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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?
A few seconds ago, I saw a car doing ~30 miles per hour in reverse in a residential area, which is the oddest example of speeding I’ve seen. Your writing prompt today is to write a scene which incorporates a character violating some rule or law but in a very odd and/or unexpected way.
Shannah McGill has a character questionnaire based on character actions rather than character traits.
I would add the following situations:
- The character’s lover or trusted friend does something which raises questions of fidelity. The Incredibles, for example.
- The character’s main goal is irrevocably lost. See the first ten minutes of Up, for example.
- The character is badly failed by the legal system and/or is involved in a situation where the legal system badly fails another character. See Gone Baby Gone and The Incredibles, for example.
- The character is in a situation where his preferred approach is totally unworkable. For example, if someone like The Hulk were facing a hostage situation with multiple gunmen, running in will get a lot of civilians killed.
- A movie or reality TV series is made about the character.
- The National Enquirer publishes wild (and perhaps mostly-accurate) stories about the character.
- A disgruntled ex goes public. Bonus points if the ex was driven away by a major decision of the main character (or vice versa), rather than the ex just being generically crazy and/or vengeful.
- The character is forced to deal with two extremely urgent problems at the same time. Bonus points if he deals first with the problem that most readers wouldn’t.
- A competition begins with a much more competent rival.
- The character is abducted by Canadians and/or aliens.
- For social and/or career reasons, the character has to fake enthusiasm and/or knowledge during a high-stakes situation. (For example, the character is excited when ESPN offers him a commentating gig, but it’s an ESPN2 program on melon-tossing, synchronized shuffleboard, or soccer).
- The character sees three police cruisers parked outside of his house. Or a tank. Bonus points if his/her response is not to immediately turn around.
- The character has to offer advice in a field where he/she is extremely unqualified. For example, helping a child with homework in long-forgotten subjects or providing life advice in an area where the character has been unusually unsuccessful. “Don’t get cocky, kid.” Bonus points if the character does not immediately realize he is in over his head.
- The character faces opposition from a totally unfamiliar sphere. For example, someone like Spider-Man facing off against a super-commando or someone like Wolverine facing off against a journalist.
- A parent commits adultery. (Hat tip: CW in the comments).
- Finding out that the true enemy is someone that has been relatively close. (Hat tip: CW).
- The character is hunted by a supernatural police group. (Hat tip: CW). Alternately, perhaps the character gets involved in the supernatural equivalent of a lawsuit, a custody case, marital/family counseling, conscription/drafting, the Inquisition, a court-martial, a divorce, an election or caucus, a citizenship/immigration issue, jury duty, a neighborhood spat that starts with something random like dog droppings and gets really heated, a predatorial lender trying to collect on loans or library late fees, a strike, bounty-hunting/subpoena-serving, or the mother of all speeding tickets. (The space police and/or Bureau of Dragon Licensing can ticket me all they want, but they have to catch me first–giddyup, Smaug).
- The character needs to remove himself/herself from consideration for a promotion or assignment without damaging his/her position at the company.
- The character does not know why (and preferably has trouble figuring out why), but a really respected and/or feared person has suddenly turned on him/her in a major way. This is one way of fleshing out unforeseen consequences to the main characters’ decisions–they might antagonize characters for whatever reason (e.g. arresting one minor villain might anger superheroes working a much bigger case against an elite villain). Bonus points if the decision was intelligent when it was made.
- The character has a burning desire to accomplish a goal tragically and/or hilariously at odds with his background, like a rat dreaming of being a 4-star chef, a deaf-dumb-and-blind kid ravaging the pinball scene, or Dan “Potatoe” Quayle/”Mojo Slow Joe” Biden running for President. Bonus points if the character’s limitations are depicted in at least a semi-realistic way–the character’s triumphs and defeats will be more satisfying the more we see him/her struggle.
- The character needs to leave a company or organization without nuking bridges there, but the company is very concerned about loose ends. What does the character need to do to reassure them? Does the company put any restrictions in place (e.g. the supernatural equivalent of a non-compete clause)? Does the organization have methods other than killing and/or threatening to kill anybody that wants to leave?
- The character used to be great at something, but is declining (preferably in a long-term situation not easily undone). For example, it is exceedingly rare to see superhero stories seriously deal with aging*–For one alternative, I really like Batman Beyond’s take. (Alternately, perhaps the characters aren’t notably old, but their capabilities fade. “House of M,” for example). *99% of superheroes embody youth and stamina–it’s part of the fantasy appeal.
A politician* recently declared this about a particular military operation*:
You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48 percent probability that [the objective] was there.
If 100 authors each wrote a story about a commando raid, 98-100 would focus on the raid itself and/or the outcome rather than the decision to launch the raid. Your prompt today: Write a story where a decision by one person or one group of people is more important than its execution by a different person or group of people. Military/political setting not necessary.
*For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter which.