Writing: Your Characters Must Earn (or Have Earned) Their Skills

If you want your reader to believe in your make-believe world and suspend disbelief, make sure to show that your characters have earned their skills, knowledge, and powers.

Michael Jordan is quite possibly the world’s greatest, most skilled basketball player. If you watched him in his prime, you might have thought that the only possible reason for his greatness was pure, natural talent. The reality, however, is different. Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team his sophomore year. That event caused him to work harder on his game and helped shape his future career. Jordan may have (and probably did) possess gobs of talent, but he also put in hours of practice and effort to become the player he is today. Michael Jordan earned his skills and the right to be great. While we might not see those hours of practice when he is playing in a game, we know those hours exist “off screen”.

Our characters often have skills in certain areas—especially in speculative fiction. In last week’s post about “Writing: Keeping Character Confrontation Results Realistic,” I discussed giving characters skills that would help them win confrontations with other characters, creatures, and/or technology. Giving characters skills and talents is important, especially when it comes to 1) making them three-dimensional and 2) adding a little flavor and uncertainty to the story. Just remember that whatever talent or skill you choose you give your character must be earned (or have been earned).

If Michael Jordan has to practice basketball even though he has natural talent, your character has to practice his skill—especially if this skill is something that comes into play later.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Magic (and other skills—especially physical skills) must be practiced. Yes, your wizard could be the “chosen one,” but remember that even Harry Potter had to practice his patronus charm. In The Matrix, Neo had to learn how to get used to working within the system.
  • Knowledge must be studied: Your character probably wasn’t born with world knowledge floating around in her brain. She might have a high IQ, but she still needs to study. Hermione Granger read Hogwarts: A History well before she attended it. NOTE: This also applies to knowledge about science fiction technology.
  • Wisdom often comes from making mistakes earlier in life: My dad will often say he learned most of his knowledge about woodworking from “the school of hard knocks.” He usually follows that with a story about how he screwed something up. Your skilled characters probably have a lot of stories. Wisdom can also come from watching others make mistakes and choosing not to go down the same path.
  • Wisdom also comes from experience: A legendary general will have seen many ways to fight a war. He knows what works and what doesn’t based on what he has seen.

One thing to remember: No Info Dumping! You don’t need to show each hour of practice. In fact, your readers really don’t want to read about it. Don’t dump the information. Instead, hint at it throughout your story. Here are a few ways:

  • The age/experience of your character: A general, by nature, has experience. Your reader won’t question it. The same with an elderly wizard. No one questions that Gandalf has practiced his magic. We know that Obi Wan Kenobi has experience as well because of his age.
  • The scuttlebutt about the character: You can show your character’s skills easily through the other character’s reaction to him or her. Back to Gandalf. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins’ reaction to meeting the wizard and all the things he remembers about Gandalf let us know that Gandalf is powerful. Other characters referring to your character’s greatness in dialogue or thought will hint at a skill that has been earned.
  • Mention hours of practice in narrative: It’s cheating, but you can sneak it in if you’re good.
  • Mention the practice in dialogue: In The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten, my character, Gabriella, wins an impromptu archery tournament. Her friend, Zane, asks, “How often do you practice, Gabs?” “Every night for about two hours,” is her reply. NOTE: I also show her practicing a few times as well.
  • Stage an important scene while your character is practicing said skill: In The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten, my character Eric takes time to practice throwing sunstars while two other characters are talking. I added it in on purpose to show how Eric’s skills were earned. In The Elysian Chronicles: Out of the Shadows, my hero, Davian is imprisoned in a dungeon for 10 years. I needed him to function at full speed when he finally escaped the dungeon, so I made sure to show him practicing and exercising before he went to bed and implied through dialogue that he had done this since his capture. The practicing itself wasn’t the important part of the scene, but it showed that he would earn the right to fight at a high level when he escaped.
  • Have two characters discuss previous practice or use of skills: One of my favorite lines in The Avengers occurs when Natasha Romanoff says, “This is just like Budapest all over again. Clint Barton responds, “You and I remember Budapest very differently.” I don’t need to know anything about what happened in Budapest. Just showing that these two have fought together before implies that they have earned their skills.
  • A character performing a skill without thinking shows lots of practice. In my steampunk short story, “The Survivor,” my character Angelica…well, let’s just say she possesses a “very particular set of skills acquired over a very long career that make her a nightmare” for people who get in her way. I give the reader a glimpse of these skills when Angelica needs to unlock a door to help a man trapped on a crashing airship: “Angelica flicked her right hand back. A three-inch-long, needle-thin dagger shot out of her sleeves under her wrist. She inserted it into the lock, and with a few jiggles, opened the door. She jerked her wrist down, and the blade retracted into the spring-loaded sheath hidden under her sleeves.” Angelica does this without thinking about it or worrying about whether she will survive. This behavior is rote because she has done it so many times.

What to take from this: Your characters must earn their skills. They don’t get to be different just because they live in a story.

Mainstream Writers: Your characters may not have magic powers, but they probably have skills, and those skills have been earned with hours of practice and study. Make sure to show it or refer to it.

Speculative Writers: Because your characters might have skills that don’t exist in real life, make sure to show a bit of what it takes or took for them to acquire said skills. This will help your make-believe elements feel even more real.

If you are new to this blog, For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing a series of posts about writing speculative fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, comic books, paranormal, and horror. (For the full list, click here or on the category called “Making Make-Believe Believable.”) This week, we are taking a closer look at the third and most important rule for making readers suspend their disbelief and buy into our story’s make-believe elements: Rule #3—Govern Your Make Believe Elements. We have already discussed these techniques:

Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.

About M. B. Weston

M. B. Weston is an award-winning fantasy, pulp, young adult, steampunk, and paranormal author. Her attention to procedure and detail gives her works an authentic gritty, military feel that takes an adventure tale to the level of a true page-turner. Weston’s writing attracts both fantasy and non-fantasy readers, and her audience ranges from upper-elementary students to adults. A gifted orator, Weston has been invited as a guest speaker to numerous writing and science fiction/fantasy panels at conventions across the US, including DragonCon, BabelCon, NecronomiCon, and Alabama Phoenix Festival. She has served on panels with such authors as Sherrilyn Kenyon, J. F. Lewis, Todd McCaffrey, and Jonathan Maberry. Weston has spoken to thousands of students and adults about the craft of writing and has been invited as the keynote speaker at youth camps and at several schools throughout the US.
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5 Responses to Writing: Your Characters Must Earn (or Have Earned) Their Skills

  1. Pingback: An interesting article | neoclassicalrussianculture

  2. Pingback: An interesting article by M. B. Weston. | Alfred Creative Writers

  3. Angela says:

    I love this article thanks for sharing, growth of character is an important part of writing I certainly overlooked in the early days. My initial reaction is to make my characters perfect to make them likeable however flawed characters are much more relateable. I look forward to improving my characters in my next release.


  4. Pingback: Character Development: Earned Skills | Ink Blots

  5. Boiling Ink says:

    This article is so insightful. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I wanted to let you know that I posted a link to it on my own blog.


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