Welcome back to FiYoShiMo, this is what, week 2? Hello! I really hope you’ve enjoyed this so far, and I hope you continue to do so.
Today, we’re digging into character-stuff, so you’ll need your protagonist front and center. If you’ve got more than one of those, that’s fine, just pick one, we’ll start there.
Everyone is good at something, even if that something isn’t a particularly nice thing. I’m very good at avoiding serious relationships with people out of a fear that they’ll realize my worthlessness, for instance (I may have said too much there), and maybe you make a really great margarita. Loads of people don’t recognize what their best skill is, no matter how many times people bring it up in conversation. They dismiss their best skill as something ordinary, because they’re always looking to compare to other people. You might be a great driver, but loads of people drive, so there has to be someone somewhere who’s better, right? Sometimes they do that so they can claim to be “humble” or “hungry”, so that they don’t get too full of themselves or forget why they’re working so hard. I think it’s more so that they don’t have to grapple with feeling so good about themselves, since we might not know what to do once we find out how cool we are. I know I have no damned clue what I’d do if I accepted the fact that I’m not a bad guy. There would probably be snacks though.
This same sort of stuff is true about your characters too. Yeah, sure, they’re made up, but they’re still people. Or animals. Or space robots. Or whatevers. Our protagonists, whomever they might be, need to connect to the audience, so the audience knows how to invest in them, and so the audience can build a rapport with them. One of the things that often dooms fantasy and science fiction is that these fantastic creatures aren’t humanized in some way, so it’s hard for the audience to figure out if we need to treat Glaptorp IX the same way we treat our toaster or not.
When I say “humanized” I don’t mean made to be human like they’re a biped and have primate features (looking at you Star Trek), I mean having some qualities like people we know. Humanization is one of the functions of giving characters skills. We make our rogue with a heart of gold a pilot, because we can picture people flying spaceships. We make our heroine a mechanic because we’ve all seen a screwdriver.
The danger here is that we make the character only a conduit for the skill(s) the plot needs. Our protagonist is a cop willing to break the rules? I bet the plot is going to take her outside the legal system. Protagonist is a hostage negotiator? Sounds like he’s going to have to talk his way out of something. This sort of pat convenience renders the rest of the character immaterial — we only know them because of what they can do.
People grasp this idea pretty quickly and we can all name characters who we know more for their skill than any other trait they have. When writers go to compensate for this, they try too hard to tack on some character depth, and for some reason this seems to usually be an eventful past where people are seeking redemption or restoration. And then people go one step beyond that and relay this information, usually, in a big wall of dialog, because it’s infinitely easier to tell us things rather than show us, and it’s faster, so that presumably, the reader can just coast over the fact that the writer has built a fairly translucent character with minimal points of interest.
Don’t think that mining cliches will patch mistakes. Hollow characters don’t have to be hollow. No not every character needs to be so well-defined that they could immediately become the protagonist with a few clicks of the Find-Replace function, but the characters you want the reader to focus on should be more than what they do.
A character is the sum of their skills, weakness, ambitions, goals, plans, efforts, and failings (among other things). When we think about a character’s identity in the story, their reason for being in there, it should extend past “they’re the main character, they have to be there”. And likewise, whatever skills they have should also be numerous than those required for the plot.
There’s no quantity of skills that a character is supposed to have – this isn’t a video game. It’s not like a character has two skills at 99% awesome and three skills at 82%, a character has skills all over the place. They’re supposed to. We root for these characters to succeed because they’re placed into situations outside their skillset. We don’t know how Tom Hanks is going to survive on that island, because he’s a FedEx employee, not a Navy SEAL or survivalist. We root for him to make fire and build a raft, because he’s working outside the skills he has. We care what happens to him. That’s the inherent drama.
Contrast that with Superman. Any Superman, from radio to cartoon to movies. Doesn’t matter. Let’s consider what makes us worry about Superman. He can get shot at. He can get lasered. He can get thrown through a building. We only start to worry about him when kryptonite shows up. Why? Because he’s Superman, and his chief skill is invulnerability. Compared to Tom Hanks on that island, Superman’s drama is nearly a non-starter. (Aside from the fact that Superman could fly away, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.)
A protagonist should not be good at everything. A protagonist good at everything is not interesting. No one is good at everything. I’m not. You’re not. That lady over there isn’t. Given a limited scope, people may seem to be good at many things, but not everything. I’m good with words, I can cook, I can wear the shit out of a bathrobe, but I can’t slam dunk a basketball, and you really don’t want me making any military decisions. It’s in our less-than-perfectness that we are made relatable.
We invest in the awkward character and we cheer when they finally ask their officemate out on a date. We care about the lady trying to make her marriage work because we have spent two hundred pages with her in therapy.
Go look at your protagonist. List their skills. Any order, doesn’t matter. Just list them. Try to put one skill to a line. See if you can get more than 2 and less than 20.
Have your list? Good job. Now, circle all the skills that your character uses over the course of the story.
Did you just circle all of them? How many did you circle?
Before we go look at that, look for any skills which neutralize the plot. You can’t strand Superman on an island, he can fly. You don’t give Macgyver a tool box and a headstart, he’s Macgyver. If you have any skills like that, put a star by them. How many stars are on the page?
Skills that neutralize plot are storykillers. Superman’s ability to fly off the island, when Tom Hanks can’t, is a killer. And even if they don’t kill the story, in order to make sure their shadow doesn’t stain the story, there’s often a terrible (and cliche) reason for the skill not getting used. The old standby used to be amnesia, or barring that, some kind of short-term physical disability, often blindness. The talented doctor can’t see to perform surgery, or can’t remember that he’s a surgeon in the first place. The plot is a defiance of his best skill, and that’s supposed to be compelling to read.
It can be, but it can also serve to highlight that if you take away the character’s best skill, they may lose their value. When that’s the case (you can test this by looking at your circled skills and seeing if your character is still the same without them), you may be placing too great an emphasis on what the character does and how well they do it, rather than who the character is.
A character is just not the vessel that carries out skills. Possession of skill, being able to do a thing, is not a boundary. Likewise, not being able to do a thing, is not always a limitation. Sure, in the context of basketball, my inability to slam dunk means my play is affected, but it doesn’t stop me from being able to blog.
Let your characters fail, let them be not good. Make what they can do and can’t do matter by giving the character more reason to be in the story than just performing tasks.
Think it over, and tomorrow, we’ll talk character weaknesses.