As many of you know, Angela and I are have a Talents and Skills Thesaurus that includes many different aptitudes that a character might have. We started this thesaurus because we wanted to offer writers more options than the usual talents we see portrayed over and over in novels. Hence, this thesaurus.
But recently, I received a question on my Facebook page that made me think about this: Why does every character have to have a unique skill or talent? In formulating a response, I realized that this is an interesting question that needed more of a response than I could type into a comment field. So I’d like to address it here.
First, let me say that all characters don’t have to have a stand-out talent or skill. I can think of a handful who don’t (though I could argue that they do have talents disguised as character traits, like charm or leadership). But the fact that the overwhelming majority of memorable characters are really good at something speaks to the value of talents and skills. A lot of good things happen when our characters display an aptitude for something. Knowing this, I’d like to share a few reasons why you should consider assigning one to your hero, villain, or sidekick.
1. Talents and skills are admirable. Why are we drawn to certain people in real life? Many times it’s because there’s something about them that we admire—a character trait they possess or a talent that they’re good at. Michael Jordan, John Williams, Christina Aguilera…we’re interested in these people because they can do something really cool, and they’re really good at what they do. Giving your character a special talent makes them a little more interesting to readers for the same reason.
2. They add uniqueness. How many novels have I read recently where the main character was a runner, artist, or writer? These are great skills, but sometimes you want something to make your character a little more unusual. When a talent is bestowed thoughtfully, in a way that makes sense for the character, it can go a long way toward creating a character that no one has ever seen before. And that’s usually a good thing.
3. They add character depth. So often, talents and skills seem to be randomly attributed to characters. Many times, a talent or hobby is a popular one that seems to be a passion of the author more than a true gift of the character. To add dimension, choose talents and skills that make sense for THEM. They should flow out of the character’s backstory, upbringing, experiences, and life circumstances. Chosen thoughtfully, a talent or skill can enliven an otherwise dull character.
4. They add depth to the story. Skills can definitely be used to enhance a character, but what about skills that elevate the story itself? Archery is a pretty cool talent in itself, but when it’s necessary to Katniss’ survival and solving the overall story problem in not just one but all three novels, it adds to the story, making it thick and meaty and layered.
5. They define peripheral characters. It’s not just the hero or villain who benefits from being good at something. Secondary and minor characters are also made more memorable by their talents or skills. Take To Kill a Mockingbird. Look past the main players to the ones in the shadows. Mrs. Dubose, a nasty, racist, morphine-addicted old woman who grows the most beautiful gardenias on the street. Calpurnia, the African-American housekeeper who breaks the stereotype of the day by being able to read and write. Dill, the summer playmate who, it turns out, is very inventive when it comes to making up stories about his past. There are a lot of characters in this well-loved story, and when the cast is large, it’s easy to get them confused. But when the players are assigned interesting or memorable skills, they’re less likely to be forgotten.
6. They can add conflict. Not everyone will value a character’s talent as much as the reader or character himself do. What about the jealous competitor who wishes he could rival the hero? The parent, teacher, or government official who doesn’t see that particular talent as being valuable? The character who wishes he was better at his skill, or that he didn’t have it at all? A talent that must be hidden or downplayed? There are so many ways to add conflict to a story. Using a character’s supposed strength is a great and unusual way to add tension.
7. They can be removed. Characters depend upon their talents. Many times, they define who a person is. Assigning a skill to a character can be beneficial for the simple fact that it can be removed and make things really complicated. When a childhood piano prodigy loses her ability to play, how does she then define herself (Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay)? When Grace’s mother dies and she’s unable to write the poetry that has always soothed her, how will she cope? (The Secret Hum of a Daisy, Tracy Holczer). As closet torturers, authors are always looking for ways to make things more difficult for their characters. Giving them a talent, then taking it away, is a great way to add inner conflict and turmoil.
For these reasons, I would argue in favor of giving your character a specific talent or skill. You can have a successful story without them, but including them can make the job a lot easier.
*photo credit: Wm Jas at Creative Commons