by Angela Ackerman
One worry that can plague writers is whether their characters are original enough or not. After all, readers meet a lot of characters over time, so how can writers make sure their characters are fresh and interesting? How can they make sure their story’s cast has that WOW factor that ensures they stay with readers long after the book closes?
Luckily there’s a myriad of ways to make a character stand out through their personality, belief system, struggles, interests, and more. Characters will also have their own unique backstories, motivations and needs. This is why making time to uncover their inner layers is always worthwhile.
Today, let’s look at a specific area of characterization that can help you individualize your character: Talents & Skills.
In the real world, we all have certain abilities. Maybe we have strong listening skills that help us get to the heart of a matter quickly so we can undo misunderstandings. Or we can haggle well and always manage to get a better price. Whether it’s singing, skiing, welding, or transforming pop cans into an ingenious whirligigs, talents and skills help make us interesting and memorable, and can do the same for characters.
As you can imagine, there’s a cargo ship of possibilities when it comes to special abilities. Some will have a big impact on the story too, so we want to think carefully about what talents our characters might possess. Start by considering…
Bottom line, a character’s giftedness shouldn’t be random. Considering the different types of talents and skills and how they can serve the story can provide lots of ideas, too.
Some abilities are rarer than others, like the ability to talk to the dead, start fires with the mind, throw one’s voice, or use mentalism to gain information and influence others. When we want a character to really stand out we often think about giving them an unusual talent. And that’s fine as long as we know there’s a trade off: unusual talents generate questions that readers will expect to be answered in the story:
How did this talent come about?
When did the character discover it?
Are they alienated because of this ability, or embraced for it?
And finally, how will their skill impact the story?
This last one leads us to another reader expectation: that this exceptional ability will influence the story in a bigger way. So, if you choose an unusual talent, make sure to follow through on this expectation.
Some abilities seem a bit bland, like being skilled at fishing, sewing, or being good with numbers. You might be tempted to skip these and move on to something cooler like being able to hot-wire a car or throw knives.
Spoiler alert: ordinary skills can save the day, too!
A skilled fisherman can be the only thing standing between villagers and starvation during a harsh winter in a lakeside community.
A talented seamstress might save lives on the battlefield.
Having a head for numbers might be how your character helps everyone survive when an Escape Room excursion turns into a psychopath’s maze of puzzles and traps.
Ordinary skills can have a big impact on the story in the right situation. They also resonate and feel realistic to readers. And there’s a message readers connect with, too: that anyone can make a difference, not just the Alphas of the world.
Most often writers choose a skill because it will help their character win. To find the right match, think about what problems the character will face and list out what abilities would help them navigate these situations. Then, challenge yourself to find options that aren’t obvious.
For example, a captive who is a skilled chess player can use strategy and out-of-the-box thinking to escape her captor. A teen who loves parkour might be the group’s only hope of climbing a cavern wall to the surface after a cave-in collapses the tunnel leading out.
“The perfect skill for X situation” can feel contrived to readers, so work to find something that fits the character’s personality, interests, and everyday life.
Some talents and qualities show up consistently in certain genres. Billionaire playboys in romances are often charmers with money-making abilities, and tech-thrillers will have someone skilled in computer hacking. Write fantasy? Chances are your band of adventurers will have wilderness navigation, archery, lying, and leadership skills covered.
It’s okay to choose talents and skills common to your genre if you challenge yourself to twist them into something fresh. Maybe your billionaire doesn’t use his charm to bed anyone…instead he smiles his way into securing fat donations for his charitable foundation. Your computer hacker could be a Robin Hood in disguise by taking the paydays of online scammers and returning money to bank accounts of those scammed. Your adventurers can have the perfect skills for a hallmark quest but when they are transported to a foreign landscape full of unknowns, they must adapt their talents to suit.
With a bit of extra thought, there’s always a way to turn a common trope or premise into something fresh.
Sometimes a character has an ability they wish they didn’t have. Maybe being a natural peacekeeper means constantly being embroiled in family drama, or good intuition means less mistakes, sparking jealousy among peers. An ability to build explosives could land your character into trouble when a cruel king forces him to make bombs that kill those who stand against the crown.
An unwanted skill can also open the box to internal reflections part of character arc. The unhappiness tied to their ability causes them to think about who they are, who they want to be, and how much this skill controls how they see themselves. This can lead to finding a positive way to use their skill so they gain greater fulfillment.
Finally, a great way to subvert expectations is to give your character a talent that seems deceptively useless. Maybe they can solve a Rubix Cube puzzle one-handed, or their steady hands come in handy as a house painter who has to tackle the window trim. Exciting stuff, right?
But what if their dexterity saves them in an emergency? Maybe to help a friend escape wrongful imprisonment they have to they have to pickpocket a key card. Or to undo a curse they must collect magical berries nestled within a thicket of poisonous thorns. Useless talents can transform your story if used the right way!
If you need help choosing your character’s special qualities, swing by the Talent and Skill Database at One Stop for Writers.
This database covers everything from A Way with Animals to ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception) to Sharpshooting. In fact, all the bolded examples of skills and talents in this post are part of this show-don’t-tell database!
Do you have a talent or skill that you’ve given to a character? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, and its many sequels. Available in nine languages, her guides are sourced by US universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold 750,000 copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.
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Great post, Angela! I love when a certain odd talent is used in some way to help solve a plot problem. Having a talent outside the main plot rounds out a character, too. Makes them real and relatable. I'll be checking out the Talent and Skills Thesaurus for sure.
I love this too, Barb. I like learning about the skills and seeing characters use them to solve problems in creative ways. It's AWESOME.
