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.