Competence in fiction

There are a lot of ensemble things on television these days, it seems to be the USA network‘s “thing” (or was, I don’t know, I watch old programmes on Netflix and mysoju). One that I have actually had a lot of problems with is Bones. My issues with it are more that the writing is very inconsistent and that the characters’ behaviour makes it seem like the show had a huge amount of unevenly skilled writers who basically wrote this thing on a roulette system.

But one thing I have noticed and feel I must point out in order to exonerate the show to myself is that it has not, as far as I have seen (only Season 3, I think) used incompetence on the part of the team as a storytelling device.

Think about it. This is a pretty common trope for building suspense. Say that the story you’re reading is about an insertion team. They argue constantly, disobey orders from their coordinator/leader, and actually botch their mission through lack of skill. For example, the hacker fails to break into the system, or the spy is discovered. The martial artist is beaten or shot. They only end up getting out alive with what they went in for because they get saved by an outside force (Mysterious Stranger) or their coordinator (read: Babysitter).

This is not an impressive team that I want to follow through cool adventures. Especially if the whole point is to be cool, not comedic or stupid.

Bones never did that. That’s rather wonderful. Even though sometimes the writers clearly have no idea what they’re talking about, the characters are never INTENDED to be incompetent or lacking in a professional capacity.

I much prefer competent characters whose story’s suspense is founded in external threats, puzzling twists, and emotional conflict. There are having flaws and then there is looking like the character does not deserve his or her job or reputation. I hate Informed Abilities. They’re annoying.

Certainly, incompetence has its place in stories. It’s funny. Someone being forced to do something they aren’t good at can even be upsetting or heart-warming (even if they don’t succeed at it the way one might like) and screwing up is a great way to build tension.

Everything going right is not the best way to tell a story either. But there are definitely better ways to embroil your characters neck-deep in trouble without putting them there via their own incompetence.

I think what I mostly mean is that it’s stupid to establish a character as a brilliant singer and then show them booed off a stage. Just to garner sympathy. If they’re good at something, let them be good at it. There’s a difference between not being good enough for a situation, and not actually being as good as the audience was told to expect.

This is especially bad when it happens right away.


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