Last week, we discussed how to start building a character with quite a bit of depth and complexity. If you haven’t read that article, I’d advise you to head here and do so. Then come back.
This week, we’re going to be looking at the next stage in character development. Just what exactly can your character do? What skills do they have? If they are a magic user, what spells can they cast? Also, we’re going to look at how their natural talents affect how they learn to use these skills and abilities.
So, let’s get started.
Skills are just what it sounds like – what has your character learned to do? Reading, writing, sword fighting, gun slinging, target shooting, hunting, survival, brawling, etc. Anything that is not inherent is considered a skill. And, it is always a good idea when you are building your character to figure out what skills they will need by the end of the story when you start building your character. This allows you to pick three or four skills beyond the common, every day skills needed to just belong to society.
Try to make sure your skills fall into groups. Sure, if you are starting your character from a nobody, then they won’t have much. May not even have reading and writing. But, if they have to know how to pick a lock while singing the Star Spangled Banner and balance on a tight rope over an abyss filled with lava, you’d better have a really good training regime planned for them, or provide them with something in the beginning that they can build from, like black smithing or glass blowing. That takes part of the pressure off of you to explain why they aren’t affected by the heat the way most folks would. Even if you are working in a fantasy setting, magic that is used for everyday uses gets real old, real fast. For the sci-fi writer, the use of heat suits works for a while, but your readers will want to know how your character can stand the stench after about three hours of being stuck in the suit. (I know I have when reading sci-fi that sticks characters in space suits for extended periods of time. Even if the elimination functions are taken care of, how do you deal with the sweat and breath smells? Yuck!) Yes, you can skip over these if you want, but expect at least a few readers to zero in on these exact points and have a field day.
So, now that you have selected the starting set of skills, and you have a pretty good idea of what skills your character will have to know by the end of your story, think about the skill trees. How does that skill in blacksmithing or glassblowing help your character learn to pick locks? What about singing? Balance? If you can figure out those connections, I want to know! Most times, one or more of your skills will be counterproductive to other necessary skills. For those who’s parents grew up through the 70’s, and who’s mother worked as a secretary, ask her about short hand. Or, google the short hand writing style. Once you do, think about how that would affect writing in what the rest of the world considers “normal” letters and words. Would it make the regular writing neater or sloppier?
So, with the skills you need to develop, and the skill trees you’ve established, now you need to figure out how those skills build from one skill point to another. For the blacksmithing, you could say he designed and created locks. Because of this, he knows how the locks are made, which would give him insight into how the tumblers might be arranged. Every lock has a key, so he would know how keys work to trigger the lock tumblers to cause the lock to open. From there, it is a reasonable jump to think that there might be times when your blacksmith might be called upon to create a new key because the original was mislaid. So, now he’s got to learn how to pick the locks to learn where the tumblers are so he can make a key that works. And, suddenly, you have a blacksmith that can pick any lock. He didn’t just jump up from standing at the forge beating on metal to picking a complex lock. There were all those baby steps in the middle. He LEARNED how to take those steps. The same type of progression will be necessary for the other skills if you want to keep your reader engaged in the story.
Sure, in a game setting you can grab an unrelated skill and dump skill levels into it. Most game masters will let you get away with that. But, honest game masters who do are going to set your difficulty levels sky high while your character figures out what to do with this unexpected skill they’ve got. Not everyone can live in the Matrix, and Neo did have to learn how to handle the sudden information uploads before he could operate smoothly. Same goes for your character.
Abilities are what your character is born with, or has an affinity for. Ever been to that mechanic who could diagnose the problem in your car’s engine just by listening to it run for a few minutes? Yeah, you could get away with saying he had a mechanic ability. Everyone has some ability, or group of abilities. Be selective, though. Having an affinity for everything your character needs in order to solve the big problem at the end will work against you. It’s the failures that create the entertainment, not the successes. Just because you need your character’s daughter to be able to ride a flawless course on her pony does not mean that little girl has an affinity for riding. She could have an affinity for dancing, which can HELP with her riding – both require balance and coordination – but it also makes that girl have to work even harder to get that flawless round.
