[Spoiler note: I have used only examples from relatively early on in the new Thrawn Trilogy and ones which I believe won’t spoil your enjoyment of the story; however, if you’d like to go in with absolutely no knowledge, this will tell you some things about the trilogy.]
I’ve recently read the first two books of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy and it’s given me some thoughts about writing competent characters.
The unique thing about Thrawn as a character is that he comes off as genuinely competent. The first book of the new Thrawn trilogy makes this particularly vivid because, instead of having to pair Thrawn with characters with canonical non-competent personalities, Zahn was free to invent the equally competent Eli Vanto, Arindha Pryce, and Nightswan.
In most books, characters who are supposed to be geniuses go one of three ways. First, they’re chessmasters with incredibly tangled Rube Goldberg Machine plans: “of course, I knew all along that overhearing that conversation would cause the protagonist’s wife to conclude she’s cheating on her and divorce her, motivating the protagonist to seek out the Stone of Plot, thus moving my plans one step closer to fruition!” Second, they’re scientific or magical geniuses with fake science or magic: “of course! If you reverse the polarity of the subspace photon launcher it will babble the techno and that will lower the shields, letting us in!” Third, they’re very good improvisers, which is a genuine kind of intelligence, but also one that is kind of easy for writers. The character doesn’t have to have clever plans, they just have to react cleverly to what’s happening—and the audience will cut them some slack if their solution isn’t amazing. After all, they did think of it in a few seconds.
Thrawn takes a fourth approach.
In his first scene, Thrawn is fighting some Imperial troops which are camped in the forest. He figures out that their shield system must let through small forest animals, or they’d be constantly dealing with false alarms. So he tapes bombs to squirrels and blows up the Imperial camp.
Now, I have no idea if this is a legitimately clever military tactic, or if it makes sense that Thrawn is the first person to think of it. I’m not a tactician. Maybe the Imperial troops should already have had a way of dealing with squirrel bombs. But I can understand Thrawn’s plan. There are no hidden steps of “oh, he’s just a genius, if I were as smart as Thrawn it would make perfect sense why this plan works as well as it does, it only looks like a leap of logic because I’m stupid.” And it’s legitimately clever. I wouldn’t have thought of that! I don’t read a lot of military science fiction, but I don’t recall seeing people using a similar tactic before.
Thrawn also comes off as competent because he does the sort of thing that, in the real world, makes military generals competent. Indeed, it’s almost as if his true secret weapon is that he studied with the secret masters of the long-lost art of the Masters of Business Administration.
Despite living in the Star Wars universe, where multiple people manage their underlings by murdering anyone who gives them bad news, Thrawn repeatedly refuses to punish people when they fail at a task, as long as they did their best or there were unforeseen circumstances. In the original Thrawn trilogy, he once asked why a subordinate let the heroes escape, discovered that the subordinate didn’t know how to use a particular piece of technology, and then punished the man’s trainer.
In the new Thrawn trilogy, Thrawn sometimes looks at spreadsheets. I have never before read a military science fiction novel, much less a Star Wars tie-in novel, in which spreadsheets play such an important role. But sometimes Thrawn and Eli Vanto need to track down smugglers, and then Eli looks at spreadsheets and figures out that there was a random unexplained spike in shellfish exports and maybe that’s because people were smuggling things in the shellfish.
Thrawn does occasionally make tenuous leaps of logic and come up with plans that work as much due to the hand of the author as his own cleverness. And, of course, he’s been given the magic ability to deduce the psychology of a species by looking at their art. But I’m much more willing to grant Thrawn (as written by Zahn) some slack about these issues because overall the book credibly establishes that he’s competent.
What are some lessons that writers can take from how Zahn characterizes Thrawn? One is, I think, the importance of clarity. Thrawn’s competence is not an informed ability. I can reliably understand why his plans would work, and they are reliably cleverer than the plans that I would come up with in a similar situation. If you want to have a genius villain, making their plans a black box works less well than giving them plans the reader can understand which are actually smart. (Simple plans also make the character seem more plausibly competent: overcomplicated plans make you suspect the involvement of the author in keeping some random security guard from derailing step three hundred and fourteen.)
Of course, creating actually smart plans is a problem. My first thought is to read a lot of military history (or other appropriate field if your chessmaster character works in a different area) and crib from actual historical events. I don’t know if this is what Zahn did.
But I think there’s more we can learn from the Thrawn Trilogy on how to write plausibly competent plans.
For example, Thrawn’s plans often involve preparation for future improvisation. In his introductory scene he kills a stormtrooper and then steals their comlink; then, when he kills a second stormtrooper, he puts the first stormtrooper’s comlink in the second stormtrooper’s earpiece and steals the second stormtrooper’s comlink. The Imperials observe that the second stormtrooper still has his comlink, don’t bother to check the serial number and only cut off the first stormtrooper’s comlink’s connection. Thus, Thrawn can eavesdrop on them. Thrawn doesn’t have any specific plan for the comlink; eavesdropping is just the sort of thing that comes in handy. Plans that involve gathering useful tools that improve the character’s position will often come off as very competent.
Another clear example is from a different character, Arindha Pryce. She’s politically ambitious, but she’s assigned to a sinecure at a senatorial office doing constituent relations for a weak, powerless constituency no one cares about. (I really love that “constituent relations” is a thing which exists in the Star Wars universe in Zahn novels and only Zahn novels.) Instead of ignoring her constituents like most people in this sort of sinecure, she decides to passionately and successfully advocate for her needs. Her advocacy is annoying to powerful people and therefore inconvenient to her boss. But her boss can’t fire her for actually doing her job, so he solves the problem by moving her to a more powerful position.
The fascinating thing about this plan is the flexibility. Pryce has a clear plan, but it’s one that would change easily with changing conditions on the ground. She’d take different actions if she met a senator who genuinely wanted to do right by their constituents and thought she shared their values, or if her advocacy caused her to make important contacts among nonprofit organizations. It has the looseness and adaptability that makes for good plans in the real world.
Finally, Zahn’s attention to detail about what people who are good at their jobs really do matters. It doesn’t make any difference to the plot that Eli Vanto looks at spreadsheets or Thrawn is a competent manager: the 501st Legion inexplicably doesn’t betray Darth Vader either, and the information about smuggling could have come just as easily from, say, a spy. But these details create a sense of realism. Thrawn feels like a good admiral because we see him encouraging criticism from his underlings, supporting his soldiers’ career development, and standing up for them against unfair treatment. He behaves in the way we know, from our own lives, that good bosses behave. And that creates a sense of plausibility that keeps my suspension of disbelief from snapping at some of the more Sherlockian jumps to conclusions.
I’d really enjoy reading more books that have this sort of on-page, clearly established competence in their characters. Do you have any recommendations? If you’ve read the Thrawn books, do you agree with my analysis of why they end up working? Are there factors I missed?