Problems with Creating Character Skillsets

There’s one thing I see with writers in my role as an editor, and that is the way writers instantly equip their protagonist with God-like skills when they are backed into seemingly inescapable situations.

Writers have a habit of making their characters invincible and super hero-like, with the specially trained skills. That’s great if you’re James Bond. But in reality, your characters are not always trained soldiers, spies or other secret government agents.

They’re just ordinary folks who find themselves in extraordinary situations.

The reality is – just like in real life – we all have different skills we’ve picked up in life or things we’ve learned while working. Some people are great with engines or machines or can build things. Some folks are skilled working a computer. Some know their way around boats or yachts. Some people can pilot an aeroplane or work with animals. Not only that, but people are born with certain talents. Some people are brilliant at sculpting or painting. Others can sing or play instruments, while some are brilliant at mathematics or science.

In other words, everyone has something they’re good at. But equally, they are rubbish at a lot other things. And this is where writers trip up – they make their characters too skillful and too perfect.

Got a character backed into a corner with the bad guy? No problem, get him to fight his way out with never-before-seen black belt karate skills. Is your character trying to escape a haunted house? Just have them expertly get into a locked car and hot wire it to escape. Or what about a character facing a gang of thugs? Just have them expertly despatch each one with a precision punches and super strength.

If you create skills and talents to equip your characters when they are faced with a situation, you risk creating deus ex machina (God from the machine), which is a writer’s easy escape route. But it’s not the correct escape route.

Real life people are not James Bond or Jason Bourne. If your character has a certain talent, don’t throw it at the reader the moment it’s needed. The reader will wonder where this skill has suddenly come from and they won’t believe the situation.

The way around this is to show the reader early in the story as you reveal parts of your main characters. As each chapter unfolds, the reader should be learning how characters behave, their personalities, how they act and react to people and situations, but they should also know if the main character can, for example, build an engine because he used to be a mechanic. Or maybe your character has good survival skills because he or she used to be in the Scouts or may have just enjoyed camping with the family every summer.

If you know the character will need a specific skill later in the story to overcome a situation or obstacle, make sure your reader also knows they have this skill. So if your character was a mechanic in his earlier years, have him talk to others about it, then later in the story when he has to get into a car and hotwire it, the reader will believe the situation.

Another character problem is the when main characters have hidden a specific talent or skill, and then use it to defeat the bad guys, usually at the end. The result creates a plot flaw. Their actions create cracks in the preceding story.

Have you watched an action movie where early on, the good guy gets a beating by two bad guys, but at the end of the film, as the climax approaches, he suddenly turns into Rambo and easily defeats twenty henchmen with military-style fighting skills, all without sustaining a scratch? It leaves a plot flaw - that he should have used this same skillset the first time the bad guys beat him up. If he couldn’t fight back against two guys, how does he defeat twenty? That’s a major flaw. It’s the kind of thing your reader will notice.

Let’s take another example. A character works with computers and is trying to close down a corrupt organisation. There are some tense scenes where he uses the computer to shut down parts of the company’s systems. But it’s not until the end that he decides he can easily hack into the company computer to distribute incriminating data and destroy the company. The plot flaw? The character could have done this at any time with their knowledge of hacking, instead of at the end when he suddenly and conveniently remembered he had this skill.

When you create your characters, make sure they are not perfect and not endowed with every implausible skill or talent, but instead are people who have gained experiences and certain skills over their lifetime. Make the reader aware of these early on in the story, so it will not seem so unreasonable for the character to have such skills when the story demands.

More importantly, don’t create plot flaws by having a character suddenly realise they have a skill that could help defeat the protagonist/bad guys at the right moment, when that very same skill could have been used twenty chapters earlier.

Pay close attention to what your characters can and can’t do, because if you don’t, your reader certainly will.


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