The Myth of the Myth of the Competent Protagonist

(Picture from here.)

Let’s wander back into the SF stories of the 50s and 60s. This was the age of the competent protagonist. Engineers were good at what they did. The world was pristine and pure—surely nothing as lovely as advanced technology would ever harm the earth. Urbanization was good and we all had flying cars.

Come the sixties and seventies and cracks appeared in this foundation. We had flawed characters. Incompetent characters. Bumblers. Stumblers.

Granted, we had better fiction. Better characters. Better writers. I’ll stand up The Left Hand of Darkness against anything Heinlein ever wrote. But Genly Ai, the main character, was barely able to withstand the weather much less bring the world to diplomatic heel.

Let’s be clear: I don’t have a problem with good characters, competent or incompetent. But they have to be good characters and not just a convenient mouthpiece for how the author wishes the world worked. This is too often the case for the competent protagonist. Lazarus Long, in Time Enough for Love, falls in the convenient mouthpiece category. Genly Ai does not.

Note, the title above. I am not specifically talking about the concept of the competent male. John Varley’s Gaea trilogy has a competent female in the form of Cirocco Jones, a woman so desirable and accomplished that ex-lovers had been known to commit suicide. She’s much more likable than Lazarus Long, Heinlein’s famous example, but that’s because Varley burdened her with such things as guilt and alcoholism. The quality of a person’s character is not determined by their sex chromosomes.

Heinlein is always trotted out as the worst example of authors creating competent protagonists. This old quote from Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love is often brought up:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

What, in fact, is wrong with this statement? I mean, I’d make few changes. These are Heinlein’s ideals, not mine.

I’d drop invasion planning and efficient fighting and I’d change set a bone to splint a bone. First Aid’s important. I’d change dying gallantly to dying well. Butchering a hog is not that big a deal provided you’re strong enough or have a block-and-tackle. I don’t know if Heinlein was thinking of modern agriculture or those little pot-bellied pigs. Say, butcher a chicken. Cook a meal? Change a diaper? Of course. Programming a computer? Anyone who’s put an instruction in a spreadsheet cell has done that. Comforting the dying is part of the human condition. At one point or another, we will all do that. As we will all die. The best hope we can have is to do it well after a life well lived.

My point is that all of those skills are attainable, if not inevitable. It takes interest, effort, and opportunity. Adequate execution of most of these skills is not that difficult.

Note, I said adequate.

I am definitely not saying that one has to be Shakespeare but the rules of sonnets are very clear. It’s not that hard to write one. One doesn’t have to be a professional poet or a surgeon or a general or a gourmet chef. One has to be adequate. These are human life skills, not lofty ambitions.

I do not know what Heinlein had in mind. I do know his males were often brilliant. So, if his intent was to say that we’re all supposed to be Mozart and Eugene O’Neil… Well, that’s a problem.

If, however, his intention was to create a canon of skills that are attainable and should be expected of a person… I have no real problem with that. I might choose a different list and I suggest that each of us should have our own list. But I have no problem with aspiring to and achieving some list.

When my son was born, I had a set of skills that I wanted him to know. How to write. How to play a musical instrument. Math and Chemistry. Literature. Understanding the workings of government was a must. Basic biology and evolution—my own little Lazarus Long list. He pretty much achieved all of them before he finished high school. Not because he is Prokofiev but because they were all attainable life skills.

Mainly, I wanted him to have enough critical understanding to learn anything he needed or wanted to learn.

Further, I think learning these sorts of things is important because it provides a basic understanding of those who are geniuses. I cannot play Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. It’s beyond my meager ability. But I can read music and follow what a good pianist can do with it. Because of my limited skill and knowledge, I have a much deeper appreciation of Gershwin’s work and what it takes to play it.

My worry is that by denigrating “competency” we are, in fact, limiting ourselves. I really believe in the ability of human beings to do great things. That little girl dancing on the stage in her first year of ballet class is keeping company with Baryshnikov. That little boy playing his first piano recital is keeping company with Horowitz.

We have this terrible difficulty not being the best. If we can’t be the best at something, we give up. Maybe this is the cost of celebrity culture—we hold up the best as our competition.

My idol in this area isn’t Lazarus Long. It’s Ben Franklin. Now, he’s someone to admire.

There is a dark side, though, to this competency idea. The implication in Heinlein, and others. is that if one isn’t a competent protagonist, one is less worthy. It marks a hidden transition from aspirational goal to moral imperative. This is bad for lots of reasons.

Most of the stories of competent protagonists in fiction imply that the person acquired the skills as a matter of interest and correct living. The required leisure time, available food, security, and access to materials are conveniently left to one side. After all, it’s hard to learn the piano if you’re in a war zone or starving to death. It’s easy to look down on the oppressed if you neglect the fact of their oppression.

I grew up in a middle-class suburban household, different in details but drearily the same as many. I had opportunities to pick up some of these skills. It would be unfair of me to expect anyone to acquire those skills if they do not have at least those same opportunities.

It’s convenient to look at someone like Franklin and hold him up as an example of a person who can attain polymath success without having wealth and neglect that he really was a genius—and recognized as such as a young man. Then, promptly forget most people aren’t geniuses and condemn them for not achieving as much as Franklin did. If we want a particular outcome from people, we need to invest in them.

There’s a line in Kipling’s Kim, “I will change my faith and my bedding, but thou must pay for it.”

We can certainly demand a level of expertise and understanding from the members of our society. We should. People will rise to the occasion because humans have an innate capacity for great things.

But if we demand it, we need to be willing to pay for it.





The Myth of the Myth of the Competent Protagonist — 4 Comments

  1. The skill that I’d really like to see added to everyone’s list is critical thinking.

  2. My problem is that I can understand basic math. I can’t do word problems because I can’t convert words into mathematics. Anything above basic algebra and the very bottom basics of trigonometry might as well be Hindustani. I understand it while someone is explaining it but I can’t reproduce it on my own. The reason I went for an MA in Public Health Education as opposed to a MS in another of the sciences was that a university professor whom I respected believed that no one should go on to graduate work in science (Biology in this case, which I loved) without taking calculus, and I already knew I could barely get through Algebra II, which I took 3 times. The third time I think my professor gave me a C just so I could graduate.

    Maybe what I should say is that I never found a teacher who could explain it to me in such a way that I could not only understand but retain.

    In the same way, I’m terrific at concepts. You teach me a concept and I can apply it anywhere, between subjects, extrapolate from it, judge it, synthesize new concepts from it. But I won’t remember the steps unless it’s an image or few enough steps that I can remember it or use a device to remember it, like King Phillip Came Over From Germany Swimming.

    It all makes me feel very stupid.

  3. I love competence, both in person and in fictional characters–but Heinlein notwithstanding, no one is competent at everything. And often the multiply-competent are not competent at being human, a friend, a lover. That can be the stuff of good fiction–but in real life it’s a really good idea to lower expectations and see a range of competences.

    What I really cannot stand is willful incompetence (and fear of trying is a close second). Knowing your limitations is one thing; saying “I can’t put on a Band Aid because I can’t do brain surgery” is another.

  4. One of the many reasons I gave up reading modern thrillers is that every hero and heroine can do everything from martial arts to fashion design. And it’s all phrased with an “of course.” BORING. Give me some conflict and struggle. Let them learn on the fly if you have to, but don’t, of course, a skill set.