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Aaron Sorkin & Competence Porn

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Spent some of yesterday evening getting caught up on “Newsroom” with my daughter Toni.  I liked it about as much as I liked “Studio 60,” but not as much as I liked “Sports Night” or “The West Wing.”  I’m one of those in love with Sorkin’s dialogue, and I can ignore his Rodenberryesque didacticism and get past his evident belief that women are a strange species that men will never understand.  The difference between the shows I love and the shows I only like is simple: how engaging the characters are.

But what is it, exactly, that makes the “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” characters so much more engaging?

Toni is the one who suggested the answer.  I first heard the term “competence porn” from Elizabeth Bear and understood it immediately.  It is delightful to watch someone be good at something, both in real life and in fiction. In real life, it fascinates us, and in fiction it pulls us closer to that character.  We loved watching Josh work his magic, and CJ turn everything around, and, well, like that.  The moments of competence porn in “Studio 60” and “Newsnight” are rare.  Sorkin’s interests clearly lie in ethical decisions made by people you don’t expect ethics from, and that’s cool. But it doesn’t pull us in as well as watching someone be brilliant.

Competence porn isn’t the only way to make a character engaging–but if, as Sorkin does (and, come to think of it, as I do) you create characters who are prickly and dysfunctional, you need to find some way to make the reader care about them, and watching them be good at things is one of the better ways.

 

skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

25 Comments

  1. I guess “House” falls into that category. He got away with crap because he always delivered in difficult situations. Still, it bothered me that he would deliberately do crap just to be obnoxious. But if he didn’t, I guess that wouldn’t be TV. ;>) I love seeing people be competent. If they aren’t also dysfunctional in some way (Sherlock Homes?), I guess it isn’t entertainment. Come to think of it, aren’t all “brilliant” characters portrayed as also dysfunctional?

  2. One of the most interesting elements of Newsroom for me thus far has been its tendency to apply competence incorrectly or in morally questionable spaces. For instance, when Will has the Occupy Wall Street member on the show, he’s exceedingly competent as a debater and essentially destroys her. He uses his competence in a way he later has to confess was cruel of him.

    This takes it out of the realm of the pornographic and towards the show’s theme of scrutinizing how one applies ability. There are competence porn instances (Mortimer’s character coolly pulling together an on-air line re-read and a one-monitor setup when the control board goes down), but they’re rarer and often used to different effect. It creates a different show than Sports Night. Like you, I’m digging Newsroom but preferred Sports Night. There’s a spirit this show doesn’t go for. That certain, “It’s not that my teasers are better than yours, Danny. It’s just that yours are vastly inferior to mine.”

  3. skzb

    David: Yes. “House” is a perfect example.

    John Wiswell: Well taken.

  4. I’ll have to remember that phrase, it’s a good one. I’ve found the books I enjoy, and less frequently, the TV I enjoy, tends to have highly competent characters that are able to be cleverer than I am — that doesn’t mean the writers are necessarily cleverer than I, only that they had the time to come up with the solution, or the witty repartee that would otherwise be l’espirit d’escalier. But that moment of ‘aha!’ in a book is one of my favorites. “Incrementalists” had a couple of those moments; your typical Vlad book tends to have more. (“Incrementalists” could have benefited from a few more meddles on-screen, instead of sending people off to do them, in my humble opinion as consumer).

  5. “if, as Sorkin does (and, come to think of it, as I do) you create characters who are prickly and dysfunctional, you need to find some way to make the reader care about them, and watching them be good at things is one of the better ways.”

    That’s why I love Richard (Donald Westlake) Stark’s “Parker” books, in a nutshell.

  6. Or, if you have a really competent character, does he need to be dysfunctional so that he is more interesting and isn’t too intimidating (has to have a compensating weakness we don’t have)? Evil geniuses are hyper competent and thus frightening. I guess I see it from the other side.

