Apr 22 2010

Pet Peeve: Unprepared Characters That Should Know Better

I hate it when characters that are experienced and/or (supposedly) competent fail to plan ahead.

1.  Does the character try to plan for the superpowers and capabilities of their opponents? On Heroes, allegedly competent and well-equipped organizations routinely stumbled into slaughterfests because they used SWAT-style raids to try to overrun targets with crazy powers.  Let me lay this out right now: any plan that involves close-range combat with somebody that can outrun a fighter jet or stop time is idiotic!  As soon as the target sees anything, (s)he turns on his/her superpower and everybody else dies.  A better plan would be something like killing the target by long-range, perhaps by sniper rifle or bombing the house while the target is asleep.   Alternately, you could interfere with the character’s ability to use his powers.  (On Heroes, it is amazing how rarely the Company uses the power-nullifying Haitian).

Here’s how The Losers dealt with a hotel room that was vulnerable to planted microphones.

2. What do the characters do when things go wrong?  Do they characters have any fallback plans if a mission goes to hell?  Any contingency plans?  Regroup points?  One thing I really like about The Losers is that they build safeties into their plans, like putting a sniper on standby in case security gets wise.  (It always does).   In terms of storytelling, I find that an effective way to put the characters in seemingly insurmountable danger and have them escape without using a deus ex machina (a contrived miracle).

3. What do the characters do about what they don’t know? For example, if there’s a new supervillain around, do the heroes try to figure out what powers he has before engaging him or do they just stumble into combat and hope for the best? In one episode of Heroes, Noah believes that his wife is actually a power-stealing serial killer that learned how to shapeshift.  He asks a question that only she and he would know.  When she gives the correct answer, he realizes that the serial killer might have learned how to read minds as well.  So then he asks a question only his wife and daughter would know, and then calls his daughter for the answer.  That’s slick as hell.

4.  If the characters have time to prepare, what do they do with it? Their options are understandably limited if somebody is knocking over a bank right now, but if there is time, hopefully they do something.  Maybe doing cursory reconnaissance to learn what they’re up against.  Maybe studying old fight footage.  Maybe planning some escape routes.  Maybe preparing some gadgets or tools that will be well-suited to the situation.  Heck, even kiddie villains like Team Rocket sometimes use lightning-proof stuff to capture Pikachu.  If your heroes and/or villains are less competent than villains that routinely get beaten by a middle school dropout and his magical rat, maybe they should look for a different line of work.

5.  Some exceptions to the above.

  • The heroes are not particularly well-trained/experienced/competent.  It makes sense if somebody like Peter Parker or another student-turned-superhero isn’t quite as professional about his work as somebody like ex-commando Frank Castle.
  • The hero is impulsive.  If so, please have him pay for it in-story.  Maybe he blunders into something or is caught off-guard by a better prepared opponent at some point.  If the character is impulsive but nothing ever comes of it, his opponents are probably idiots.
  • Maybe a hero prepares against something but gets nailed by something else.  For example, in the Kickass movie, Big Daddy takes down the security cameras at a mob building but still gets caught on film by a camera planted by a third party.  At least he tried.

PS:  Here’s my obligatory Batman reference.  He carries a chunk of Kryptonite around, “just in case.” Now THAT is a contingency plan.

11 responses so far

11 Responses to “Pet Peeve: Unprepared Characters That Should Know Better”

  1. Contra Gloveon 23 Apr 2010 at 5:44 am

    Leave it to Batman to always be prepared. 🙂

  2. B. Macon 23 Apr 2010 at 11:52 am

    Not just prepared — crazy prepared.

  3. Contra Gloveon 23 Apr 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Aah, I see! How could I have missed that? 🙂

  4. Koveon 23 Apr 2010 at 9:47 pm

    What if we’re dealing with characters who are completely inexperienced at fighting bad guys? they wouldn’t have the slightest idea as to how to prepare for certain things, I mean, a basic plan of attack is one thing, but for a time, the group wouldn’t even know that the need for a contingency plan existed. How can I make this work in a story with out the heroes seeming completely inept? I mean, of course they will learn over time, but in the beginning, there’s no telling how horrible they would be at being a hero. Any suggestions?

