Aaron Sorkin & Competence Porn

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.


The Incrementalists Audiobook Giveaway Contest

Okay, first of all, let me say that I am love with the audiobook. I’ve now listened to it twice, and Mary Robinette Kowal and Ray Porter do an amazing job of capturing the characters. I don’t know exactly how they do that, because their interpretations are so very different: Ray’s version of Oskar has a German accent and Mary’s doesn’t; Mary’s portrayal of Jimmy has a French accent and Ray’s doesn’t. You’d think they’d conflict, but in some weird way they compliment each other.

But the reading of the viewpoint characters: Mary’s Ren and Ray’s Phil, are where I lose the power of speech. So perfect, there needs to be a better term than perfect. There were a couple of points in there where I actually cried–and I’ve read this thing maybe a hundred times. I have no idea how they do that.

We’re giving away three copies (actually promo codes) for the book at Audible.com. We’re running three simultaneous contests here on this blog.

For those of you unfamiliar with the project, I would suggest reading the (free, of course) short story that’s up on Tor.com.  It can be found  here.

Contest 1: Suppose you were given the chance to join The Incrementalists. There’s a 50-50 shot (actually, more or less depending on how strong your personality is) that your personality would be swallowed by another and, though your memories would survive, you would be gone.  But if you did survive, you would become (at least somewhat) immortal, you would have access to memories from throughout human history, and you would be part of a small group dedicated to making the world better. Would you take the gamble? Why or why not? Maximum: 50 words

Contest 2: If you were an Incrementalist, with the power to influence individuals in subtle ways, what would be your first project? That is, what would be the first thing you did in an effort to make things just a little better? Maximum: 50 words

Contest 3: The Incrementalists have been around since the beginning of human history, trying to make things better, or make bad things a little less bad. Name one thing you’ve think they’ve done, and how could it have been worse if they didn’t?  Maximum: 100 words.

The contest will run until noon CDT on Monday, September 30, at which time Skyler and I will pick the best answer in all three categories. Post your answers here. You can answer all three, but you can only win one. Only one answer per contest per person.


(Warning: If you say something really cool, Skyler and I just might steal it!)

(Note: As far as I know, audible can work on almost any device anywhere; but if I’m wrong, that’s not our problem, okay?)



What the narrator knows; what the reader knows

I had a friend email me with a cool question: How do you let the reader in on something the first person protagonist doesn’t?

I know it’s tricky, and I know it can be done, and I know it’s a rush when you pull it off.  My answer involved set-up: You establish the character as someone who is liable to miss drawing the correct conclusion when certain types of facts are in front of him, then you can have him report on things from which the reader will draw the correct conclusion, but the protagonist won’t.  For example, he might reminisce about a time a certain woman was attracted to him, and talk about the way she communicated it, and then say that he didn’t realize that until much later.  Now you can have his current lover drop clues that she is on the edge of breaking up with him, and the reader will believe that he doesn’t see it.  If you do it well enough, that is: it’s all about walking the line between, on the one hand, making the clues so subtle the reader doesn’t catch on, and, on the other, making the clues so obvious the reader won’t believe the protagonist doesn’t get it.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting question, and worth throwing out to the Smart People who hang out here to see what other answers emerge.