I Like People Who Suck

I was talking with a friend about writing, and I came upon a realization. I like stories more when people are really bad at their jobs. I mean, either they’re just downtrodden, stuck in something they hate, or when they’re just ill-suited for the positions they find themselves in.

There are a lot of stories out there about people who are good at their jobs. People who are at the top of their field and get chosen to do interesting and amazing things. The best astronaut, the best linguist, the best wizard or the best gun runner. I think writers tend to try to write about the best in their fields, because they would be chosen to do interesting things. I get it. But I like character over plot. I like learning about people over learning about what they do.

For example, you could write about the top police officer in the district. They might take on a huge drug cartel and it’d be a very plot driven piece. But I think I’d prefer a story about a police officer who isn’t the top cop. Maybe the officer is stuck on traffic duty, or walks around giving out tickets, or maybe they are just tired of police work but feel like they’re too old to change careers. Then you suddenly have a character driven piece. Then you have sympathy for the character, and probably you have more people who can identify with your character. If they end up getting wrapped up in some kind of situation that is way over their heads, the stakes seem greater.

Michael Crichton managed to do both in his book, Sphere. His main character was a top psychologist, and they recruit him because they find an alien spaceship. He’d been hired by the government years earlier to write a document on what to do if you find an alien spaceship, but it turns out he basically faked it because it was a lot of money. Thus, he was a top psychologist, but he still didn’t know what he was doing. Worse, everyone thought he did, and at one point he has to admit it.

The same goes for movies that I tend to enjoy. The Big Lebowski has the most unobservant main character thrust into a detective story. Shaun of the Dead has the least apt hero in a zombie apocalypse. Even something like Tremors, where the actual horror part of the movie was all right, the characters were fantastic.

So here’s my advice. Consider making your character bad at their job. It’ll force you to really evaluate the character that they are, and will make your piece better.

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