169 – Character Competence

The Mythcreant Podcast

We talk a lot about character competence, and one of our listeners had to remind us that we’d never really explained what that means. So this week, we explain ourselves. We talk about what competence means, why it’s important, and how competent various characters should be. Since we’re obviously competent ourselves, this should be great, right? RIGHT?

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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.

Show Notes:

Candy and Spinach

Katniss Everdeen

The Riddler


Kylo Ren



Darth Vader

The Iliad






The Joker


Mark Watney

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  1. Fay Onyx

    As I was listening to the discussion of situations where the villain seems incompetent because the hero and villain clash and the villain keeps losing it reminded me of times that has been done well. In those situations the villain maintains their threat level and competence if the villain inflicts a heavy cost onto the heroes.

    One example of this happens in situations where the hero was losing to the villain before a person or thing helped out. It was that person or thing that tipped the balance and allowed the heroes to win, but they lost that person or thing in the process of scraping out a victory (stolen/captured, too damaged/injured to help again within the time frame of the story, etc).

  2. PlasmaMuffin

    When you were talking about the animal companions, it reminded me of the how to train your dragon books. If you haven’t read those, i would highly recommend them, they’re even better than the movie.

  3. Fay Onyx

    Really glad that I suggested this topic as this was a particularly good episode. Thanks!

  4. Bellis

    When a character is said by the narrator or other characters (or, worse, themselves) to be competent at a specific task but it is never actually shown, I call that “informed ability” (probably from tv tropes). As a minor and in this case totally forgivable example: Harry Potter is said to be reasonably good at school – except that when we actually see him in class, he can nearly never answer a teachers’ question.

    One cautionary tale of why not to tell instead of show, especially when it’s about character competence: Neelix. There are a few episodes in Star Trek: Voyager that begin with the captain’s log literally telling us as a voiceover that Neelix had actually achieved something competent.

    His job is guide, because he is the only one on the entire ship who knows the area of space they’re in. His backstory is that he survived alone in a small broken-down ship for a long-ish time, foraging, travelling and trading a lot, as well as hiding. He SHOULD be competent! But I can literally not remember him being shown that way.

    Even (especially) when he has to do tasks on screen that are exactly what he claims to be good at. He gets redshirts killed while foraging for edibles. The self-proclaimed coward ignores several warnings in order to walk into a trap that loses him his lungs. But when he actually helps set up an important meeting for the captain, we’re told in a voiceover that is super easy to miss!

    I will never get over Neelix, sorry. I love Voyager, and I think Neelix could have had potential, but they needed to show him to be competent to be sympathetic (they also made him unsympathetic in numerous other ways, too…) and to even deserve a place on the ship, which they failed to do. I didn’t even find him funny, at all. YMMV on that one, but they could have made him tolerable even for someone who doesn’t like his humour, if he’d been occasionally helpful.

    • Cay Reet

      A current example is the difference between the book versions of Artemis Fowl and Butler and the movie versions.

      The book doesn’t just tell us that Artemis is a genius – it shows us the mastermind he is, who is almost always steps ahead of everyone else and is prepared to work hard to solve a problem, no matter what it takes. The movie tells us that Artemis is a genius, but everything basically falls into his lap.

      The book suggests with small details that Butler is a very competent bodyguard and gives us his complete badassery when he’s going toe to toe with a troll and wins. The movie thells us he’s a badass, but never shows him fighting on his own.

      That’s a classic problem with show, don’t tell. Don’t tell us people are geniuses or badasses or competent survivors, show us that they are.

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