The Sliding Scale Of Competence, and how to avoid it

We all might have come across this in fiction at one point or the other:

The genius layman outwitting and baffling the experts, the layman finding the (obvious) answer no one else even thought about…

It’s one of my least favorite tropes, I’ll say this ahead of time.

Now, I’m not talking about an outside perspective leading to the solution of a problem. I’m talking about characters that are made out to be much more clever, skilled, competent… then they actually are. Sometimes this can go by unnoticed (mostly). Other times one might sit there, wondering just why the heck no one else thought of that at all/how they are baffled by this turn of events.

It’s a problem of a ‘sliding scale of competence’:

In reality an average person would be the zero on a scale going from -10 to 10. Leaning towards -1 or 1 in some fields here and there. But nevertheless, this is where you’ll find the average person in terms of skill, knowledge etc.

Talent is up to 3, everything beyond that is training and skill, even with ‘geniuses’.
Even if we’d have superpowers IRL, the scale wouldn’t budge, cause you still need to know how to use them. Being immensely powerful means nothing if you don’t know how to use things.

In fiction, however, the scale often gets nudged down to make one or two characters (sometimes even more) appear more skilled, clever etc than they are.
Where the average person suddenly seems to be a -5 or such, while what the hypergenius did is… not all that clever at all.

One way for authors to notice they did that is the sentence
‘Experts are still clueless how X achieved this’ (or similar)

That is one big warning sign, because what this sentence is meant to tell the reader is simple:
Char X, whether ordinary person or hypergenius, baffles the EXPERTS.

What is (subconsciously) shows the reader (or can easily come across as) is that the author didn’t hold much interest in writing this thing to make sense, even in-universe.

It can lead to the reader feeling as if the author thought they wouldn’t understand anything more complex then:
X is the hero and thus more clever than everyone thus X wins.

On way to avoid this is to put more work into worldbuilding:

  • why would the experts be baffled?
  • why could no one else come up with that solution?

and give answers that go beyond ‘X is a genius’.

It is more work, but it helps greatly with a story.


The ultra clever characters are a plot device as old as humanity. Tribal stories have them Tolkien have them Star wars have them… They’re key to many things happen or move forward without 900 boring explanation being giving.

Is Gandalf powers Is Dumbledore powers Is Sherlock mind Is Ulises cunning…
Insert all writers ever.

So I don’t see theIssue except you want change All humanity story culture lol.

I think the issue Penguin is describing is when authors, unsure of how to make a genius character actually seem intelligent, makes the rest of the cast dumber than a bag of rocks so the ‘genius’ looks like a genius in comparison.


the difference is this:

In the GOOD stories the 0 in-universe is where it’d be IRL. it’s not at the -3 or such, but the genius character actually IS more clever than others.

Gandalf is a decent/good example, dumbledore ain’t. Sherlock Holmes (if we talk original or Elementary) is a good example (when Doyle was enjoying writing him), Ulessey’s is not.

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Then the topic is bad bad explained. It is a cast character creation not a problem of make people super intelligent as a plot device

Ulisses is as it is described too intelligent for they own good by several gods and humans his cunning is beyond most humanity. Probably is one of most OP plot devices ever to point being almost uncreative so.

You are mistaken a plot device with a problem creating realistic character setting that i agree is a real issue

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This is what the comparison to a scale going from -10 to 10 is about.

And no, I’m not mistaking anything, mara.

I would argue that a lot of if does fall into this category due to being power/escapism based fiction with the mc as the centre of the universe, and if you know that going in it’s fine (and some people will object when that isn’t the case, so it’s specific to genre.)

On the other hand, you can end up with something like Wesley crusher or this

In which case you’ve either got a Mary Sue, or a character that needs more development to make them real.


That’s a plot device I hate but it is lot used and useful. Main problem nowadays Mary sue has nothing to ground as it have in old literature were that characters have a slightly defect nowadays comics and movies make mary sues boring to fault. But people love that characters.

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