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In literature, the competent man or competent woman is a stock character who can do anything perfectly, or at least exhibits a very wide range of abilities and knowledge, making him a form of polymath. While not the first to use such a character type, the heroes and heroines of Robert A. Heinlein's fiction are generally competent men/women (with Jubal Harshaw being a prime example), and one of Heinlein's characters Lazarus Long gives a good summary of requirements:
- "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
- — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
The competent man, more often than not, is written without explaining how he achieved his wide range of skills and abilities, especially as true expertise typically suggests practical experience instead of learning through books or formalized education alone. While not implausible with older or unusually long-lived characters, when such characters are young it is often not adequately explained as to how they acquired so many skills at an early age. It would be easy for a reader to form the impression that the competent man is just basically a superior sort of human being.
Many non-superpowered comic book characters are written as hyper-competent characters due to the perception that they would simply be considered underpowered otherwise. Batman, for example, is typically depicted as a member of the Justice League of America alongside Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, all of whom are superpowered while he lacks superhuman powers of any kind. As a result, despite his original depiction as a vigilante, modern depictions of Batman portray him as having achieved the peak-human possibility in all things physical and intellectual. The same treatment has been applied to Lex Luthor, who has always been Superman's archenemy despite the former's total lack of superhuman powers.
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- Indiana Jones
- Adam Reith, from Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series
- Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias)
- Aloysius Pendergast, from the fiction of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
- Mister Terrific from DC Comics
- Cyrus Smith from Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island and other protagonists of this author
- Doc Savage
- Derek Flint
- James Bond
- Jack Ryan, a character in many of Tom Clancy's novels
- Super Commando Dhruva
- Modesty Blaise
- Gregory House
- Angus MacGyver
- V (V for Vendetta)
- Lazarus Long, Jubal Harshaw, and several other Robert Heinlein characters
- Sam Beckett, from Quantum Leap (television)
- Yoko Tsuno
- Professor Philip Angus Mortimer — a leading physicist in the Belgian comics series Blake and Mortimer
- Jarod – the title character in The Pretender TV series, an extreme example who acquires competence at nearly superhuman speeds.
- Ferdinand Waldo Demara – A real-world Competent Man whose exploits inspired numerous biographical and fictional works including The Pretender TV series.
- Peter Wimsey
- P. G. Wodehouse's Psmith, and Jeeves
- Stile, from Piers Anthony's Apprentice Adept series
- Francisco d'Anconia, from Atlas Shrugged.
- James Bolivar diGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, hero of Harry Harrison's series of the same name. His wife Angelina and his sons James and Bolivar also qualify, as does his boss, Inskipp the Uncatchable, head of the Special Corps.
- Jason dinAlt in Harry Harrison's Deathworld novels and stories.
- Westley in The Princess Bride
- Nicole Des Jardins (Rama II and its sequels by Arthur C. Clarke and Gentry Lee), is an example of a competent woman.
- John Taylor of Simon R. Green's Nightside series, most especially his ability to take bullets out of people's guns without their noticing.
- Michael Westen from Burn Notice
- Edmond Dantès from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père
- Many of Alfred Hitchcock's early protagonists
- Many of Clive Cussler's protagonists, for example Dirk Pitt.
- Many of Neal Stephenson's protagonists
- Many of Robert Ludlum's protagonists, for example Jason Bourne.
- Many of H. Beam Piper's protagonists
- Samurai Jack
- Huey Freeman
- Buckaroo Banzai
- Paul Muad'Dib
- Paladin from Have Gun--Will Travel
- Neal Caffrey from White Collar
- Charley Kinraid, from Sylvia's Lovers by Elizabeth Gaskell
- Tony Stark aka Iron Man
- Sam Damon, the protagonist of Once An Eagle
- Walker, Texas Ranger
- Jamie Fraser, of the Outlander series
- Kvothe, the protagonist of Name of the Wind
- Sherlock Holmes
- Richard Hannay
- Judge Holden, the antagonist of Blood Meridian