Competence is hot, part two

What do doctors, lawyers, cops, criminals, con artists, private detectives, politicians, spies, hit men, and demon hunters have in common?

It isn’t that they all have lots of book series/television shows about them. Or rather, that’s true, but also a consequence of the core similarity: they all have jobs which make it easy to tell stories about how they work.

For contrast, let’s look at my job. I’m a full-time writer. Could you write half a dozen books, or fill a season of a TV show, about the trials and tribulations of me at work? Castle does not count. Castle is about being a writer Plus Other Things, and those Other Things are the real engine. In reality, a writer’s life generally consists of a lot of time spent staring at the computer screen, or the ceiling when things aren’t going well. The crucial work is happening inside my brain, and you can’t film that, or write about it in any form that’s likely to be compelling. Furthermore, there’s no dramatic conflict inherent in, say, the difficulty I’m currently having deciding how to start the next book of my series. The stakes are low, the obstacles not easily comprehensible by people who aren’t also writers. Result: nobody, myself included, is interested in a story about me and my job.

We are, however, interested in doctors and other such people. Because watching them be good at their jobs? Is cool.

Think of Ocean’s Eleven, or any other caper movie you care to name. We delight in seeing con artists and thieves set up their dominoes, and then delight even more in seeing them scramble to adapt when those dominoes don’t fall as expected — all the while secretly wondering if this apparent “disaster” is just a deeper, more clever part of their original plan. I love watching characters of any stripe call on their resources, summon all their ingenuity and skill, to overcome the obstacles they’re facing . . . because then I get to vicariously experience the pleasure of competence.

Of course, you have to carefully balance that competence against the challenge. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are both so hyper-competent that it’s easy to skew things too far in their favor; I personally am not a fan of the sort of mystery where the Great Detective knows early on who done it, and is only assembling the proof, while the audience waits patiently to have it all explained. That feels patronizing, and robs me of the chance to see the Great Detective stretch him- or herself. This is also why I detest stupid villains — I don’t think much of the heroes, if it’s that easy to overcome the bad guys — and why Chosen One fantasies leave me yawning. I prefer competence to be earned, and then exercised under conditions of real stress.

The inverse of this kind of story doesn’t just leave me yawning; it drives me away on the spot. I have no fondness for tales of bumbling idiots who do everything wrong, yet somehow muddle through to success. Maybe it’s the cynic in me: in most real-life situations, incompetence is rarely a winning strategy, because we don’t have writers pulling strings behind the scenes to make it all come out okay in defiance of all logic. (Most real-life situations. Let’s not drag, oh, say, politics into this.) So I’d rather identify with the character who knows what they’re doing.

And this brings us back around to the previous post. I’m bothered by the sheer predominance of those kinds of images because it’s part and parcel of an environment where the competence of female characters is often overshadowed — often required to be overshadowed — by their sex appeal. Personally, I’m much more interested in the general sort of “hotness” than the specific; regardless of gender, I want to be invited to admire a character, not ogle them. So I want to see evidence that the character knows what they’re doing. Hold the sword like you’re going to stab somebody with it, not like you’re searching for what angle will best display your breasts. Dress like you mean business (and not the kind of business done on street corners at night).

James Bond is sexy because he’s awesome, not because he wanders around all movie in a tiny bathing suit. I want more heroines for whom the same thing is true.

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  1. 1. Chaz Brenchley

    One more example: Hot Fuzz. Why is it such a good comedy? Because he’s really good at his job. It’s a comedy of competence. I am sooo bored with the other thing, comedies of incompetence.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    Chaz — good point! I find those less frustrating than comedies of incompetence . . . but they do still frustrate me, because I want to beat all the other (not so competent) characters over the head. :-)

  3. 3. Mris

    I am fascinated by your assumption that writing is not interesting to read about, because I wholly agree, and yet there are entirely (ENTIRELY!!!) too many stories about writers. In them, however, the writers are almost never writing–or if they are, writing has been imbued with literal magic beyond writing. I think that while doctor characters (cop characters, scientist characters, etc.) can feature very well in competence-centric narratives, when you have a writer as a main character you often have a real-life writer who wanted a main character who would be Something Creative. It makes me wonder what other qualities we have as job assumptions without thinking about it.

