Last time I brought up the four main aspects of character in fiction. Hopefully everyone who read that post now has a good understanding of what these aspects are and how they relate to each other. In the next set of posts, I want to go into more detail on how these various aspects of character interact with the story. I’m going to be illustrating these interactions with examples from published fiction, and maybe that will give you a better idea of what I’m saying. I know I can be a bit opaque at times.
The easiest aspect to address is “skills, abilities and attributes(SAAT)”. We’ll stick to that for this post, since the discussion is going to be much more involved. In fact, if the title suggested to you that this will take more than one post, I may be getting better with titles.
First, I’m going to tack on a fourth part of this category, the “T” in the above acronym. It may seem like hair-splitting now, but when we eventually discuss Mary Sue/Marty Stu characters and cast balance, it’s going to come in handy. Trust me.
T stands for… “talent”. ***pauses for the groans to pass*** Whatever you may think about talent in real life—whether you follow the 10,000-hour-genius school of thought, or the natural gifts philosophy—the fact is that it plays a large role in fiction, whether that’s your heroine’s staggering gift for pissing off her friends, or her incredibly advanced flute-playing. Or whatever.
Next, for the rest of these posts, I’m going to use the word “trait” to refer generally to any part of any aspect of character. “Personality trait”, “physical trait”, “motivational trait”—and I can’t really think of a reasonably graceful term for SAAT traits. Feel free to suggest one in comments. I’d appreciate it. Also keep in mind here that there’s a very similar continuum as far as intellectual traits go, with intelligence standing in for natural talent, knowledge for skill, and so on.
Now, back on-track: Not only will this aspect affect how readers perceive and sympathize with your character, it has a lot to do with your plot, or it should. Unless you’ve tacked on a bunch of extra awesomesauce traits to make your character cooler, the way they meet the obstacles in their path is going to rely almost entirely on what they can do. (That is, for the external conflicts. Internal conflicts are a whole other story. In fact, you might say that every book has two stories, one following the plot, and the other following the characters. But that’s a topic for another post.) If your character is a demolitions expert, they’ll be seeing safe-cracking from an entirely different perspective than if they were a computer programmer/hacker/console cowboy. We’ll be starting with a no-skill situation, and picking the next thread up later.
No matter how many latent talents your character may have, they’re not going to get much done without a repertoire of skills. They might be the strongest mage in the world, but if they know jack about casting spells, some poor conjurer panhandling in the park could out-magic them. This situation is most often found with younger characters (but not always), and it comes equipped with a whole host of tropes and conventions to help writers get around it.
Trope 1: The Call et al: If you’ve ever read any epic fantasy, you’ll know what most of these tropes are. They’re laid out in excruciating detail on TV Tropes, or in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Face. These all relate to how even though the MC is a completely worthless good-for-nothing, (s)he will still somehow manage to save the world. We migh generalize and call this “Fate”.
Trope 2: School! I know everybody’s familiar with this one. Harry Potter, Name of the Wind, Earthsea, Velgarth, a bajillion anime and manga. This is where the talented, the not-so-talented, and the absolutely abysmal gather to learn their craft. Older students tend to go to a high-class university or get more practical training. I’m just happy Eragon opted to skip this trope. Stories that follow this trope generally contain a great deal more slice-of-life action that Fate and Mentor stories. While learning the skills needed to resolve the conflict is still important, it’s not usually the driving force behind the characters’ actions. For Harry, going to Hogwarts has little to do with defeating Voldermort in the beginning, for example.
Trope 3: Master/apprentice: Unfortunately, Eragon opted not to skip this trope. Any fantasy writer is going to be only too familiar with this one, though it applies in many other genres as well. Martial arts, competitive board games, you name it. It may not be as common in genres that require the character to start off with a comprehensive skill set—such as mystery, thriller, or romance. Same for school, actually. A good recent example is Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which features and adult version of this trope—something that’s sadly uncommon. Although younger protagonists are generally less self-directed than good ole John. We can call this the Mentor story. You can often find him hanging out with Fate, but almost never school.
Trope 4: Natural Talent: except it’s usually not “natural” talent, because that requires nurturing and focus. What we’re talking about here is “my character can do this because(s)he’s a) awesome, b) made of cardboard, c) the child of a lazy writer, d) the prophesied messiah/hero/destroyer, e) the MC, duh!, f) in need of these powers too fast to do things right but plot is king, g) all of the above. This is not always lazy writing, and the other two tropes can be just as bad. But I always see a sign in my head when reading about these characters: “Here there be Mary Sues!” Again with the Eragon, shouting a word in a language he’s never learned to solve a plot problem, even though it’s established he has to learn almost every other word in this language by himself later in the story. In The Wheel of Time, Mat is especially prone to this syndrome, thanks to his transparently named Old Blood, which lets him do things that would normally require him to be significantly older than he is. This trope is friend with everybody, though I can’t say much for their taste in this case. It’s very convenient for passing time and getting around tedious things like practice and hard work that many writers and readers like to avoid. Movies can often trade NT in for a montage.
Trope 5: The Pre-Promote: I’m adapting this term from rpg/strategy games, where it’s common to have one or two very strong characters at the beginning of a game or in certain storyline situations so new players can be coddled for a while. In fiction, these are often people who could probably do this job better than the protag but are constrained by the writer’s love for their phosphorescing authorial insert. Our examples here come again courtesy of Robert Jordan. Moiraine uses the One Power to do most of the heavy lifting at the beginning, except on a few occasions where Rand exhibits a bout of Natural TalentTM, usually used to make him seem less of a wet dishrag than he really is at that point. Physical combat is handled by Lan or occasionally Thom Merrilin, while Lan trains Rand in the easy and unskilled art of spitting men on three feet of steel. The Pre-Promote is friends with everybody. They may take the role of Mentors in Fate stories, or teachers in School Stories. They may or may not have Natural TalentTM, but they are quickly surpassed by the MC, and often die in very gruesome manners.
There are many other tropes associated with no-skill stories, but those are the major ones. We may or may not address others at some point in the future.
A no skill situation means we won’t be seeing the true obstacle until late in the story. For inexplicable reasons, the antagonists will not do the smart and expedient thing by going straight for the throat. They’ll stall and be distracted until the protagonist is up to the challenge of facing them. That’s because characters in these circumstances need time to learn how to get things done. Whether early obstacles are overcome with help from soon-to-be-killed Pre-Promotes, or through sheer luck, it’s usually not due to direct action on the part of the protagonist(s).
A character with no skills can function well in a very limited number of story structures, and no overdose of tropes is going to make that number any larger. So if you decide to use such a character, make sure you’re coloring within the lines. Now, there’s never just one way to write. This is only what my own experience has been. So feel free to chime in with dissenting thoughts and opinions, and to call me things you couldn’t say in front of an eighty-year-old sailor, if you like.