Awesome or Better Than You: In the Details

Yesterday, I talked about a character continuum between Awesome and Better Than You characters, and its uses in helping guide the target audience’s response to any given character. One thing I find really interesting about the continuum is that it’s a razor’s edge; there are many behaviors that characters across the continuum might use, and what matters isn’t exhibiting the behavior but how the behavior is exhibited. Check out these cases of when style makes all the difference between Awesome and Better Than You.

  • Being awesome, in general. The Better Than You character is usually Awesome, yes, but Awesome with the caveat “…And You Are Not”. Better Than You characters tend to draw attention to their skills, usually through boasting about them—but characters who combine their Awesome with a tendency to ask “Was that good enough? Was it?” or otherwise show a constant and somewhat ostentatious lack of confidence in it tend to get very, VERY annoying to the people who haven’t even gotten that far, and sometimes to the ones who have.
  • Recognizing the skills of those below them. Yes, this can be a Better Than You trait; what matters isn’t that they do it, it’s how. The Awesome character, acknowledging another character’s skill, will do so honestly and without reservation, and most likely without surprise (unless it’s because she had no idea he’d had training/been practicing, or he’s got a mess of beginner’s luck on his side, and in that case it’s almost invariably real. That or he’s too young to tell the difference, and she’s trying to boost his confidence). The Better Than You character, on the other hand, just can’t give a straight compliment to save her life. Characters are praised compared to people at their general skill level, people in a group they belong to (usually that the Better Than You characters considers inferior), or anyone other potential point of comparison that leaves a certain suspicious feeling about how good that compliment actually is. And surprise, or phrasing that hints at surprise, is near-constant. “I wasn’t expecting you to be that good.” “Oh, my, you’ve learned a few tricks.”
  • Similarly, recognizing other people’s victories, particularly those of people below them. An Awesome character will, when the situation calls for it, agree that she’s outmatched in that field, or that the other character won. If the Awesome character had any sort of handicap, the only acknowledgement she’s going to give of that is that she’s decided it isn’t as necessary, and she’s not very likely to accuse her opponent of cheating unless it’s pretty blatant. The Better Than You character, on the other hand, will always find a reason why she lost—her opponent cheating, her being at a disadvantage for whatever reason, her ‘letting’ him win (extra points for making it sound like that was for his own good, the poor dear). Both of these go even when the Awesome/Better Than You character was not actually competing against the character who just did something praiseworthy; the Awesome character will recognize the other character’s accomplishments, while the Better Than You character is likelier to downplay them.
  • Working with other people. Both Awesome and Better Than You characters have been known to work with others. Awesome characters are likely to do this partly because they like working with those people; partly to give the others a chance to grow; partly to shore up their own weaknesses. The Better Than You character might be trying to cover for her weaknesses, but it’s likelier that she’s just doing it so she can pick and choose the tasks she wants to do. As a result, the Awesome character will ask for help specifically addressing the character’s skills, particularly when he really is better suited for the job than she is, and odds are she’s going to take at least a few of the tasks that nobody really wants and divide the rest as evenly as possible; the Better Than You character may not necessarily be obvious about it, but she’s likelier to be assigning people tasks depending on how badly she wants to avoid doing them and who’s least likely to challenge those decisions rather than who’s suited for the job, and when she assigns someone work they’re likely to get that sneaking suspicion that she could have done it herself if she’d felt like it. She’s also likelier to assign them with ‘you may‘, as if it’s only by her grace that the character is allowed the (dubious) honor of handling this particular task.

It’s a pretty finicky balance, but then again, Awesome vs. Better Than You can be a subjective and finicky distinction.

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