Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How to develop your character's skills and talents

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer emailed me to ask a great (and very difficult question) which is, "How do you teach your character new skills? How do you show them discovering abilities?"


I'll admit, I had to think about that one for a bit. The quick answer is that their special talents and abilities should gradually arc, same as the story or other parts of their development.

A good example of this can be found in one of my favorite books from childhood, Matilda by Roald Dahl. Matilda is a little girl who can move objects just by focusing on them. By the end she's gained the skills to - using only her gaze and concentration - lift a piece of chalk and write a threatening note to the evil Ms. Trunchbull on the class blackboard. But in the beginning she's just trying to do things like push over a glass of water. Throughout the story she's increasing her skill level, lifting gradually heavier objects and holding them for longer.

So think about both where your character begins in their skill level and where they should end up. That should help you plant some scenes along the way.

Now, a taste of the skill is fine. But it's a novel, not a how-to guide. In the Skylar Hoyt series, Skylar discovers an interest in sewing and learns how to make her own clothes. The reader gets an occasional peek at what she's doing, but I never go into deep details about what kind of thread she's using or what brand of machine she prefers. Because it doesn't matter.

Going back to the idea of the skill needing to build same as other aspects of character development, it's enough just to "alert" the reader that the character is continuing to practice this particular skill. Like:

"You weren't at church this morning," Connor said when I answered my phone.
"No, I wasn't." I snapped off the light of my new sewing machine. This sewing thing had taken a couple weeks, but I was finally getting the hang of it. "Late night around here."

And the conversation moves on. It's just a little reminder to the audience that Skylar is continuing to work on this even though we might not be seeing it.

Kinda like quidditch in the Harry Potter series. We don't see all of Harry's practices or even all his games, but mentions of quidditch are sprinkled throughout scenes so we know it happens and we assume Harry's skill level continues to grow.

It's important that the skill have a purpose and logic. Like in The Hunger Games, Katniss is skilled with a bow and arrow. Her father taught her how to hunt because they need it for food, but it also serves her well when she winds up fighting for her life in the arena.


Or in Lisa T. Bergren's River of Time trilogy. Gabi is a modern day girl who was taught to fence by her father, who was an archaeologist and had a natural interest in pastimes and sports of old. Gabi's abilities with a sword come in real handy when she accidentally time travels to medieval Italy.

Returning to my example of Skylar and her sewing, which isn't quite as dramatic a skill as wielding a sword or hunting, Skylar's interest and abilities are logical because she has always loved fashion. Sewing serves a variety of purposes throughout the story, but the biggest is it's something that brings her closer to Heather, an adult who mentors Skylar in her new life.

What kind of cool skills have you given to your characters?

Also, don't forget your entries for the current writing contest are due today! If this is the first you're hearing about it, it's just 100 words, so you still have time. Check out details here.

31 comments:

  1. This is a great post! I love Matilda. Such a good book! And thanks to that writer who asked an awesome question. :)

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  2. Thanks for the post! Hmm... I'll need to think about getting my MC a hobby. But it has to be something that helps the story... I'll go think about it! But thanks Miss Stephanie!

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  3. I love this sort of development. =) In my next WIP, my heroine hides messages in her artwork--subconsciously at first, but when the hero picks on them, it's going to become part of their secret communication. Mwa ha ha ha! ;-)

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    1. I think you are trying to torture me. Mrs. White, you keep dropping all these little hints to your next books (which I love) but it just makes me want to read them and they are not due to be published for about nine? months yet!!

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    2. I like where your going with that, Roseanna!! :)

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    3. LOL, 4readin! Worse, this is the second Culper Ring book, so it's not due out until summer 2013! And is unwritten, so, um, I should get back to work. ;-)

      And thank you, Nicole. =)

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    4. Maybe this is a character building experience. Developing patience. I suppose I shall have to wait with eager anticipation until then!

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  4. One of my MC's talents is theater. She has a passion and talent for musicals. She (of course!) is chosen as the lead for several productions she is in.

    Another MC (different story) has a passion for public speaking. In highschool he is involved in competive speech and debate.

    I think that these things are helpful in storylines. Sometimes, the MC's talents/interests are more of a side note (like Skylar's love for sewing) and sometimes they can be more of a key element to the story (like way Katniss uses her bow to defend herself) and sometimes, they are the whole story (like in the Nancy Drew books, Nancy's love for mystery solving is the story).

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  5. My MC is a bit of a sleuth - he loves to read, especially mystery books, and throughout the story he gives some insight to wanting to be a criminal investigator. Even though my book doesn't have much to do with that, I'm thinking that when he's an adult (lol, character growth - he's a teen now) I'll put him in as the MC of a mystery series I write, or something...I like to take characters out of one book and use them in another. :)

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    1. And it is always fun to finish a series only to discover that there are more books about them Sarah! It is nice to be able to see how they are doing after the first book has ended.

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  6. My female main character Ren is a sailor - so I try to connect sailor terms and similes with other things that happen in the story.

