I have a competency kink. (Where characters in novels are concerned.)
In this novel, an archeologist is transported back in time to Ancient Rome. He immediately makes a place for himself by becoming the world’s first distiller. Yes, in order to make enough money to live, he invents distillery. (And, in the process of acquiring startup capital, he teaches his moneylender to do double-entry bookkeeping… a useful skill later when he can quickly check who is embezzling from his estate.)
This isn’t so basic as you may think. He has to know all the theory, acquire copper (for tubes), and then teach the metal casters to make those tubes.
He then proceeds to invent the printing press (and, incidentally, paper) and the telegraph system… all in an effort to avoid the dark ages.
When I was younger, I assumed that I too would know how to do all of these things when I was a proper adult. Sure, in high school I didn’t know how to fumigate my own house (even with help from a knowledgeable Home Depot employee who would know the correct chemicals to use), but surely I would learn.
Heck, my parents bought me a new copy of the paperback when I went off to college, so they must have agreed!
Haha, no. I’d been hoodwinked. Even if inventing distillation occurred to me, I’d probably need to check Wikipedia a few times before coming up with something workable. So, it turns out that the one thing I’d truly loved about Lest Darkness Fall—a character using fairly standard knowledge to change the world around him—was never something I would personally be able to relate to.
But I can relate to an otherwise competent character being shoved out of her comfort zone. I like to assume I’m a competent novelist, but could I translate that into a situation where the antagonist says, “Build me a car from scrap parts or be immediately shot!”?
Combining this background of LDF with a desire to feel kinship with my main characters, my own novels often feature competent characters who have to learn more about… something.
For instance, my bewildered teenagers in The Hive Queen Saga may be book smart, but they can’t fly a spaceship (even with the manual right in front of them). And in my recent novel Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story, a 40 year old statistician gets hoodwinked into obsessive behavior by her sexy new iPhone. (You’d think she could set optimal schedules for herself, but no.)
Could any of these characters fumigate a house in Ancient Rome? No. But their confidence in one area of their lives teaches them that it’s possible to succeed elsewhere.
Me, I’m just faking it.