  7. One problem I’ve seen is that the writer isn’t competent. Meaning that they have the character who is supposed to be competent, but the result is BS or techno-babble. Now some of that is OK (wink, wink), especially in space operas, but if it is about real world technology, it can be iffy. I have the problem that it is hard for me to turn the editor off and I know too much. So I would not write that the hero somehow managed to hack the secure mainframe computer at NSA using his cellphone and some aluminum foil. ;>)

  8. Competence porn, like other kinds of porn does create a fantasy that can be dangerous when we start believing in it. We like to believe in “the competent man” who doesn’t make mistakes, even in fields far away from their areas of competence. Especially if we believe we are that competent character. But top athletes aren’t immune to doing bad things. Top politicians aren’t expert in everything. Top bosses do make mistakes. And designs that depend upon everything being done competently often fail.

  9. Need a Like button.

  10. Another area where competence porn can break down is when the character stops being competent and starts being the voice of the author – spouting off facts and inferences that were not directly driven from the character and the situation – i.e. telling rather than showing.

    Moffet has a mixed record of success at this -he’s better with Sherlock than The Doctor in part because he’s stealing from Doyle.

  11. skzb

    Jeff: Valid point. You need to *sell* the competence. “Burn Notice” is an outstanding example of doing it right.

  12. I’m a big fan of Burn Notice. Especially the earlier episodes. I liked some of the “spy tips” Michael would give, they would really work. The last season or two, they started to get too fantastical. Too many improbable things that had to go exactly right, spy stuff that was impossible (or deliberately wrong), situations and relationships that were not credible, characters that didn’t quite make sense. I guess they were victims of their own success and had to keep doing bigger and better. I can’t blame the writers too much, the franchise was still making good money and had a strong following. They kept me watching.

  13. howardbrazee:

    As you say, competence in one area doesn’t mean infallibility in all areas, but even so, the only people who have ever seemed to me to be at all wise and worthy of respect were competent as well. There may be no implication from competence to wisdom, but there does seem to be one the other way, so perhaps competence is a sort of precondition to wisdom.

  14. Assassin characters in general seem to have / need this – I guess in part because if the character goes around killing people in less than elegantly choreographed ways, they just look like a brutal thug.

  15. This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. My first short story sale was a private sale on commission – I was behind on my rent and an online acquaintance offered me work instead of a loan; giving me a week to write a short story for him. My first step was researching my audience to see where our narrative kinks lined up, and “competence porn” topped the list. There’s a cool thrill to seeing a tough job and a tough character and knowing they’ll do it right.

    More recently, I’ve become enamored of a related trope – let’s call it “professionalism porn.” Stories where there’s a code of conduct or a particular, peculiar integrity a character follows even when it gets in the way of practical success, at least in part because it creates conditions which are more broadly conducive to the success of others. If you’ve read Neal Stephenson’s book Reamde (which I think of as an Interesting Failure of a novel; it doesn’t deliver on its promises but it’s a hell of a ride not getting there) there’s a mobster character who forges a strange friendship with the hacker protagonist because the two of them recognize they’re the only two people in the room who care about process. Despite disparate fields and goals, they’re professionals, and watching them apply that process to try to survive is fascinating.

  16. I think “Competence Porn” also sums everything Heinlien ever wrote.

  17. I think that’s something a lot of TV writers too often forget: watching people being good at their jobs can be profoundly entertaining. Not every story has to be about (contrived) interpersonal conflict.

  18. Interesting idea! I think another prereq for successful competence porn is that the competence has to be earned… the result of years of experience and dedicated study. Another prime example in a TV show would be White Collar.

    Neal has spent his whole life acquiring knowledge of the art he forges and developing the skills to do it. In most episodes, you see that ongoing effort, as he throws himself into research or struggles to perfect a new technique needed for a new challenge.

    If the competence is too pat, it loses its impact. Here I’m thinking of Criminal Minds, a show I loathe. Criminal profiling in the real world is little more than cheap fortune telling, and not much more effective in actually solving cases, but in this show the team reels off blizzards of suppositions about each “unsub”, all based on the flimsiest of facts and correlations and almost always right in specific details about the criminal. It is all so effortless and unsubstantiated that it offers no story value at all, at least not to me.