    In an early work, I had a magical figure in a secondary world who helped others realize dreams, and in this world he was a nurse, and one of my readers objected and wanted him to be “something bigger”–which offended me greatly at the time, but I think part of what might have been happening there was that my reader had a quality like Competence or Creativity that he associated with nurses, and I was Doing It Wrong.

  4. 4. Marie Brennan

    Mris — I will admit I have a novel (one that might even get published someday) whose protagonist is a writer. But not only has his job been imbued with literal magic, the amount of the story that’s spent on the process of him doing his job is fairly small. It has to be: to show him working, I have to show his work, i.e. the thing he’s working on. And unless I decide to get all internet avant-garde and TARDIS the novel by including links to several drafts of an entire play . . . yeah. I can only tell so many stories at once.

  5. 5. Elias McClellan

    Excellent post. Of all the things that wore thin with me in Robert B. Parker’s novels the worst was the bumbling villians and 2D women that exist to say “golly-gee, you sure are tall, strong and handsome.” And the only two “smart/capable” women, (in four decades, I kid you not) his protag incounters are 1) his GF and 2) his equally-hot-(he describes the degree of her makeup)-lesbian besty.

    KS Robinson wrote some highly competent women in his Mars trilogy. He also blasts (Asian female) stereotypes in the first book, only to turn around and use the SAME stereotypes in that and successive books. And across three books and a gazillion pages, he economically rendered every other female type as well. He gave us a ditzy blond Russian, the fridget rock-hugger-feminist who’s a b15ch but turns a smart about face on all her “radical” views with the LUV of a ~ahem~ good man, too. My favorite was the uber-capable-material woman that HAD to be the villian and HAD to go.

    More recently Jeff Somers did slightly better with “The Electric Church,” still his competent females died at the end like loyal (noble?) savages. Let me take this bullet for you, boss, ’cause golly gee, you’re brave and stuff.

    Good stuff, there.

  6. 6. Marie Brennan

    Elias — makes me wonder whether, if I was FORCED to choose, I’d rather have competent female characters who die, or incompetent ones who live.

    I think I’d choose the former . . . but really, I say screw both patterns.

  7. 7. Wolf Lahti

    One series about a writer that worked is Showtime’s Californication, for which David Duchovy won the Golden Globe. The first season focused on the theft of his latest opus and why he couldn’t do anything about it. I wouldn’t say the character is competent, as he primarily careens from one minor disaster to another as he tries to keep his life together, much less on track.

    Check it out.

  8. 8. Elias McClellan

    In “The Last Tycoon,” Robert De Niro’s studio exec, Monroe Stahr, says, “All writers are children, I’ll make them rich but I won’t give them creative control.”

    I can’t stand F. Scott Fitzgerald enough to read his book and determine if he (or Harold Pinter) wrote the line.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Wolf — never saw that one. Does the plot focus on him writing (with stuff going on around that writing), the way Law & Order focuses on catching and prosecuting criminals? Because that’s the kind of thing I’m thinking of, when I talk about telling stories about somebody’s work.

    Elias — my one experience with Fitzgerald was The Great Gatsby, rammed down my throat at an age when I had no reason to appreciate it; I can’t say I’ve tried him since. :-/

  10. 10. Elias McClellan

    An English prof told me I was remise in only reading TGG, that the racism, anti-semitism and classism is isolated. I read “Tender is the Night,” and wanted to pimp whip both Fitzgerald and the English prof. The book was even more offensive once I realized how exploitative the story is. I cannot stand this man or his dry, elitest prose.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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