Feb 03 2016

Incompetent Protagonists

Under what circumstances (if any) would it be possible to make a grossly incompetent main character likable and engaging? Are there any cases where making the main character consistently incompetent would make a story more interesting?

26 responses so far

26 Responses to “Incompetent Protagonists”

  1. B. McKenzieon 03 Feb 2016 at 1:48 am

    In writing circles, I occasionally see these sorts of stories where the main character is sort of a toolbox and not really good at anything relevant to the plot (e.g. a superhero story where all the superheroes have no useful skills, joke superpowers, possibly goofy names, etc). Personally, I’d be inclined to quickly reject almost all of these — they usually don’t work comedically and I’m having trouble envisioning a scenario where they could work as effectively on any other level as characters that aren’t stumbling around in the dark*. Have you ever written one of these or seen one executed reasonably well? What am I missing?

    *Well, maybe if you took it in a purely non-comedic direction. E.g. Flowers for Algernon has a mentally disabled protagonist that becomes a super-genius. The character’s initial mental limitations actually make for an effective drama, but it’d be a godawful setup for comedy. Additionally, and I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with this, but FFA paces very well and the plot is very engaging, even when the main character is struggling with tasks that 99% of literary protagonists could do effortlessly. In the prototypical incompetent superhero stories I’ve encountered, the plot tends to be a scattered collection of events rather than a coherent chain of events. Having “comically” bad fights with Sticky Glue Man or whoever is just insult on top of injury.

  2. Linebylineon 03 Feb 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Fair warning: Don’t take me too seriously; I’m not a writer or even especially well-read. But anyway…*ahem*

    I wonder if it’s not a “too much of a good thing” situation. I mean, flawed protagonists tend to be better-received than ones who are practically perfect in every way and therefore hard to challenge without some kind of magical external threat.

    So naturally, if a hero who’s kinda not great at his job is more interesting, then hey, surely a completely incompetent one would be the best! Am I right? Huh? Huh?

    No?

    I don’t know if an incompetent protagonist can work, honestly. At least not in a superhero story. There’s a place for the lovable loser who never quite succeeds (Charlie Brown has a fair number of fans), but in a classic hero-versus-villain kind of story, I think ineffectual sympathetic villains work better than ineffectual sympathetic heroes. If you have an ineffectual hero, I see three options:

    1. Captain Useless isn’t the only hero, and the others are actually good, but then why is your story focusing on the bumbling comic relief character instead of the real heroes?

    2. The villain and hero are equally incompetent, which I guess worked for Invader Zim but it will be hard to make the main conflict anything other than irrelevant.

    3. The hero is incompetent and the villain isn’t, which means your villains are pretty much bound to win, and I don’t see how you can do that and keep the tone light enough that a lovably incompetent protagonist could work.

    (“Incompetent hero saves the day by accident over and over again” is not an option. It’s funny once, for like two minutes, tops. The world does not need another Jar-Jar Binks, especially not as a protagonist.)

    Perhaps something similar, a hero with a seemingly useless ability can work, if the character is clever enough and, yes, competent enough to use it just right. Non-powered characters can work even in superhero settings. You might be able to start with that, then treat the power as an additional tool at the hero’s disposal. But you’d have to work hard to make the ability relevant: If you have a superspy martial artist you’re probably not adding much by giving that character telekinetic control over spatulas.

    This isn’t to be confused with the stupid-looking power that’s actually massively overpowered. That should be reserved for joke characters, who should be used sparingly if at all. (Squirrel Girl gives me hives.)

    So, short version: You might be able to get by with an ineffectual but lovable villain protagonist, or you might be able to swap “incompetent” for “competent despite seemingly useless ability.” But an outright incompetent hero will be extremely tough to make work.

  3. Aj of Earthon 03 Feb 2016 at 11:34 pm

    Just off the top of my head, I think a scenario in which an incompetent protagonist might work would be a failed new recruit story. Young hero-in-training who just can’t seem to get it, and knows it, but with a tremendous heart and the drive/need to succeed (most likely to make up for the extreme incompetence). This character knows they’re the worst, but still is determined not to let it get them down. In fact it’s this display of a stalwart heart that earns this character a (probationary) spot on the team! Perhaps the competence can be taught over time, they all think…

    But first mission out this character ends up blowing it, big time, due to their utter incompetence. A civilian or even a fellow teammate is killed as a direct result. The incompetent protagonist is then kicked off the team, shamed, exiled, etc.

