Peggy Bechko: Abilities and Skills that Drive Characters


by Peggy Bechko

As writers we create stories and with those stores are people, places and things. Simple, right?

We get wrapped up in the story, where it’s going, it’s moral (if there is one), how you’re going to wrap it up, where it’s going to be set, but do we really give enough attention to the characters abilities?

In order to make our created people (our characters) as interesting as it’s within our abilities to do so there are lots of times when giving him or her some special ability, skill or talent that makes him or her a real stand-out. That could well be anything from being a vampire (I think the skills and abilities are apparent though it would be cool, if you, as the writer came up with a whole new take and list of skills and abilities) to a person with amazing IT abilities (remember 1995’s The Net with Sandra Bullock), to someone like the hero in TV’s new Forever (do I need to say he can’t die?) to a book like Ender’s Game in which a child has incredible war tactic abilities.

The skill or talent you award your characters doesn’t always have to be big or showy or somehow strange. It can be something more down to earth like an exceptional race car driver or some guy or gal who relates much better to animals than people.

It can be big or small, but the trick is having that ability (or abilities) relate and meld well with the story you’re telling. The story itself can revolve around the skill (there was MacGyver on TV) or that particular skill can be a side issue. Sort of like a cop on duty in tense situations almost always has a stray dog come up to him or a feral cat rub against his legs, or just a pigeon poop on his head all because of his affinity with animals.

Some talents can be inherited from parents or through the vapors. Is the guy psychic? How about that unusual talent for drawing? And what about how the character was brought up? Was his father a mechanic? His mother a renowned scientist? Someone an Olympic athlete?

So, once you determine the skill or ability or talent think about what it means to the character, what kind of physical or mental abilities go with it? Would that character need an incredible IQ, perhaps extreme dexterity, unusual sensitivity to surroundings, particularly acute hearing or eyesight, athletic prowess?
Then on to the next questions. Would that character’s particular ability have needed training, have particular experience, have lived in a particular environment. All of this creates the background and creates a three dimensional character. You might even give thought to what abilities your character has that might run parallel to say a serial killer or a zoo keeper or whatever. And is there some stereotype connected with the character? Is there humor in that or is there a way for that character to break out of that stereotype?

Consider the many dimensions of character within each person and how that plays out in life (a young man’s father is a mechanic always fixing things; that young man is dexterous and enjoys fixing things, but turns instead to designing jewelry).

Always think ‘what if’ and how things can play out, then turn it to your best advantage with your characters for book or screen.

Peggy Bechko is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.