In one of her sessions at Springmingle '14, editor Cheryl Klein said one trait of a compelling character was that they were good at something. I immediately thought of Dwight from the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger--the weirdest kid at school who really creeped everyone out, but he did amazing origami.
This skill made him not only interesting to the reader, but interesting to the other characters and ultimately created the core conflict of the novel's plot (Was Origami Yoda real and could they trust his advice?) Sure, Dwight was weird, but everyone could get past that because of his skills. He could do what none of them could and that made him special.
We admire skill, even when the skillful person is less than admirable. Some of the best characters ever created are dark and dangerous and people we wouldn't want to hang around with. But they're also really good at something.
Making your protagonist good at something is a great idea (and this skill is often what makes them the protagonist in the first place), but secondary characters can also benefit from this trait. A talent or skill can turn them from window dressing to vital players in the novel.
Let's look at some benefits of giving secondary characters a skill:
It keeps the protagonist from being perfect
It's far too easy to heap talents on your protagonist, but this can turn them into a Mary Sue or Gary Lou (someone who's too perfect to be real or enjoyable to read about). It's not believable for one person to be so good at so many things. Instead of giving the hero yet another amazing skill, why not give it to the best friend or sidekick character?
(Here's more on creating a great protagonist)
It helps flesh out characters who don't always get fully developed
Thinking about what a character is good at also encourages you to consider what they're bad at. Talents and flaws help round out a character and make them feel more real. They're no longer just "the best friend" who doesn't seem to have a life outside of being the protagonist's buddy. They feel like they have lives of their own and things happening to them even when they're not on the page. That also makes the world feel dynamic and alive, and not centered around one person.
(Here's more on creating secondary characters)
It provides more opportunities for conflict
Secondary characters can end up being "yes men" who are just there to support the protagonist. But if they have their own set of skills (and flaws) then they become their own people with their own agendas. People like to use their skills, and this can provide conflict and tension for the protagonist without having to bring in the antagonist. Even when the goal is the same, you can have various characters offer different approaches to the best way to resolve that goal. Even friends fight about the right way to approach a problem.
(Here's more on quiet conflicts)
It gives secondary characters a reason to be there
While the protagonist does indeed need to be the one driving the plot, having them do everything all the time can feel just as annoying as them doing nothing. Use the talents and skills of the other characters to give the protagonist a break once in a while. They can still make the final call, but other characters can contribute and play key roles in the plan. This also gives them legitimate reasons for being part of the story besides window dressing or someone for the protagonist to talk at.
(Here's more on why protagonists need friends)
It provides extra resources to solve plot problems
You don't want to have another character always coming to the rescue when the protagonist is stuck (that would feel contrived), but giving someone else a unique skill can provide the perfect solution to a plot problem at just the right time. It also gives you a pool of options to draw from so you can keep your plot twists unpredictable.
(Here's more on creating plot twists)
Aside from maybe slapstick comedy, it's rarely fun to watch someone screw up all the time. Characters who have skills and use those skills are character we want to see more of. We want to see how they figure out difficult problems and how they work together to resolve issues. We also like to see how those different skill sets might clash and create their own trouble.
Give an already likable character a talent or skill and you might just strike character gold.
What are some of your favorite character's good at? How about your own characters?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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