    I imagine the rest of the story would involve this character striking out on their own. And while still extremely incompetent (and this would require some crafty writing to pull off I think. Incompetent act leads to event A which inadvertently sets up event B, which ties to…) this character would somehow end up being the dark horse who comes out of left field and saves the day. This character could even end up saving the team who handed them the pink slip at the beginning of the story.

    Again though, the stalwart heart is key I feel, especially if this story is played straight and not for comedic value. It would be a necessary requirement, endearing this character to the reader as much as possible, to balance their ineptitude.There’s a huge risk of potential reader frustration here.

    Still, I think it could be promising. Heh, suddenly I’m rooting for this person…

  4. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2016 at 1:50 am

    “This character could even end up saving the team who handed them the pink slip at the beginning of the story.” My preliminary impression is that it’d probably be more memorable if it *didn’t* end with the team welcoming the superhero back with open arms. E.g. maybe the rejected hero walks away from being fired with a chip on his/her shoulder, and works even harder to prove himself/herself worthy of being welcomed back, but over the course of saving the day out of left field, grows into acknowledging that they made the right decision in firing him and/or matures beyond relying much on the approval of others.

    “Again though, the stalwart heart is key I feel, especially if this story is played straight and not for comedic value. It would be a necessary requirement, endearing this character to the reader as much as possible, to balance their ineptitude.There’s a huge risk of potential reader frustration here.” I think you’re dead-on with the reader frustration. I feel it can be extremely frustrating when an incompetent hero struggles with something that’d be trivial for most other genre protagonists and/or that seems like it should be trivial to the readers.

  5. Jim Zoeteweyon 04 Feb 2016 at 9:00 am

    In comics, the Tick certainly qualifies as an example of where the incompetent superhero is done well. It helps though that he’s determined and has actual, effective powers. That said, it’s comedy. A lot of things work in comedy that can’t normally.

  6. Aj of Earthon 04 Feb 2016 at 10:06 am

    “…it’d probably be more memorable if it *didn’t* end up with the team welcoming the hero back …and/or [the hero] matures beyond relying much on the approval of others.” That’s definitely more satisfying. I enjoy the bittersweet resonance here, especially if this character has been working twice as hard to prove themselves after getting canned. This will be what the reader (hopefully) is rooting for throughout the story, seeing the hero vindicated and reunited with the team. Switching that up, turning the re-invite down and choosing to keep going at it solo, especially after saving the team’s collective butt, has a lot more literary weight to it.

    “I feel it can be extremely frustrating when an incompetent hero struggles with something that’d be trivial for most other genre protagonists…” Totally. I’m not even sure that can be completely avoided, honestly. What might help is not having any (or too many) allies, making it a true lone wolf story. Any consistent/competent help from others might, just by contrast, highlight even more how frustrating this character’s *in*competence is. Choosing to leave it ALL to the incompetent hero, forcing them to scrape themselves out of their own messes, alone, may alleviate that.

    Heh, that and the stalwart heart.

    Of course, bringing it back to what you mentioned you see in writing circles, this is all in context of the author writing this story on purpose – using the character incompetence specifically as literary device for development. This isn’t the same as a writer unintentionally creating this character/not knowing what to do with their hero because they never sufficiently developed them/have given too much attention to other characters/powers/costumes, etc. The author would need to be very intentional here, and remain that way throughout.

    This is definitely a tricky set-up to work with, though again, potentially with lots of promise. I like the message that you can be exactly who you are and still make it happen. Keep heart and don’t give up, ever.

    Dig it.

  7. Princess of Egocentriaon 04 Feb 2016 at 12:30 pm

    I think an incompetent main character would be pretty hard to pull off in a serious story or a traditional adventure. It can work great in a “crazy misadventures” type of story though. Like, basically if the hero has to win/suceed or something terrible will happen (like most superheroes or just any hero) then an incompetent hero would be either irritating, frustrating or both. But if the protagonist doesnt have to win, or the only thing at stake is the protagonist’s own life, then the audience can just enjoy the ride and see what happens next. (for example futurama, rick & morty, invader zim). I would also say it helps if the protagonist isnt 100% morally good- its way more fun to watch someone fail if they were being selfish or petty to begin with.

