such that his devices fail one second after his successful use of them.

      November 26, 2018
  11. Why did the term ‘competence porn’ catch on? I think we may have a clue in some of the recent and cringe-y shows like Steven Universe and kiddy-lesbian She-Ra. Part of the demand for characters that NPCs can relate to seems to be that those characters are generally incompetent and their victories are handed to them as a reward for their virtue^h^h^h^h^h^h speshul-ness.

    It’s porn because _obviously_ no one is capable of accomplishing anything in real life, amirite?

    Hmm. Fourth generation MLP counts as well, what with the main characters starting off as neurotic messes with an “I win” button.

    Lot of live-action shows where competence is removed to permit more drama, of course. nu-Galactica, Stargate Atlantis and Universe, etc.

    -Albert

    November 24, 2018
    • Luke #

      I recall the term from some thirty years back, mainly used for discussing certain characters of Heinlein, Niven, and the like. A story about Lazarus Long is competence porn. As is a story about Louis Wu.
      But there really was a whole sub-genre of “engineer saves the day” stories that we referred to this way.

      I also recall it being used with respect to Doc Savage, but haven’t had a whole lot of opportunity to familiarize myself.

      .

      I think it’s useful to remember that in the time before internet, teenage boys would go to great lengths to score an old copy of Playboy.
      The denotation of “porn” was at least as much a marker of how strongly young men desired and sought out these types of stories as it was a marker of the competence being gratuitous or titillating. (Although I recall some of Heinlein’s works being fairly pornographic in their own right. “Number of the Beast” comes readily to mind.)

      November 25, 2018
  12. Anything by S.M. Stirling — his protagonists are always highly competent. (As are his villains.)

    November 24, 2018
  13. Uncle Lar #

    I am quite familiar with the Grey Man series by JL.
    Does not surprise me that any sensible female would like the stories because all the women in them are strong competent individuals, not victims or shrinking violets.
    It’s a bit dated now, but one of my favorite action adventure series has always been the Matt Helm books by Donald Hamilton. The books, mind, not those abysmal movies with Dean Martin. Helm and his boss were above all else competent pragmatists, willing to get the job at hand accomplished no matter what the personal cost.

    November 24, 2018
    • Hunting Guy #

      Matt Helm was extremely competent. The following phrase hooked me on the series.

      “Matt Helm is as tough an operative as ever crushed a Russian spy’s kidney with a crowbar.”

      November 24, 2018
      • TRX #

        That ad blurb went back to the 1960s, but the only time Helm ever swung a crowbar at anyone was in “The Demolishers” in 1987…

        November 24, 2018
        • Uncle Lar #

          There are 28 Matt Helm books, 27 written by Donald Hamilton, and one a collection of stories based on references in the books to Helm’s World War II experiences by Keith Wease.
          The first book, Death of a Citizen, was released in 1960.
          Number 27, The Damagers, came out in 1993.
          I’ve always found it interesting how over the course of the series the bad guys morphed from Russia to China to international terrorists, with a strong thread of internal deep state style machinations added for additional conflict.

          November 24, 2018
  14. And yet many writers talk about competent characters as if they’re worthless. As if only vague incompetence is sympathetic to the reader (out of curiousity; how much contempt do English professors have for readers?) I tried to explain the contempt I had for incompetent fully grown men as characters to someone once and they just couldn’t understand. Like I was speaking a different language.

    Essentially if I’m reading about a boy I’m fine with failure, and incompetence, and stupidity, because the general assumption I’m making as a reader is that they will learn and grow and their mistakes is what will help them with that. Because that’s reality; boys are stupid but for a reason (making dumb and painful mistakes generally shortens the learning curve).

    But a grown man? Different standards. They should have been hit so many times by their own mistakes that they can at least slap dash together a reasonable work around or figure something out.

    I was reading a story of a man having an existential crisis because he didn’t have a father and had never been taught how to change a tire so he was standing on the side of the road staring at the tire as his fatherless life flashed before his eyes. The women in the class were sympathetic but I was contemptuous. The tools are in your trunk. They are pretty simple in terms of figuring out how they work. Slot a goes into slot b stuff. Not knowing how to do it? Okay. Not being able to figure it out? Weird but some people aren’t mechanically inclined, I guess. Not trying? Not trying? Not trying? Sorry, I had to repeat that because the concept still astonishes me. How did I learn to change a tire? My dad came home when I was sixteen with a flat and told me to change it and where the tools were. Then he went inside. Half hour later the tire was changed.

