Competence Is Hot, Part Two

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


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.