  8. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2016 at 6:42 pm

    “But if the protagonist doesn’t have to win, or the only thing at stake is the protagonist’s own life, then the audience can just enjoy the ride and see what happens next.” That makes a hell of a lot of sense, thanks. I think that bumbling protagonists are especially irritating/frustrating in superhero stories (at least to me – your results may vary) because doing incredible things (or at least coming passably close to doing incredible things) feels like it’s sort of a defining trait/convention for superhero stories. Maybe THE defining trait.

  9. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2016 at 7:05 pm

    “I feel it can be extremely frustrating when an incompetent hero struggles with something that’d be trivial for most other genre protagonists…” Totally. I’m not even sure that can be completely avoided, honestly.

    Serious consequences and character growth over time, maybe? E.g. I’d be relatively okay with a wilderness survival story about a character that makes some really rookie mistakes (even some that would be pretty trivial for most protagonists) as long as it feels like the mistakes matter. In contrast, if an aggressively inept superhero isn’t learning from his mistakes and/or probably doesn’t even realize he’s making mistakes, I think it’s more frustrating because it’ll be pretty obvious early on that the character isn’t going anywhere. I think mistakes from inexperience (or desperation) are much less corrosive to character likability than mistakes from abject stupidity.

  10. B. McKenzieon 04 Feb 2016 at 7:22 pm

    Is it possible to write a compelling non-comedy about a superhero that’s actually incompetent and not just inexperienced? How would you guys go about it?

  11. Aj of Earthon 05 Feb 2016 at 8:16 am

    “In contrast, if an aggressively inept superhero isn’t learning from his mistakes and/or probably doesn’t even realize he’s making mistakes, I think it’s more frustrating because it’ll be pretty obvious early on that the character isn’t going anywhere.”

    True. Though, is it possible to have this specifically incompetent character learn from mistakes, essentially develop forward, and still remain incompetent? I imagine the learning process would naturally provide thresholds to move the character out of their incompetence, which potentially risks dissolving the entire premise of the story. But then, that makes it a question about the nature of the incompetence itself which we haven’t discussed yet; e.g. physically clumsy/tripping over own feet/butterfingers sort of incompetence vs. mental faculty/intelligence/problem-solving incompetence.

    Perhaps utilizing a blend would be most effective. This way, the character could still have opportunity to develop and grow (say, in strategic problem-solving skills) but would still remain challenged by their physical clumsiness/ineptitude. Or, reversing that, the character gets a better feel for their own physicality, learns to fight, stops being so clumsy/getting hurt so easily, but then faces the challenge of thinking around problems in effective ways.

    In either instance though, I don’t think it works if the character is oblivious/unaware of their own incompetence. I think that sort of self-awareness, that personal reflection and owning of short-comings (which then become strengths), including the desire to be better, or rather, the best version of themselves they can be, is critical. Again, this character’s determination, resolve and big heart despite the obstacles will be what connects the reader to them.

    Which means, at least personally speaking, that I don’t think this could work in a comedic context. There’s no dramatic weight, no import, no consequence. If this is about the bumbling, wacky misadventures of Captain Can’t Get It Right, with no real consequences or stakes involves (except not getting the laugh), there’s no investment on behalf of the reader. If the protagonist doesn’t have to win, and really we’re just turning the pages to hear the villain cry out “Next time, Captain! Next time!” to an imagined laugh track… well, I don’t how many folks will be turning the pages.

  12. Vixis Shiar'Deluson 05 Feb 2016 at 10:16 am

    So far as I’ve seen, I’d say the TV Show “Chuck” and movies like “Spy” (certainly not great choices for titles…) show what I feel is the best way to handle incompetence in lead protagonists. TLDR below.

    In Chuck, the main character is a nerdy shop-keep at the equivalent to a Best Buy who ends up being thrown into the world of spies and subterfuge by a former college classmate. He’s actually fairly competent in some things, but is really awkward and clumsy…and generally sucks at being a spy. However, he still manages to be likable because he still contributes something to the team, and because viewers see and understand that he is new to all of it. Eventually he does start getting a lot better at being a spy, but it takes a long time before he’s what you would consider “good.”

    In Spy, the main character is an analyst that has never had field work. It is later revealed that she was passed over by her mentor because she had the potential to be better than him, but that point isn’t exactly important except in her own independence. She goes through the movie after volunteering for the super important mission based on the fact that she is so bad at field work that no one would think she was a spy. She slowly gets better throughout the movie and ends up coming out on top, despite still being quirky.