    That story was, apparently (and as far as I’m concerned retroactively), an allegory of a boy on the cusp of becoming a teenager. That was not the intention of the author when he wrote it, at least I don’t believe so, it was the spin he put on it when I critiqued him. But no matter what the author said I couldn’t have anything but contempt for the character and, quite frankly, the author himself because it felt like he’d either been in that situation himself or imagined that was the way he would react were he ever in that situation. I could have been wrong but by the affront he took, as if I was insulting him personally, I don’t think I was.

    Steve

    November 24, 2018
    • Oh heck, modern cars come with picture-by-picture instructions on how to change tires. Alas, they also come with [censored]-useless tools with which to loosen the nuts and remove said tire.

      November 24, 2018
      • Luke #

        But first you have to find the parts. Because who doesn’t love a good scavenger hunt on the narrow shoulder of a busy road?

        IIRC, last time the car company had decided to store the jack under the driver’s seat, the jack handle under the hood, and the lug wrench behind a removable panel in the trunk.
        At least it was daytime, and not raining.

        November 25, 2018
      • TonyT #

        That’s why I picked up a Wera 1/2″ drive hammer ratchet for my car – it comes with a cheater bar, and is good to about 600 ft-lbs of force. And the hammer function might come in handy….

        One plus about my current car, an old Mercedes E320 with 215K miles, is that is has a full size spare properly located in the trunk. My previous vehicle (Mazda MPV) had a donut spare hidden UNDER the middle seats – I never wanted to try to use it, and the one time I had a flat, I had help so I was able to take the wheel off instead and get the tire replaced at a close by tire dealer.

        November 25, 2018
  15. Now, in my opinion, you’ve mentioned two things in the post that often come together, but are not necessarily part of the same thing: Someone who is capable of doing things and doing them well is competent, but they don’t all just do something when it needs to be done, and I don’t know what to call that side of the description.

    You see competent-but-not-given-to-diving-in types in fiction more often as side characters, usually with short interaction with the main characters, such as people who build or repair things. They never just jump in and do something, always expecting to be requested and paid, but they are very good at what they do. I don’t want to call the other type of person altruistic, but that’s the closest I can think of.

    November 24, 2018
    • I see three things: knowing what needs to be done, knowing how to do what needs to be done, and taking responsibility to see that it gets done.

      A lone protagonist can have all three of those at once, but a good ensemble cast shares the load. In my opinion the most interesting team leaders are those who can’t do everything themselves and work by assigning the right job to the right person. And interesting team members are those who may sometimes take initiative, but generally wait for a job to be assigned to them.

      A lot of police/military stories take the form of The Big Boss who decides what the mission is–> The Team Leader who figures the strategy–> the specialists who make the mission happen.

      November 24, 2018
    • Clint #

      Misha hit the word I’d use for that: Responsibility.

      It’s the protagonist who differs from the people around him in making the giant leap from “Someone should fix that” to “I’m someone.” It’s the antithesis of “not my job”-ism.

      One of my (many) favorite genres is the coming-of-age story with a kid whose main virtue is this kind of responsibility. He doesn’t start out knowing how to solve the problem, but he keeps at it and learns from his failures. The payoff is becoming a competent adult respected by other competent adults. Some of Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’ are like that.

      November 25, 2018
  16. OldNFO #

    Thanks for the shout out, and I can think of three, Stephen Coonts, Gerry Carroll, and John D. McDonald. All wrote ‘competent’ characters that we also human in their faults/failures.

    November 24, 2018
  17. 23 skidoo

    November 24, 2018
  18. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I’m not happy with my Mary Sue/Competence Porn discussion, so I’m doing a case study.

    Junko Inoue is a generic highschool girl with a good record in several academic subjects, and several athletic sports. She has a clique of other highschool girls talking her up.

    We would develop her as a strong Mary Sue by always asserting that her every action always brings success, complete success, with no other perspective offered. If she swaps out the harddrive of her computer while taking a bath, there are no negative consequences. Mary Sue is more of a critical theory, so we don’t really have concrete objective standards that will let us invariably produce a Mary Sue.

