Writing Hyper Competent Characters...

Pentagon

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#1
competent-characters.png


Hello,

Whilst creating X characters, it made logical sense that X characters were VERY competent in their fields.

This has been somewhat built up on, to the point of Aliens referring to them as a human technocracy, whilst the Aliens are a democracy.

The issue, is up to now, I've taken for granted that x, y, z characters are super good at whatever they're doing.

I'm not so much worried about my protagonists, as they are suitably flawed, you obviously have to try and avoid having a story full of Mary-Sues. To me, having characters that are specialised, rather than all round great works. BUT- if you're trying to show not tell, does anyone have any advise on how to show characters as great, rather than just saying X was great at bla bla.

Much love,

The Real Pentagon
 
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Jo Zebedee

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#2
Get great beta readers, and look for specialist in your subject. I wrote a load of military types and I know nothing whatsoever about the military. A Chronner here did, though, being a major in the US army and he saved me many, many blushes.
Oh, and research. :D
 
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#3
You can demonstrate them being competent with focused acts of exposition (as Jo suggests), or you signify that they are competent by the way other characters defer to them or talk about them.

"Do you think she's right about the flooding?"
"Of course she's right! When hasn't she been dead on right in the last twelve years? Why are you even asking?"


I would assume that most SF professionals are going to be doing things that my 2018 self would be unable to really follow, so I'd prefer to know that they are executing the technical minutia of their jobs by being told that rather than trying to figure out if the description of their wormhole wrangling sounds better than any other wormhole wrangler's. The main character in Neuromancer is shown doing some competent things and screwing up, but we assume his competence largely because he was sought out for the job.
 

Joshua Jones

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#4
Get great beta readers, and look for specialist in your subject. I wrote a load of military types and I know nothing whatsoever about the military. A Chronner here did, though, being a major in the US army and he saved me many, many blushes.
Oh, and research. :D
This is an incredibly important point; one that I second, highlight, and underscore multiple times. I have no idea what area of competence they have (although you hint at it with "technocracy"), but find someone who is competent in that field to review your work. Even better; consult them from the outset so you don't wind up needing a total rewrite.

What I would do to show the competence/lack of competence is to contrast them in the narrative with someone who isn't. So, if you want to demonstrate that they are competent in an area, introduce them in contrast to someone who is pretending to be competent, or who thinks they are competent but isn't, or what have you. Of course, that only applies if it is an area which is easily visible to others, rather than a more subtle area of ability.

Unfortunately, without some more details, it is tricky to make more definite recommendations. Feel free to PM me if you want.
 
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#5
This is an incredibly important point; one that I second, highlight, and underscore multiple times. I have no idea what area of competence they have (although you hint at it with "technocracy"), but find someone who is competent in that field to review your work. Even better; consult them from the outset so you don't wind up needing a total rewrite.
I would just caution anyone writing SF that if they base everything on 2018 doctrines, they will write a 2018 SF story. A current day soldier knows as much about space combat as a Napoleonic soldier knows about air support. A lot of SF falls flat because it is too heavily based on current day ideas about how things are done. Do we really believe that police, surgeons or accountants will do the same kind of work in 2118 as they do now?
 

Brian G Turner

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#6
Whilst creating X characters, it made logical sense that X characters were VERY competent in their fields.
does anyone have any advise on how to show characters as great
If we're talking about technical professionals, then simply their positions should tell a lot.

For example, if a character were introduced as the chair of a university on a certain subject, then I'd presume this person was quite an expert in their field. You don't even need to think only in terms of famous universities - there are a lot of leading lights across the less well-known ones as well.

Additionally, you can support this through dialogue as other characters refer to or introduce them:

"We have someone named Professor Pentagon coming, from Boulder University."
"Wait... not the Professor Pentagon? He's something of a legend in X research. My postgrad tutor said there wasn't anything Professor Pentagon didn't know about X subject."

That sort of introduction will almost certainly make a reader think that Professor Pentagon is an expert in their field. :)
 

Joshua Jones

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#7
I would just caution anyone writing SF that if they base everything on 2018 doctrines, they will write a 2018 SF story. A current day soldier knows as much about space combat as a Napoleonic soldier knows about air support. A lot of SF falls flat because it is too heavily based on current day ideas about how things are done. Do we really believe that police, surgeons or accountants will do the same kind of work in 2118 as they do now?
That is an excellent point as well, but I think it plays more into the question of how we should use others in our writing process than if we should. Again, it is hard to say anything specific without knowing the field being spoken of, so I will use military as an example, as it has come up a few times.

A member of the present military ought not create the technological advancements for us, but they should be consulted about potential problems with that tech in the field. For example, if a new primary weapon is quieter, more accurate, and more powerful, but is more complicated to use, it is unlikely to be adopted by a military, because there is too much which could go wrong. A military expert could help assess the possible problems and see if a military would actually adopt it. Additionally, with a rough understanding of your universe and proposed tech, they could be invaluable at helping create combat doctrines and identifying holes in your military. We may think it cool to have, say, rotary artillery that can fire three times as quickly, but someone who is familiar with field artillery could help us understand targeting principles and the like, and let us know that it would be impractical for that to be deployed at the fireteam level.