    TLDR: It is hard to successfully do comedy with someone who is genuinely incompetent, and the only way I can think to feign incompetence to make funny comedy and interesting story is to force an inexperienced character into a situation where they are forced to learn. Can also work well with drama.

  13. B. McKenzieon 05 Feb 2016 at 7:12 pm

    “True. Though, is it possible to have this specifically incompetent character learn from mistakes, essentially develop forward, and still remain incompetent?” In this particular case, probably not, but maybe it could work in the above superhero example with the fired teammate. E.g. let’s say that despite having some actually promising combat superpowers, the character is just awful at fighting (e.g. maybe his instincts and/or personality are just a really, really bad fit for combat and/or he’s a terrible fit for his superpowers, and experience isn’t the issue). So, he gets fired because his combat performance is really bad, maybe so bad that someone’s been killed. Instead of continuing to play a game he’s pretty awful at, maybe he goes in a less predictable direction that works out a lot better — e.g. instead of defeating a gang leader in battle, he successfully foments a coup by offering a disgruntled gang lieutenant a major favor, like breaking a daughter out of prison. Alternately, maybe the gang lieutenant pretends to go along (to get the daughter out of prison), but then backs out of his end of the deal because convincing a stranger to betray someone (especially in a dangerous way) is actually pretty hard. Trying to salvage the situation, the superhero goes Iago-style and is able to plant evidence that convinces the gang leader that his lieutenant got won over by a superhero who broke his daughter out of prison and that the LT is secretly amassing support to take over. Paranoid, the leader begins purging members that he thinks might be part of the plot, which quickly results in the gang members killing enough of each other that they’re a lot less of a problem moving forward than they had been.

    The main character accomplishes his goal and advances the plot, but he’s still pretty awful at everything that superheroes typically excel at.

  14. Den Warrenon 06 Feb 2016 at 12:00 pm

    The main protagonist from my first superhero novel, K-Tron has a lot of problems getting used to his new superpowers. On top of that, he isn’t the smartest guy in the world either. He becomes involved in a lot of situations where he interacts with other superheroes and supervillains and doesn’t always do so well.

  15. B. Macon 06 Feb 2016 at 3:59 pm

    Den Warren: “The main protagonist from my first superhero novel, K-Tron has a lot of problems getting used to his new superpowers. On top of that, he isn’t the smartest guy in the world either. He becomes involved in a lot of situations where he interacts with other superheroes and supervillains and doesn’t always do so well.” Did you successfully avoid/resolve any of the problems mentioned above (e.g. reader frustration, difficulty maintaining readers’ interest, reader expectations that superheroes be able to do incredible things, etc)? How did you do so?

    Also, you mention that the character “isn’t the smartest guy in the world… and doesn’t always do so well.” Could you clarify with some examples? (E.g. I think there’s a huge difference between someone making mistakes that don’t necessarily seem idiotic to readers at the time, e.g. a mistake that a reader might have made in the same situation, vs. mistakes that are immediately obvious to readers. And obviously there’s a huge difference between average intelligence/competence vs. idiocy/gross incompetence.

  16. Kristen Brandon 09 Feb 2016 at 5:53 pm

    B. Mac: Purely a personal opinion, but I find the idea above about a hero awful at combat who accomplishes his goals through favors and planting evidence really interesting. I think it could be a fun subversion of expectations to have him find his way as a superhero not through traditional means but by smarts/trickery. Especially if he doesn’t get a lot of recognition in-story, while handsome Captain So-And-So gets all the glory just by punching things really hard.

  17. B. McKenzieon 10 Feb 2016 at 8:56 am

    “Especially if he doesn’t get a lot of recognition in-story, while handsome Captain So-And-So gets all the glory just by punching things really hard.” I think it’d be hard to get favorable press coverage for breaking someone out of prison to cause a gang war, especially if your contingency plan is to frame your ex-accomplice if something goes wrong. 🙂

  18. Kristen Brandon 10 Feb 2016 at 5:18 pm

    Haha. Very true. 😀

  19. Milan Dareon 11 Feb 2016 at 12:05 am

    Perhaps it is an idealist hero in a crapsack world, per TVTropes. The world conspires to ensure superheroic ideals don’t get results. Unfortunately that site suggests this archetype usually doesn’t live long.