    Competence Porn? Don’t talk about her record, don’t empathize the sycophants as anything but a possible misleading distraction. Academic record and standing are weak evidence of intelligence and intellectual ability, even before the reliability of the person testifying to the reader comes into play. She has a problem, what does she do about it? Perhaps she isn’t bringing up her grades fast enough. More study time? What if the problem is stress? Maybe she needs to take a hit somewhere, and get more breaks in? What makes a break effective, is she doing them in the most effective way? My advice on structure of Competence Porn is based on memories of Doc Smith’s novels and of Old NFO’s snippets. When the area of competence is unusual, authorial ability really helps with making it feel real. Old NFO makes the law enforcement and the piloting feel right. Doc Smith did engineering and machining well.

    Humility was mentioned as a quality of Competence Porn. I think it might not be essential, but is probably recommended, especially for stories set in US cultures. A humble character will let the reader work out for themselves how competent the character is. Which insulates competent readers from incompetent authors, and incompetent readers from competent authors a little. Though, if Junko doesn’t think her accomplishments are all that, we could be establishing other things besides humility. Perfectionism, laziness, or poor self esteem.

    So generic a character could be taken in many different directions.

    November 24, 2018
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      According to wiki, a Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character. Often, this character is recognized as an author insert or wish fulfillment. They can usually perform better at tasks than should be possible given the amount of training or experience, and usually are able through some means to upstage the main protagonist of the story, such as by saving the hero. A male can also be referred to as a Marty Stu, Larry Stu, or Gary Stu, but the name Mary Sue is more commonly used.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue

      To me the key is “They can usually perform better at tasks than should be possible given the amount of training or experience”.

      If your competent character has “in story reasons” for being so good, then your character isn’t a “Mary Sue”.

      November 24, 2018
    • Zsuzsa #

      I would say the “constantly talking her up” is one of the surest paths to Mary Suedom. Make sure you bash the reader over the head over and over again with how awesome she is. Leave no doubt in the reader’s mind how much he is supposed to worship her. Whatever you do, don’t simply let him watch her actions and come to his own conclusions about her.

      November 24, 2018
    • TRX #

      > Doc Smith

      I was about 12 years old when I read Smith’s “Spacehounds of IPC.” The protagonist is one Percival van Schravendyck Stevens, who knew how to do any number of useful things. I thought it was a fine idea, and devoted my early years to doing the same.

      While it has been very useful, I’ve found that a rather large percentage of people get resentful, if not outright angry, when they find out you can do many things. I’ve met, and had the misfortune to work with, a number of people who only knew *one* thing, and actively avoided learning how to do anything else, even when it would have been to their immediate financial benefit.

      Which is one reason I don’t write fiction. *Stuff* I understand. People, on the other hand, make no sense at all most of the time.

      November 24, 2018
      • People I work with all know that I know a great deal about a large number of fields. They don’t all know that I’m skilled or at least don’t hurt myself in several “vocational fields.”

        November 24, 2018
      • I have to say you must have known a lot of terrible people. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who ever got angry with me for knowing how to do many different things. Most of the people I grew up with were multi-competent, at least the adults, largely because they needed to be, because they either didn’t want or could not afford to pay others for everything that needed to be done.

        November 24, 2018
      • “While it has been very useful, I’ve found that a rather large percentage of people get resentful, if not outright angry, when they find out you can do many things.”

        Don’t they? That’s what I said up above.

        November 24, 2018
        • Mary #

          Which can be useful when you want your character to have problems — they don’t get help they need or even are entitled to because of such spite.

          Of course, there are those who take this spite as proof of Mary Sue dom.

          November 24, 2018
      • Mary #

        When forced to admit that a child at school is better at school stuff, some adults try to insist that the other children can be [are] good at other stuff, with the implied premise that the studious child can’t be. It has to be zero sum or else they would have to admit that it’s not equal or something.

        November 24, 2018
      • BobtheRegisterredFool #

        My early desire to know how to do everything was more Swiss Family Robinson. IPC was something from later in life.

        November 24, 2018
  19. David Weber (the earlier work) is competence uber alles. Honor Harrington is all about being the best officer in history, and bearing the cost of that.

    Some people are so competent at so many things it pisses other people off. I experience this all the time. There’s not a lot I can’t do, build, or make. This casual ability to know what to do is -massively- irritating to certain kinds of individuals, they just can’t stand it.