    I think the FMC for my next story will be a healer...she's telling me that's what she wants to do, so I can't interfere :)

    Thank you for the post, Stephanie! I was just rereading "Out with the In Crowd" and before I even read this post I was thinking, 'I love how she works in Skylar's sewing.' :)

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    1. Aww, Ellyn, thank you! That totally made my day :)

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    2. Ellyn, a female sailor? What time period is this set in? I am curious already!

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    3. A sailor, so cool! :)

      I loved the sewing in Steph's books, too! Took me to back my grandma sewing when I was a little girl. Even though Skylar was a teen, it didn't seem like an "old fashioned" hobby or anything because of her interest in fashion.

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    4. Ellyn, ships and sailors! Love 'em! Have you read any of M.L. Tyndall's books? Via her writing, I've kind of fallen in love with pirates...=)

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  7. What happens if your MC doesn't have any talents? I mean, Ryan, my MC, has been bouncing around all his life, ran away when he was twelve, and now the only thing he's good at is running/hiding. In fact, that was the whole reason he got involved, was that he was perfectly average. There was nothing special about him. So how do you give a talent to someone who is . . . talentless? :/

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    1. Intriguing question, Becki. You can go the route of giving him a talent that's sorta symbolic. (Excellent at field and track, perhaps? Doesn't have to be as obvious as running. He could be great at hurdles or high jump or something.) Maybe as a kid he totally ruled at hide-and-go-seek.

      Or maybe because of all his hiding, he's good at finding people out. Good at solving their mysteries.

      Just some thoughts!

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    2. Hmm, that is a good thought. I think I found one. He's a good sketch artist. Because his dad was in the military, and moved around a lot, there wasn't room for much stuff, and a sketch pad and pencils fit pretty much everywhere. Also, one of his friends starts teaching him martial arts. :) Thank you, it was very helpful! ^_^

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  8. My current MC is a dirt bike stuntman. He's also a quarterback.
    He is so fun to write about, since I've never wrote about a teen boy before.

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    1. Writing from the perspective of another character can be so stretching. Good for you, MaddieJ!

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    2. Haha, thanks Stephanie. I actually emailed you about him when I first started the story, and you got me thinking on his hobbies:)

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  9. thank you so much for answering my question! this really is gonna help me thru some scenes where I was having some trouble writing because of the skill my MC is supposedly learning. Thanks so so much!!! I have fallen completely in love with go teen writers. :)

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  10. My current character is a singer in the worlds biggest televised singing competition and she starts off as a soloist but then she's put together with a few other people and they are put through the show as a band. Their challenge is working well together and winning the show.
    MY challenge is writing this xD I don't sing, never sang in front of an audience, don't play instruments and I've never tried out for a show before. LOADS of research is going on here.

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    1. RandomThinker 1--I have never done competion or done anything televised, but I do sing. I also love the old musicals and movies with actors like Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. I enjoy singing and have done some instruments before in the past and so when my story involves music, I know enough even though I do not know a lot. Unless it is really specific or something. But I can certianly see how hard it would be when you are not involved in music! I know how it is. One of my MC's is a foreign exchange student from France ad it has been really difficult. I know next to nothing about modern France ad Europe and the little I know about France is all history book stuff! And cultural things too. Like if she was from France, how much would she know about Thanksgiving? Would she know about Abraham Lincoln? Things like that are just so hard. So know what you are having trouble with.

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  11. This is helpful. My character is learning to be a queen, and I'm thinking... "Do I have to show all of her lessons?" Etc. because I was having a really hard time thinking of what I should and shouldn't show the reader...

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    1. I struggle with that too. It can be difficlut to know sometimes.

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    2. Going through the same thing, Allison, though with a Princess, not a Queen. :) Fun!

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  12. My main characters seem to have talents that are vital to the story, such as in the story I'm writing now, the main characters can look at a mirror and see someone in another country, plus hear them.

    In the novel I'm planning for Camp NaNoWriMo, my main character is a talented healer, plus she sings.

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  13. You should have heard the "clicks" going off in my brain as I read this post...yes, of course!

    I can totally see that with Skylar. I would have gotten really bored if you had used the word "Singer" more than once (and I don't think you even did that). And Gabi's skill with a sword was completely believable, even if she was used to weapons 30 pounds lighter than the ones she uses in Italy!

    In one of my novels, my FMC loves to garden. Which I kinda don't, so I think I have subtlety down. :) I did use some vegetable names, though, that I don't eat, which I considered stretching the box for me. :-)

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    1. It would have bored me too, Rachelle! I'm not one for sewing, so (much like you) it was easy to keep sewing details to a minimum.

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  14. Soccer is going to be a really big part if my MC's life. It's OK to put a lot of it in the book, right?
    Just as an example of a lot of a hobby in a book:Tournaments, Cocoa and One Wrong Move by Nancy Rue. But maybe it can't be considered as just a hobby because basketball is basically her life (in the beginning). BTW, it is a really great book. :)

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