  19. “Assassin characters in general seem to have / need this – I guess in part because if the character goes around killing people in less than elegantly choreographed ways, they just look like a brutal thug.”

    It’s a sort of wish-fulfillment thing. In practice they are just brutal thugs. If you need a plan with polish and finesse it will fail, or at least fail too often to build a profession on.

    If you need to kill somebody, choose somebody who has no idea it might happen. Find a time they’re pretty-reliably alone, approach them without looking suspicious, silence them, and clean up. If nobody’s suspicious ahead of time it’s like 30 seconds max that anything looks out of place.

    But if they have some warning and they’re scared, there’s no point even trying. Just let their own responses get in the way of whatever else they’re doing, and don’t even try unless the job is still open months later when they’ve stopped thinking about it. Once they turn flaky there’s too much that can go wrong. When one mistake or accident can get you killed, professionals just don’t accept that sort of risk. Almost all the special training is to help get away after things inexplicably go wrong, not to accept risky contracts in the first place.

    I guess I should mention that I have no direct experience with this and do not actually know what I’m talking about.

  20. Well, you might need some supplementary income to support your writing habit. ;>)

  21. I’ve thought about the assassin for hire thing. for writing of course. The problem is not how to kill somebody. That’s pretty easy. The tricky thing is to find somebody to pay you in a way that you wouldn’t get traced or stiffed. It would be nice to have ties to the government so that they can cover your tracks for you. ;>) Better for story flow to just ignore that kind of thing as much as possible, or have it magically happen.

  22. I’ve been thinking about the competence/dysfunction thing a good bit trying to decide whether I buy it in life and/or art. I think it stems from a theory of mastery that goes something like this: in order to be masterful at A you have to sacrifice normal development in B-Z, or at least in whatever the opposite pole is from A. If you’re going to be a master of deduction, you totally suck at intuition — the rational, observational, logical having been developed at the cost of the emotional, intuitive, empathetic. It’s like we want to believe there’s a price for genius. You pay for excellence in one area by total incompetence in another. And certainly, to some extent, that makes sense. It takes time to develop skill and time is limited. It’s the modern vs renaissance man mabye. Also, in fiction anyway, perfect people make lousy characters.
    Finally, I’m reminded of something I heard a TV writer say, which I thought was interesting, although I don’t know if it’s true. He said the one thing you absolutely cannot do on TV is have a protagonist/heroic character who’s bad at his job. He can be ugly, weak, old and mean, but he can’t be bad at his work. His abilities don’t have to be recognized by his superiors, but the audience has to see them and believe that he is — if not the best, at least well above average — at his chosen profession. I remember the same writer said it rule was even more inviolate than that any female protagonist had to be, if not beautiful, at least pretty.

  23. Good insights. There are people who are extremely good at nearly everything. They often are very successful. Us mortals do not often deal with these people. ;>)

  24. Good competence porn also needs limits. As has been mentioned above, it becomes unbelievable if a person is good at everything.
    I very much enjoy “Justified”. It has great dialogue and shows people who are very good at their jobs. But put a woman in Raylan’s way and the stupid appears. Then the question becomes can what he is good at overcome his weakness. I should also point out that this is consistent and comes off as a genuine character flaw, rather than the writers randomly changing a character for the sake of the plot.(I am looking at you, last couple of seasons of “Burn Notice”)
    When Josh replaced CJ at a press conference in the “West Wing” we had a chance to see someone we new to be very good at his job fail spectacularly in another persons specialty.

  25. “I think it stems from a theory of mastery that goes something like this: in order to be masterful at A you have to sacrifice normal development in B-Z, or at least in whatever the opposite pole is from A.”

    Maybe more like in RA Lafferty’s story “Eurema’s Dam”. Unusual competences tend to be developed in order to substitute for unusual lacks.

    Like, you could probably become a competent contortionist. People in their 50’s have learned to do a perfect backbend, practicing slowly and carefully because it’s slower to heal from accidents at that age. But if you have everything you want with your current skills, why would you bother with the discipline to do that too? Most people don’t become contortionists because they don’t see the need.

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