    Obviously I have my limitations, largely social. Also I don’t do yarns and fabrics, its out of my sandbox. I can manage a tarp or canvasing a boat, because that’s building things.

    In my writing I have a post-human character. He’s so good at everything its ridiculous. He can do literally anything. His problem is creativity. He can’t create new ideas and new paradigms of thought any quicker or better than anybody else. When you can do -anything-, what do you do? So he has to keep a group of talented people around him to think up shit for him to do.

    From a writer’s perspective, it is difficult to do post-human because I’m not that smart. It takes me a long time to think up a solution to the problem I’ve set the characters. Sometimes I have to write along for weeks while they play and go out to eat and generally avoid the problem, until one of them thinks up the solution.

    Example, the Fermi Paradox. Where is everybody? They need to know, because one of their smart-asses thought up an Alcubierre warp bubble they can actually make. And if they did it, why aren’t there warp ships whipping around all over the place? Maybe there’s a reason that will eat them if they’re not careful. Post human guy can’t think of it by himself. That one took weeks to figure out.

    November 24, 2018
  20. Zsuzsa #

    In my case, the example that leaps to mind are action heroes who fall into bed with every available (and some not) woman, while being a married man. I just don’t like that, but it’s a common thing to find written into action stories, in an ill-advised effort to make the competent man seem like he has flaws.

    May I just say that this strikes me as a very Mary Sue flaw? Sort of the female version of “so beautiful it’s a curse.” “Oh, he’s so sexy that women just keep throwing themselves at him, and he can’t always resist.”

    November 24, 2018
    • Bob #

      There’s a way around that: have the wife/significant other killed off every few stories, giving the hero an excuse for an epic revenge quest, and making him available for more flings.

      Perpetrators include the James Bond stories, Brian Lumley’s Necroscope and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp.

      November 24, 2018
  21. Max #

    I can’t stand incompetent characters who somehow succeed anyway. I only made it through 2 episodes of “The Walking Dead” because of how incompetent the protagonists all were … Yet somehow they kept surviving!

    Something that I like really seeing paired with competent characters is when stories subvert the tropes of “Beauty is never Tarnished” or “Bulletproof fashion plate.” In other words, when the characters don’t just walk off gunshots, scrapes, or even just wear and tear, but get more ground down … And keep going. I love seeing a character actually take their lumps, cuts, and limps, and push through it to succeed anyway.

    Way too many injuries in stories end up feeling like Hollywood injuries, where the hair is perfect and back in place seconds after the fight.

    Give me a competent character that takes their lumps and works through them.

    Naturally, that’s what I end up writing.

    November 24, 2018
    • That’s one of the things I liked about Dick Francis. He’d been a jockey and clearly knew more than most writers about getting injured. When his characters get beatings or take falls and get bruises and broken bones, they get hurt, and stay hurt for days. Yes, they work through the pain, but it’s never trivial or easy.

      November 24, 2018
  22. I think the issue is that too many writers view competence as “not able to create drama,” and they fear that if a character is competent, they can’t be dramatic. And, it’s easier to write stories where your characters are incapable and flawed and unable to handle things.

    This is an issue with the story I’m writing. And, I think I found my solution in that she is competent but does not have context. We learn that context with her, and she steps on her feet enough times to be interesting.

    November 24, 2018
  23. Bob #

    This is all such sexist drivel.

    As the visionaries behind the new Star Wars films have shown us, masculine competency is a relic of a past that we have no use for. Male heroes, particularly heroes of the past generation, must be shown to be failures and losers, all their past accomplishments come to nothing, and they must be killed off in meaningless and humiliating ways.

    Competence is only to be shown by 90-pound girls who manifest surpassing skills out of nowhere, or by purple-haired woman commanders who should be obeyed without question. Also by space Marry Poppinses.

    It’s a brave new world.

    November 24, 2018
    • John R. Ellis #

      So, how -was- the Wreck it Ralph follow-up, where both lead characters have all character development from the 2012 film outright negated, then are made to act a LOT less likable, but the female character is rewarded for wanting to ditch her best friend and responsibilities without telling him or the people she rules, while he’s made to act WAY out of character as the ACTUAL VILLAIN of his own sequel? <_<;

      November 25, 2018
      • Bob #

        See? It’s perfect.

