LB’s been blogging here about creating TV series characters that viewers will want to watch and care about. One of his favorite critics – and a hell of a writer – has her own highly perceptive view of the subject:
by Charlie Jane Anders
We all love characters who are good at what they’re doing. Nobody wants to root for someone who screws up constantly or walks into traps we can see a mile away. But at the same time, it can be hard to love someone who’s too perfect. So how do you make us believe in, and love, a major badass?
So I’ve been working for a couple months on this essay about how to make a character competent and believable/relatable. And with this week’s tempest-in-a-stormtrooper-helmet about whether Rey is somehow TOO competent, this issue became suddenly timely. So here are the thoughts that I was already noodling on for the past several weeks.
The rise of the super(smart) humans
It’s hard to deny that characters in fiction, and especially heroes, have been getting more competent over the past 20 years. There are a few reasons for this trend.
or one thing, pop culture is full of “competence porn”—stories where part of the enjoyment is watching super-clever people solve problems and make decisions. If you consider procedurals (on television) and techno-thrillers (in books) to be competence porn, then this is arguably the most important type of fiction there is.
At the risk of oversimplifying, we are in an age of information overload and technological miracles. We all have access to vastly more data than our ancestors, and can do things with bioinformatics and robotics that would have seemed insane not long ago. Our biggest fantasy is to be the undisputed master of our own creations.
We’re also living in the age of “the smartest man in the room,” the Sherlock Holmes-inspired archetype of the dude who is always 27 jumps ahead of everyone else and is great at everything (except for social skills.) This character is pretty much always a man—but because of his ubiquity, he raises the floor for all other characters, male and female.
And finally, even most casual consumers of pop culture are experienced visitors to imaginary worlds at this point. We’ve all been to Narnia and Westeros enough times to know what to expect. We wouldn’t eat any fucking Turkish delight, because we’re not assclowns. We’ve endlessly dissected the dumb decisions and failures of our imaginary heroes, and we want to identify with people who at least have a level of ball-handling that matches our own familiarity. People complain whenever they figure out key plot information in a story before the characters do….