So, what I am suggesting is not for an advisor to create it for you, but for someone in that field to help you think through issues which you may be blind to.

Good point, and thanks for the opportunity to clarify!
 
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#8
That is an excellent point as well, but I think it plays more into the question of how we should use others in our writing process than if we should. Again, it is hard to say anything specific without knowing the field being spoken of, so I will use military as an example, as it has come up a few times.

A member of the present military ought not create the technological advancements for us, but they should be consulted about potential problems with that tech in the field. For example, if a new primary weapon is quieter, more accurate, and more powerful, but is more complicated to use, it is unlikely to be adopted by a military, because there is too much which could go wrong. A military expert could help assess the possible problems and see if a military would actually adopt it. Additionally, with a rough understanding of your universe and proposed tech, they could be invaluable at helping create combat doctrines and identifying holes in your military. We may think it cool to have, say, rotary artillery that can fire three times as quickly, but someone who is familiar with field artillery could help us understand targeting principles and the like, and let us know that it would be impractical for that to be deployed at the fireteam level.

So, what I am suggesting is not for an advisor to create it for you, but for someone in that field to help you think through issues which you may be blind to.

Good point, and thanks for the opportunity to clarify!
I suppose my real "fear" is that writers would start to believe that they should allow experts to limit their imaginations. And I know that isn't what anyone is advocating, but reading many of the SF debunking articles you see posted on the net makes me think that the advice of experts about alternative space drives or exobiology can often be so hidebound that they are actually incorrect.

Speculative fiction should be the creation of novel ideas and then putting those ideas through their paces. That needs to be something the author does 95%, and gets potential conflicts fixed by experts if need be. But I don't think Asimov wrote anything that falls within any sort of real engineering or science, and people seem to appreciate those stories. An AI programmer would likely have some serious problems with the idea of three semantic laws to control robots, but it is a great fiction device to make the stories go.


Another caution with this type of question is that the OP asked for a solution to character introduction problem, and one of the solutions is through expert exposition. And that is a good potential solution, but we are constantly discussing the dangers of exposition and this just creates more.


So I'm not arguing against Jo's post at all - if you are writing a near present day alien invasion story - please do learn more about the military if they are featured in the story. I'm more saying that the solutions to writing problems in SFF should come largely from inside the author's head and writing tools that are more universal. Experts and expert exposition are potential pitfalls when you have other avenues. All that needs to happen is for the reader to be convinced that something is true, not have it proved to them.
 

Jo Zebedee

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#9
Actually the military stuff was in Abendau - a far future Space Opera :D

But I didn’t use the advice to limit what might happen in the future - I used it to understand the mindset of a military leader. That doesn’t change much in the past or future: how to lead follows the same principles.

If I were, however, designing tech in the future I’d want a specialist to run their eyes over it and check for any howlers.
 

Joshua Jones

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#10
I suppose my real "fear" is that writers would start to believe that they should allow experts to limit their imaginations. And I know that isn't what anyone is advocating, but reading many of the SF debunking articles you see posted on the net makes me think that the advice of experts about alternative space drives or exobiology can often be so hidebound that they are actually incorrect.

Speculative fiction should be the creation of novel ideas and then putting those ideas through their paces. That needs to be something the author does 95%, and gets potential conflicts fixed by experts if need be. But I don't think Asimov wrote anything that falls within any sort of real engineering or science, and people seem to appreciate those stories. An AI programmer would likely have some serious problems with the idea of three semantic laws to control robots, but it is a great fiction device to make the stories go.


Another caution with this type of question is that the OP asked for a solution to character introduction problem, and one of the solutions is through expert exposition. And that is a good potential solution, but we are constantly discussing the dangers of exposition and this just creates more.


So I'm not arguing against Jo's post at all - if you are writing a near present day alien invasion story - please do learn more about the military if they are featured in the story. I'm more saying that the solutions to writing problems in SFF should come largely from inside the author's head and writing tools that are more universal. Experts and expert exposition are potential pitfalls when you have other avenues. All that needs to happen is for the reader to be convinced that something is true, not have it proved to them.
I think we agree with one another. I call what you are warning against letting an "expert" write your story, and I agree that we should avoid that. I am more advocating for letting them help you avoid pitfalls, as well as letting you into inside jokes (which I didn't mention before) and other tips is valuable.
 
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#11
Actually the military stuff was in Abendau - a far future Space Opera :D

But I didn’t use the advice to limit what might happen in the future - I used it to understand the mindset of a military leader. That doesn’t change much in the past or future: how to lead follows the same principles.

If I were, however, designing tech in the future I’d want a specialist to run their eyes over it and check for any howlers.
When the US first let gays into the military, my sociology professor was the guy who invented "don't ask, don't tell". It was a compromise between the 70% of Americans (including conservatives) who felt that gays could serve without it being a conflict and the senior military leaders that insisted that homosexuals would destroy good order and discipline. Sometimes, the military mindset is not so clairvoyant.

