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…
- A special ability should originate from your character. What fits with their personality, interests, education, or environment?
- Think about what will happen in the story, and the problems the character must navigate. What skills might help them get past hurdles (and hopefully encourage inner growth)?
- Consider their story role. A main character will face a crucible of conflict to reach their goal, and their special ability may influence events and/or be part of their growth arc. A lesser character’s skills, however, may not have the same level of importance.
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.
An Unusual Talent or Skill
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.
An Ordinary Talent or Skill
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.
A Useful Talent or Skill
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.
A Genre-Friendly Talent or Skill
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.
An Unwanted Talent or Skill
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.
A Seemingly Useless Talent or Skill
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!
Ready to Start Brainstorming a Perfect Talent or Skill?
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 Write