Character And Competence

Readers are intrigued by characters who are, as Aristotle says in the Poetics, "effective." In other words, they are good at what they do.

Detectives who are extraordinarily good at detecting are of far more interest than those who aren't (except when the detective's bungling is played for humor). Cowboy heroes are always good at drawing a gun, or twirling a lariat, or tracking, or some other skill. Homer knew this when he wrote the Odyssey: Ulysses was not only reckless and daring, but also a great sailor and a deadeye bowman. If you create competent characters, the reader will more easily identify with them.

• Brody in Peter Benchley's Jaws is extraordinarily good at being a sheriff. Hooper is an extraordinarily good marine biologist. Quint is an extraordinarily good shark hunter. The shark is extraordinarily good at attacking humans.

• Carrie's mother in Stephen King's Carrie is good at being a religious zealot. The pranksters who get Carrie elected prom queen are extraordinarily good at setting her up for the practical joke of the year. Carrie is extraordinarily good at being telekinetic.

• In Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Scarlett is an extraordinarily good Southern belle—she knows how to flirt and flatter and get herself noticed, play one man off another— and Rhett Butler is an extraordinarily good gunrunner.

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