    One of my favorites is the protagonist Taylor from the superhero web serial ‘Worm’. Her power of ‘insect control’ doesn’t lend itself to being heroic, so she chooses to be a heroic villain. That does as much harm as good until eventually all of the more traditional superheroes fail against the endlessly rising stakes.

  20. Foxtailon 14 Feb 2016 at 1:58 am

    This is a bit on the flipside, but I was wondering if you’ve read/heard of the web-novel “Worm” by wildbow? It’s a pretty massive superhero epic so it seemed right up this website’s alley.

  21. Fernandoon 29 Feb 2016 at 8:21 am

    When being incompetent is part of the humor/charm of the character. See Michael Scott of the Office or Inspector Gadget.

  22. B. McKenzieon 20 Mar 2016 at 2:55 am

    “When being incompetent is part of the humor/charm of the character. See Michael Scott of the Office or Inspector Gadget.” With The Office, while Michael Scott definitely has a loose grip on reality and frequently says/does bizarre things, he’s the head of the company’s top-performing branch office and shows occasional flashes of high competence and/or social savvy. Also, like Fry from Futurama, he’s one character on an ensemble cast, so the plot is less dependent on him making competent moves.

    I’m not familiar with IG, but apparently he also has more competent teammates. A dog with a rocket launcher?

  23. Danielon 24 Mar 2016 at 10:55 pm

    I find the protagonist of The Tales of the Ketty Jay series by Chris Wooding hilarious. He’s a greedy, handsome, charming idiot skypirate. He works as a character because his stupidity and attitude makes for a never-dull character (and there’s surprising psychological depth to all the characters!). The series is very heavily influenced by Firefly, too. The aesthetics are ‘dieselpunk tech, steampunk fashion’. All the characters are broken human beings, and it’s fascinating to read.

  24. KRSon 05 Apr 2016 at 11:40 am

    Kinda surprised no one mentions Cannell’s “The Greatest American Hero” series from the early 80’s. William Katt plays Ralph Hinckley, a wimpish but well meaning high school teacher with an insanely hot (and more successful) girlfriend, who is given a supersuit by aliens. The suit brings with it supernatural powers that are awesome in scale and variety, but Ralph immediately loses the Instruction Manual.

    Flying scenes usually end with him falling out of control or slamming into something very, very hard. Robert Culp plays Bill Maxwell, an uber-patriot FBI agent who uses the hero to defend the country and bring criminals to justice. He is also extremely competent (the first actor I ever saw on TV who knew how to shoot a semi-auto handgun), with a biting sense of humor and a fondness for dog biscuits.

    It went 3 seasons and, while he improved on some of his powers, Ralph never really develops any overall competence. By contrast, Bill is very competent, but is eternally frustrated by Ralph’s morals, hesitancy and apparent inability to get control of his powers. They play off each other well.

    It does have a strong comic thread, but, taking into account the Eighties perspective, does a good job of playing off weighty issues.

  25. Jed Hon 30 Aug 2016 at 1:52 am

    Not sure if someone’s already said this, but a character with physical ‘incompetencies’ (i.e. missing limbs, paralysed legs, etc.) could make routine events/scenes more interesting. One scene that springs to mind is the scene in Gattaca where Jerome Morrow, a semi-paraplegic, has to haul himself up a spiral staircase. This scene would be routine with any other physically competant character, but Morrow’s disability ramps up the suspsense (he has only a few seconds to make it to the top.

    Plus, his ‘incompetency’ makes the next scene, where he greets two detectives at the entrance of his home far more interesting. He can’t get up/move because he can’t use his legs, but he’s impersonating a character who CAN walk. So he has to someone get the detectives out of the house as quick as possible, using only his wits. Great scene, made much better than a routine ‘detective comes to protagonists’ house to poke around ‘ scene (like the one in Watchmen). Did I mention Morrow’s hiding a fugitive on the floor below?

  26. B. McKenzieon 30 Aug 2016 at 5:46 pm

    “a character with physical ‘incompetencies’ (i.e. missing limbs, paralysed legs, etc.) could make routine events/scenes more interesting.” He makes a plausible attempt at achieving his goal, right? When I think of “grossly incompetent,” I’m thinking of characters that don’t even come close to a serious attempt at achieving their goals and/or succeed by their incompetence creating extremely lucky circumstances (or their mistakes not having consequences).

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