It is absolutely fantastic to be able to access real people that do stuff. They will bring a ring of truth to written material. But a military historian (or historian of any avocation) can easily document the history of resistance to change in organizations. Even within a military different organizations will have wildly different philosophical approaches to combat, training, discipline, fraternization, etc.

Experts are absolutely great - just keep in mind they don't live in a writer's fictional future but in our recent past.
 

Toby Frost

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#13
Are we talking about people who are theoretical experts - professors, top scientists and so on - or practical experts such as elite pilots, soldiers or explorers?

If they are theoretical experts, then I agree with Brian, in that their very positions will tend to make them seem qualified for the job. It might be an idea to make them talk like experts, too: not to say anything especially complex or ground-breaking for their field, but use a bit of appropriate jargon. Two paleontologists talking might discuss "sauropods", for instance, assuming that they shared the same (fairly low-level) technical knowledge to know what one is.

In terms of practical expertise, I'd try to depict a sort of heightened competence. A few bits of research will often go a long way. A skilled thief in a fantasy story might climb the edge of a wooden staircase, because the floor would creak less there. A trained fighter might strike the throat with the edge of the hand instead of throwing a sprawling punch, and so on.

Two of the most competent-seeming characters I can think of are Jason Bourne from the Bourne films and Walter White from Breaking Bad. To Bourne, causing havoc seems second nature, such as his casual use of a toaster and a magazine to make a timed fire. Walter is more cunning, but there is a real sense of resourcefulness in everything he does.

I would just caution anyone writing SF that if they base everything on 2018 doctrines, they will write a 2018 SF story.
I agree. A certain amount of military SF seems to be "X historical unit but in space", which seems unlikely from the word go unless played for laughs.
 
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#14
does anyone have any advise on how to show characters as great, rather than just saying X was great at bla bla.
You just answered your own question. You show them as being great and the reader will decide they are.

But who cares if a given character fits your definition of "great?" Your reader isn't interested in the characters in the sense that they want to know about them. Your reader comes to you to be entertained by a story that provides them with an emotional experience. The people in the story will have relevance to the reader according to their role in what's happening and how they behave, not their biography.
 

The Big Peat

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#15
I think its possible to overthink this. If they're doing their job and getting great results all the time, it'll be obvious they're competent.

Having other characters go "Wow! Its the Blankety-Blank! He's blanking awesome!" runs the risk of it being an "As you know Jim, we were all trained in this at Hero College..." moment and killing the cool. Or at least for me. I might be being unusually grouchy and pernickety here.

Also, a lot of authors have got away with saying "Mario was the best plumber in the whole world" in their narrative voice and not needing to go any further. Often done in their own thoughts. Bonus marks if done as a catchphrase:

 
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#16
There's been much said here about how to indicate competence in characters without having them do techno babble, which makes sense in reality since hyper competence shows up in people with a broad range of personalities, but in fiction there are still ways to indicate competence and intelligence by the way these characters speak and how they present themselves.

Going by the Big 5 Personality Traits, hyper intelligence correlates with high Openness but not necessarily Conscientiousness.
In your main pic, Einstein made a point of having a messy desk for example. Being able to run a fortune 500 company is more correlated to conscientiousness and wisdom than intelligence - very smart people who aren't up for 100 hour work weeks can, however, still get the most from life by living freely and eccentrically in ways that the rest of society won't support you in if you're not essential for some niche function or other. If you have your hyper competent characters be playful in their interactions with the others you can broadcast their intelligence.
To non experts seeking help from experts, the job is new and exciting and it's only coincidental that they need help to do it from the expert.
To experts, the social interaction with an outsider is new and exciting while the content of their field is well trodden territory.

In the Black Panther movie, the character Shuri exemplifies this.
"I... Is this Wakanda?"
"No, it's Kansas."
Or:
"Shuri, what are these?"
"The real question is WHAT ARE THOSE?!"
And so on. The expert is something of an avatar for their field: if the technology is going to feel welcoming and exciting then its face (the expert) must reflect this.

Similarly, a cold and rational character who cares nothing for the other characters talking to him/treats them like inconvenient insects in the shadow of something terrifying they couldn't possibly understand broadcasts that this plot element is menacing and the protagonists are completely unprepared to fight it.

The protomolecule researchers in The Expanse are a good example of this (great series all round imo).

Hope this helps.
 
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#17
View attachment 45159
BUT- if you're trying to show not tell, does anyone have any advise on how to show characters as great, rather than just saying X was great at bla bla.
1. Think about every day situations & people. How do you find out that somebody has superpowers if none tells you about their mystic features?
- Single mother, 2 kids, very little money, no outside help and kids are doing extremely well. There must be superpowers. How can you find it out?
- Married, happy autistic adult, intelligent & beautyfull wife, happy & good kids, home that works.. What are his superpowers and how you can see them?
- Honest politician. How does she do it? What are her superpowers? What does she do?

2. "Show, don't tell" ==> "do, don't talk" ==> make it happen.

"Kalle was quite youg when he learned to drive car so he could give his mother a lift as a mother's day present."

Versus...

 

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