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Why Our Characters Have to be Competent

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 18, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | March 18, 2015 |

We all know about the cliché of the super asshole who is super competent in our fictions. Frankly, a lot of us are getting sick of it anyway. There’s the quote from somewhere around the point when House was becoming completely interminable in which a patient says “you must be a genius, because you’re such an asshole, if you were anything less you’d be fired”. I may be paraphrasing but that’s because trying to find a specific quote about House being an asshole is like looking for a college freshman wearing a specific pair of Uggs.

We’re all really really sick of that character. Every year, television gives us another dozen shows working on the same premise: here’s a character who is an asshole, but like he’s a genius too. If you learned all your knowledge of science from television you’d think that the genes coding for genius are actually the same genes that code for being an anti-social dickhead. Also, you’d be better qualified to chair the Senate Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee than the mannequin we’ve currently got in the seat.

But it’s not just the assholes who are geniuses. It’s also every other character flaw you want to think of. I was watching Brooklyn 99 the other day and realized that Peralta fits the same mold loosely. He’s a completely irresponsible wreck … but he’s a damned good detective. Michael Scott is an emotional hate crime … but he’s a damned good salesman. Go through every show on television, almost every one of them features a primary character who can be described in exactly those terms: [completely negative terrible thing] … but they’re just so damned talented!

I’m not saying I want perfect characters, or characters without flaws, but we’ve got this weird pattern where being fantastic at the job is salvation. We don’t want incompetent characters. We’ll take any flaw you can think of making them terrible dysfunctional horrible people, just so long as they have the upside of being career competent.

It’s a weird pattern. Dustin has written at length about how there are almost no honest depictions of poor people on television, but there are almost as few honest depictions of people that are just plain incompetent, other than as the occasional side character. And most intriguingly, the two lists would end up with a lot of the same entries. Which sounds so Randian that I feel gross just typing it.

Some of that is just comfort food aspect of television. We don’t want to watch incompetent doctors and lawyers, because those would be depressing horror shows. In fact, other than shows that are deeply depressing like Shameless, the shows that feature the incompetents of the world are almost exclusively dark comedies like Always Sunny. And those marry incompetence to assholery so that failure is a reflection of a just universe.

The problem is that means our stories are almost exclusively about the winners, and rarely about normal people, the average sorts who are good people, show up, do their work, and go home at the end of the day. Is it because we want to live vicariously through others, or because we’re looking for justification? We like to think that we’re competent and nice, and by casting those who are damned fantastic at their jobs and successful at it as complete and unrepentantly flawed human beings, we excuse ourselves. We’re not successful because we’re nice. It might be bullshit, but it’s just plausible enough to make us feel better.

We want flawed heroes, but we don’t want incompetent ones.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.