Barb, so glad this was helpful. I find like all things, if we think a little deeper rather than go with the first thing that comes to mind, it's always worth it! Hope the Talent and Skills thesaurus gives you some good ideas!
I find it irritating when characters seems to have unlimited time to be in the story - so that needs an explanation (Lord Peter Wimsey has family money; he can suit himself).
After that, I'd like a bit of those professions shown by the characters actually doing their job. And to have it come up periodically, not only when supremely convenient for the story. Definitely only the tip of the iceberg, though - unless the story is about that. And sneaked in organically rather than in info dumps or "As you know" chunks of awkward dialogue.
One of my main characters is a writer - the other two are actors. Their jobs are the background against which their relationships play out - each has their own methodology. You get small snippets of something the writer wrote, and part of her process as she learns a new writing skill, including screenplays; and each actor's different process is shown in excerpts from the movies being shot in the background - Hollywood, Bollywood, remote sets.
I make sure that in my notes I have a complete manuscript for each movie and book sketched out, but that is for me, not the reader. For the reader I provide just enough to believe the storyline - and dole it out when needed, not in a lump. But if a reader pays attention, all those other stories are buried in the text.
It's the fun part of the job. My job.
I love it when a whole book is built around a work project. It makes the whole thing more interesting and really brings in a lot of fascinating secondary characters.
I can't remember. Have you read it to see if you like how I do it?
I think you're on the right path - so much of writing is knowing what it is we need to know to get into our character's skin, and what the reader needs to know. I agree it's frustrating when someone has a skill or does a job well and it's not anchored very well in who they are. Very few people just happen to be good at random thing X, and in the story our readers will be looking for little details to line up...they are hardwired to follow clues. We want to make sure we're getting them on the page when we need to. 😉
Funny how people who don't know much about something can still spot the stuff that isn't solid. Readers are awesome. And smart.
Yeah they are!
Real people have jobs. And even ill or disabled people somehow have to make it through each day. They can't just be conveniently on and alive when you need them for the story.
Readers have jobs - they sense the disconnect if the characters don't work.
Those little details are what keeps us anchored. Assuming we're writing realistic fiction and not aliens. And even there - creatures need energy, energy is povided from work.
Thank you for: "A talented seamstress might save lives on the battlefield."
I need to round out a character in my WIP. She's a kimono/dressmaker in WWII Japan, near the end of the war. I have a black-moment scene in a hospital after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
Thanks to you, she's now going to jump in to help sew up some patients...making her a much more sympathetic character before she does something readers may not like her for.
Please keep teaching and inspiring us!
That's awesome, Chris!
Oh my gosh, I'm so happy this idea can be put to good use! And it will add layers to her character that she jumps in and does what needs to be done rather than hold back. Love it - good luck with this story!
What an interesting post!
I have a character that learns how to play poker while jumping trains on the way to the west coast with his siblings. He is the reprobate of the three. LOL.
He develops a real talent for cards that gives him problems in the following story. It's not my talent, I'm a terrible gambler. Too many tells.
I'm not a good gambler either. It stresses me out too much. LOL.
Ellen, I don't know if you are watching The Wheel of Time, but there's a character Mat, and he's a gambler. Need pushes him to do it as he has young sisters to feed and deadbeat parents. He's not great at it at the start but something really interesting will happen to make him become incredibly "lucky" that fits with his character. It's the start of a big arc and leads to some incredible roles he'll play in the series. So if you're up for a longer running series (that's just at Season 1 now, give it a try. Or, read the series - it's terrific and I think you'll like Mat's character, especially in the book. 🙂 .
I've been working on the second book of a series. Female is an auditor of farm/ranch accounts in three Southwest states for the Federal Land Bureau. Male is a Sheriff's Deputy working out of Mesilla, NM. By the end of Book, they have solved a crime together and are engaged to be married. In Book 2, she leaves the FLB and goes out on her own as auditor/bookkeeper/tax advisor. I think I need to "spice up" her profession, so this article is steering me off to look for that. Thanks!
Awwwwww! I love a good HEA. Yours sounds fun.
Sounds fascinating! I think it would be neat if a side talent made her particularly good at solving crimes, something that's not tied to her job as that investigative-ness will also help her, I'm thinking. Maybe she can smell things others can't? She can understand animals in a way others can't? She can read the weather? Knife throwing? Not sure - have fun trying a few things out!
This is simply terrific. I love all the wonderful examples and how well thought out everything is. Thanks. I will be posting the link on my blog.
Glad it was helpful, Rosi! 🙂
Thanks for this post, Angela! Lots of great ideas for bringing characters to life.
Thank you Lisa! I hope this helps you plan your character's talents and skills moving forward 🙂
I gave a character an eidetic memory, but an editor made me take it out--I don't think she understood why it was special. Perhaps I didn't do a good job showing it.
That's strange, but I agree, she maybe didn't see how it added to the whole and connected the dots, or she was worried it was detracting from someone else. You should ask why she did that so you have a better understanding, because even if you don't use it, you'll keep her feedback in mind for future characters.
Great article! I love the way you embellish the seemingly mundane in ways that make the ordinary extraordinary. And I especially like the bit about unwanted talents. We probably all have a couple of those.
I currently have 2 WIPs that would likely fall in the magical realism genre. My female leads have spiritual gifts--one is an animal psychic, the other a healer from a long line of medicine women that can almost be traced back to the Celts. The healer uses her skill and gifts in her business as an herbalist making teas and salves, and also in seeing occasional clients for sessions. It's how she meets the male lead when her services are recommended for his mother suffering from cancer. The conflict arises between her pagan background and his strict Christian upbringing.
I love the natural friction you've created - it will cause a lot of self-reflection and an examination of beliefs systems. Nicely done!