  5. B. Macon 23 Apr 2010 at 10:23 pm

    If the characters are inexperienced, I think readers won’t find them incompetent for making rookie mistakes… Especially if they’re young. And especially if they get better over time.

    Losses/setbacks are usually not a problem, as long as the character(s) do not come off as total idiots. If your readers wonder “Oh God, how come he couldn’t see THAT coming,” then you might have a problem. 😉

  6. Tomon 24 Apr 2010 at 7:39 am

    Interesting pet peeve. My pet peeve is when people say ‘less’ when they should have said ‘fewer’.

  7. bretton 24 Apr 2010 at 8:58 am

    lot of hate for Heroes b.mac? lol

  8. B. Macon 24 Apr 2010 at 9:07 am

    I have a love-hate relationship with Heroes. I pointed out one of the things that bothers me (the incompetence of The Company, particularly with regards to the heavily plot-armored Sylar) in #1, but I also pointed out one of the things that I really liked about Heroes (the Noah-Sylar conflict) in #3. That’s far more than Pokemon has ever gotten from me. 😉

  9. B. Macon 24 Apr 2010 at 9:22 am

    I have two major pet peeves at the moment. The first is when people ask me to numerically grade their writing. (I work in an industry where 99.9% of submissions get rejected, so I think it’s safe to say I see a lot more ratings in the 1-3 range than 7+). Since I think a rating of less than 5 would be needlessly depressing and a rating of five or higher would probably be false encouragement, I hate giving out ratings. If (I think) your writing is good enough to publish, I’ll let you know. If it’s not, getting a number would probably discourage you.

    The second is when authors make excuses for why their writing is riddled with typos, usually something like “but it’ll be fine when I take the time to do it right for publishers.” If you’re ever in a position to say something like that to prospective reviewers, please think about the message that would send to people that might have wanted to help you. “Well, see, I could have actually gotten this right if I had wanted to, but I didn’t. Review my story anyway!”

    Also, I don’t think clean writing takes all that much more time for a polished writer. If a writer practices spelling and grammar enough, it should become instinctive and practically instantaneous.

  10. Lighting Manon 24 Apr 2010 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for the great article, I’ve been meaning to get your advice on having two people equally prepared face-off against each other without seeming like something from the Princess Bride (“But it’s so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you: are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet or his enemy’s? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet…”) and this has given me a few ideas on how to appropriately implement it, by using character traits to allow for blind spots which the other can exploit, without either failing to be an appropriate equal.

    I definitely agree about the poor grammar and spelling issue, it is particularly trouble as many non-I.E browsers come with a spell checker automatically integrated, not to mention the above-average spell checker that comes with Microsoft Windows, which is often a necessity for any kind of student, and many workers. so it often times comes across as if they are blatantly ignoring the persistent red underscored words that they have to see with each “teh” and “iz” as they type. I am far from a perfect typist but I generally try to put enough care into every thing I type so that the composition itself won’t haunt me at night, just the content.

  11. B. Macon 24 Apr 2010 at 7:50 pm

    Yeah, I don’t care about perfection. Hell, in terms of helping people online, I wouldn’t even have a problem with horrendous grammar/spelling/punctuation, as long as the writer was working on improving it. But “oh, I’ll do better when I submit” is almost assuredly BS.

    In the industry, I’ve come across some editors and agents that reject at the first typo. But I think the prevailing standard is that a single typo (or perhaps even a few typos) can be forgiven as long as it’s just a slip of the hands or a minor usage issue and not an indication that the author’s grasp of professional English is seriously off.

    For example, I think it’d be pretty minor to confuse two uncommon homophones like hoard/horde or stationary/stationery. An editor can fix that really easily, since the word will probably only come up once or twice. In contrast, confusing “their” with “they’re” or “there” suggests the author will make a LOT of mistakes. Instant rejection. Across the industry, I think the presumption is that an author that will need a lot of proofreading is probably not worth the trouble (unless he has a dynamite track record).

    PS: If you are dyslexic or otherwise unable to get the mechanics down, I would highly recommend getting a proofreader after you’re ready to submit your manuscript. If you don’t know any proofreaders, let me know at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com and we can work something out.

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