        November 25, 2018
  24. Ben Yalow #

    Most of the characters that John Campbell insisted on in his Golden Age/Silver Age Astoundings tended to be competent. ANd, in the fantasy he bought/printed, the hero usually tended to be competent, rather than the “rightful king” kinds of successes.

    November 24, 2018
  25. Mary #

    I am moved to comment on the Adult Problem.

    YA genre.

    You of course want the youngsters to be movers and shakers in the story. The problem is that in the vast bulk of SF and fantasy, the plot problem is such that any adults worth their salt would have shoved off the kids somewhere safe and done the job themselves. Hence, the adults have to be evil, absent, or incompetent incapable (usually but not always incompetent).

    I’ve seen YA where it’s done well, but it can be very difficult to do the adults in such stories.

    November 24, 2018
    • For myself, I’m perfectly happy for YA stories to be “lesser” stories that essentially fly under the radar of the adults, or else are not seen by them until after the resolution because they are too busy with other things.

      November 24, 2018
      • Mary #

        A lot of YA has plots where that puts the adults in the ‘evil” category because it’s their duty to notice.

        November 25, 2018
    • snelson134 #

      Or you have to set it in a time/place (rural before 1980) where YA age people were expected to be proficient in something other than smartphone, and step up when necessary.

      November 25, 2018
      • Jamie #

        I’d move it to “before 1990.” In the 80s it was common for 11-year-old girls to hang out our shingles as baby-sitters, just like the girls of “The Baby-sitters Club,” which was popular then. We didn’t have 911 for one-stop shopping in an emergency, so the smart girl got a notebook and wrote down the numbers for the fire and police depts. Plus the poison control center (I copied it from a flyer Mom had on the fridge) and the numbers of three local hospitals from the Yellow Pages. If you were proactive like my best friend and me, you took CPR classes and made up a first aid kit. Ten year olds had paper routes on their bikes, like a classmate of mine.

        I grew up in a small town that didn’t have bus service, but city kids were expected to manage bus routes across the city. In fiction I noticed New Yorker kids managed to take the subway. When we visited Grandma in the country, us kids would bring a BB gun for adventures in the woods. Later it was a 12-guage, in case we ran into the feral dogs that killed Grandma’s terrier.

        What amazes me is that we had all of this independence during the height of the Stranger Danger panic, and now I know people who won’t allow their teenagers to stay home alone after school. In my day only a kid with a mental disability would have been so cossetted. I can’t stand to read of such weirdly helpless kids, either. “Stranger Things” nails the “independent kids” aspect of growing up in the 80s; both the kids and the adults are useful and competent.

        November 25, 2018
      • Mary #

        Works for some plots. Not for others. Even something so simple as a kid gets seriously injured while the kids are having adventures in the woods, the story ends when a hale kid gets back to responsible adults and says, “Jack broke his leg in the woods. Jill’s with him.” Then it’s the adults’ problem to get him to the hospital. Adults have to be not near enough to go to, or unwilling or unable to get him to the hospital, to keep the story going.

        And when you ramp up — supervillains running wild — interplanetary war — alien invasion — no amount of young maturity means any decent adult would give the child any amount of responsibility if he had any choice.

        True, Heinlein managed to give his hero a decisive actions as a subordinate in “If This Goes On — “, but most YA can’t pull off that.

        November 25, 2018
    • The Lockwood Files solved that one in a bizzaro way: only kids can perceive ghosts, and the ghosts can kill you with a touch.

      John Flanagan solves the problem over and over again by giving the teens capable mentors who train them well, then having the young folk forced to step up and deal with the situation. As the teens grow in competece, knowledge, and skill, their responsibilities increase. Great books.

      November 26, 2018
      • Mary #

        Oh, there are certainly works that manage it. I particularly like Cloak Society because it manages to hit every single way that adults can leave the work to the youngsters and does them well.

        November 26, 2018
  26. Draven #

    *puppy eyes* you got to hear lawdog stories in person?!?!?!

    November 24, 2018
    • LawDog stories in person are a true treat. Just make certain all drinks and/or other spill-able items are set down and are not consumed during the telling.

      November 25, 2018
  27. Wen Spencer’s “Tinker.” Girl Genius.

    November 26, 2018

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