Hyper-competence is something that is discussed often online and I’m not sure whether anything needs to be added or whether I can add anything, but it is so glaring that I cannot ignore it. I’ve mentioned John Wick before because it is a very good action movie and here it is a perfect example. John Wick behaves like someone who can handle firearms and fighting, he moves tactically and it is probably close to how a person should move in such situations. The problem is that he does so perfectly, never makes an error and never has a bad day. This is something that never happens in real life and I don’t think he should make mistakes in John Wick, it’s an action movie and the genre demands those things. The problem is that this happens in so many areas and goes unremarked.
A few minutes working in any job will dispel any notions you have about the competence of people there. You will see flight engineers not performing basic checks because they are in a rush. Surgeons forgetting to wash their hands or grasping some things without gloves. You’ll see nurses forgetting to write vital information into patient notes. You’ll see builders almost crushing their toes because they decided to carry a large slab, rather than finding the correct equipment to move it. You’ll find that your gas pipe is in fact a garden hose, because someone decided to do some DIY in your house, long ago.
In media we see characters who never make similar mistakes. We see complicated plans that come to fruition because of perfect execution. On the most basic level, characters never spoil their cups of tea, they don’t burn their dinner, they don’t leave the house in a creased shirt, they don’t accidentally tell their girlfriend that they’re fat. Obviously, they do in some media, but it is not common. Why is this a problem? It isn’t, as long as your viewers or readers are willing to accept it. For me it crushes any sense of realism.
We’re often told that we have to give characters flaws and that they seem too perfect if they don’t have flaws. Why doesn’t the same apply to minor mistakes? When characters make these errors they become more believable and it can be used to develop character traits. I could write a character who becomes nervous when speaking in public and forgets things when he is nervous. This can distinguish and humanise him with a simple technique. I see no reason everyone shouldn’t incorporate this concept, unless genre restrictions demand that they’re ignored. Either that, or stop talking about realism.