Why Incompetence Is Something We All Choose

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com, www.SeventhSanctum.com, and Steve’s Tumblr)

Some thoughts for all the people out there that follow me for career and creative advice . . .

Improving our skills and abilities, learning new things, is something we all develop.  Most of us do it consciously, sometimes with a great deal of planning.  It may even obsess some of us as our jobs and lives require us to learn at a rapid pace. However there’s a shadow side to what we choose to become competent in – a choice to learn something means there’s a lot else we choose not to learn at that time.

Every choice to educate ourselves means we’re spending time and resources that aren’t used learn a different subject.  Each competency is paid for in not learning something else. For all you are good at, there’s a large amount of things you don’t know and can’t do, and you chose these “incompetencies” willingly or not.

We probably don’t look at learning as “choosing an incompetency” as a form of defense because there’ so much we don’t know and it scares us.  We’re taught to think only of being good (or acceptable) at something, not bad at something.  We’re taught not to admit failure or lack of ability because we seem weak, but to ignore it or pretend we’re good at everything.

But we have to accept the truth – choosing a competency is also choosing incompetencies. If we accept the we choose our ignorance and lack of ability, we can choose wisely.  If we’ve decided we can’t truly know or learn something, then we’re prepared for that gap in our lives.

We can develop that valuable competency of knowing what we don’t know – and why we don’t know it.

We can bring an innocent attitude to learning so those that know something we do not (that we may choose not to educate ourselves on) can teach us.

We can stop worrying about not knowing.  We’re all fools at one point, so let’s be fools consciously.

Exercise: List ten things you know nothing about that affect your life.  Why didn’t you learn them? What did you learn in their place?

– Steve

Way With Worlds: Heroes and Villains – Incompetence

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So last time I covered the risk of creating Omnicompetent characters – those good-at-everything characters that are hard to believe. Too often we make our heroes and villains omnicompetent, and it’s a warning worth heeding. The Omnicompetent soon end up Omni-unbelievable, distorting the world and making things just seem wrong.

However, there’s a flipside issue I want to address, that of Incompetent heroes and villains. Though I find the former more common than the latter, it’s still an issue with good worldbuilding.

Ever wonder how the hell this person is going to save the world, or how this moron managed to threaten it? Is their stupidity celebrated as a kind of victory? Does the world builder seem to want you to celebrate it?

Welcome to the world of the Incompetents, the dark side to Omnicompetence

A Familiar Tale

You know the story. The hero who manages to save the day despite being stupid/ignorant/etc. The villain with . . . really nothing going for them except they are somehow a threat. Some characters are even portrayed at being so good at what they do because of their stupidity, which is not a trait you want in doctors, programmers, or scientists let alone your hero and their archnemesis.

Sometimes this is played for laughs, which is fine in a comedy – much as an Omnicompetent character can also be played for laughs. In this case it may well fit your focus.

But other times, I think you know what I mean, the characters successes are so outrageous and unbelievable that you really don’t buy them because they are explained by (and not defeated by) their own incompetence. Just as surely as an Omnicompetent character distorts a world, so does a protagonist and/or antagonist who is so dumb you’re not sure they should be allowed to drive, let alone use the Orbital Death Ray.

These sound a bit like the classic Holy Fools, but I have a better name for them . . .

Unholy Fools

In many cases, I think these characters are distorted versions of the classic Holy Fool, characters that seem weird or dumb or foolish, but there is something greater at work. Somehow they succeed despite or even because of what makes them foolish, and yet you wonder how incompetent they are. They’re paradoxes who may be straightforward.

There’s a beloved tradition of these characters. Sometimes their foolishness is a lack of the B.S. others adsorbed. Others think differently. Yet others mess with people to make a point, appearing foolish. Finally some are ambiguous, and that’s the part of the story, making you wonder.

Captain Tylor of the anime series is a great example of a modern Holy Fool, and his very ambiguity is part of the story.  Discworld has several Holy Fools who you later on find are not fools so much as some of their personality traits that seem to be flaws aren’t (not spoiling here).

The Holy Fool, frankly, is a damn hard character to create. If you’re a worldbuilder, you have to understand them inside out when the point is they’re mysterious. If you can do it right more power too you.

However, the Holy Fool sometimes seem to just be the Lucky Dumbasses who are annoying. Let’s call them Unholy Fools.

Thinking Like Children

What we often end up with in these “reverse Omnicompetents,” the Unholy Fools, are often childish characters who succeed for reasons that seem to be dumb luck or their dumbness is somehow a virtue. It’s not that they have a virtue that appears to be dumb (often a classic element of the Holy Fool or Holy semi-Fools), or that they lack a negative complicator, it’s literally they’re just stupid.

This happens in comedies, of course, but can happen in a lot of tales as well. The character who “is just doing their job” or “doesn’t know anything about that, but I know how to punch something” and so on is an Unholy Fool. They succeed supposedly as they’re not smart.

They’re not ambiguous, or differentially smart. There’s not that level of thought put to them.

I think characters like this are popular and easy to fall into as:

  1. They don’t make the readers or gamers feel inadequate.
  2. They thumb their nose at supposedly smart/talented people.
  3. They can be good for a laugh.

Of course after awhile the Unholy Fool here sort of grates on people because they are dumb, their successes aren’t believable, and . . . they don’t have reason to be the way they are. The successful idiot too easily is just another authors pet, verying on Mary Sue/Gary Stu territory.  In fact, I’d say the Unholy Fool is more likely to be a Mary Sue than many Omnicompetent characters.

An, of course, a worldbreaker.  Because, in the end, they’re just successful idiots for no reason

Did You FalL Into The Trap?

So how do you detect you’ve fallen into this trap?

Well first, as noted these Unholy Fools are worldbreakers. If you can’t explain their success, their like-ability, etc. that should set off your worldbuilding alarms. In your gut you probably know it.

Another sign is finding you didn’t think them out as well as you thought. If a character seems to coast, things seem to be “too” good for them despite their flaws, you may have fallen into this trap as well.

Finally, I think Unholy Fools are characters who in their incarnations, appeal only to a subset of people. If you notice some folks dislike a character and you don’t get why, yet others rally to defend them, that may be an indicator.

The best test simply is “can you explain why your character triumphed the way they did”in a manner that works in the world. Te audience may not know (that’s part of the fun with HolyFools) but you need to.

Comes and Goes

It’s odd writing this as I find when I first wrote Way With Worlds I didn’t see many Unholy Fools. Later I noticed quite a few of them popping up, I suspect as they can also be Mary Sues/Gary Stus and they appeal to anti-intellectualism. My guess is these kinds of characters and their appeal come and go with social tends as well.

So perhaps in another decade or two, this may get a laugh as people wonder “oh, who would write that?” But a few decades later . .. well, who knows?

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.