Think about the movie The Incredibles. Elastigirl, Mrs. Incredible, had an affinity for being in the right place at the wrong time. This helped her keep her kids out of trouble, but it sure did make matters extremely difficult for Mr. Incredible himself when he got into trouble. Abilities can be both a help and a hindrance in real life, so use them the same way with your character.
This is what I consider the keystone to making a character believable. It adds the finishing touches to who your character is. Typically, when I get to this point, I have a pretty good idea of how my character thinks. This section gives me a chance to refine the reasons for those modes of thought. Though it is a good idea to balance the merits against the flaws, having a slight imbalance won’t be a death sentence, so long as you don’t have ALL merits or ALL flaws. And, some of the merits if expressed too strongly can become flaws, some flaws can become merits. Borrowing from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series – Percy is so loyal to his friends, he cannot see anything wrong with them. The merit – loyalty – is expressed too strongly, so becomes a flaw. Or, something more of the adult (or semi-adult) generation has read, Harry Potter. Hermione is smart. Frighteningly smart. But, she has trouble thinking beyond the pages of the books she loves so much. Once again, her merit – super intelligent – becomes a flaw. Ron, on the other hand has an outstanding flaw – cowardice. Yet, that flaw becomes a merit because much as he’s afraid of being hurt, he is afraid of being left out, so when he leaves Harry in the Deathly Hallows, he returns so he can be included in finding an answer.
For your character, this is where you pull everything together.
Melding the pieces into a whole
So, now, you have your physical description, your basic statistics, what type of profession (class) your character has taken up, a brief summary of their history, a good idea of how they feel about their present circumstances and how they got where they are now, their skills, abilities, merits and flaws. Whew, that’s a big list. If you are working on a character sheet, you probably have two pages of information bits and pieces. If you’re working by hand, you may have up to four pages of bits and pieces. Last week, we were working with Joe, a human druid living in a small bungalow deep in the heart of some big city:
“Joe strode down the street in his well fitted jeans that molded to his runner’s legs. The wind pressed his button down shirt against his surprisingly large spare tire as he brushed back a stray strand of well-cut wavy brown hair out of his hazel eyes. He sighed in remorse at the hard concrete he walked over every day, his eyes traced the path his feet were following along the pavement hoping to see some sign that Nature hadn’t been totally eradicated in this cursed city. Several of the people in the crowds called his name in joyful recognition, but he failed to hear them because of his boss’ last words echoing in his mind. ‘Son, I don’t understand how someone as graceful as you are could be so clumsy. That display you knocked over this afternoon is irreplaceable. Either find a way to fix it, or you’re fired.’
He scrambled through his thoughts, trying to figure out just how it was he had tripped into that display. The floor had been smooth, nothing to catch his foot, and no loose cords had been laying out. It seemed that every since he had gone to work for the manufacturer, his luck had just run out. Maybe his dad had been wrong about him. Maybe he was just meant to be a failure his whole life. Especially now. His roommates were deadbeats, which left him to pay for the bills on his own. But, how could he fix that display and pay the rent both? His mind worried about how he was going to keep the despised job so he could continue to pay the month’s rent. Rent he felt he shouldn’t have to pay. This small bungalow was all that was left from his mother’s estate. Supposedly left to him from the pittance she earned working in the same job he held now. He just hoped that one day he could finally discover why she had left for work one day, and never came home.”
Let’s add in the skills for computer operator, language: Spanish, and gather information. His abilities run to: Eschew materials, lightning reflexes, and clear sight. And, to make matters more interesting, his merits/flaws fall into: overconfident (f), concentration (m/f), eidetic memory (m), bad sight (f), and bard’s tongue (f).
Using the above quote, can you add the new pieces into the segment to finish filling out “Joe” into a fully realized character? Leave a ping back, and I’ll mention the best examples in next week’s post where I provide my own example.