Peggy Bechko: How Talented are Your Characters? How Skillful?

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by Peggy Bechko

Have you given real thought, I mean REAL thought, to skills, talents, gifts and abilities you might imbue your characters with? How those skills, etc., can add to the texture of your story, move it forward, integrate within it?

Think about it. From the simple every day like being a spectacular baker or gifted seamstress to the more peculiar like a person who has an amazing tolerance for pain or can see unusually well in the dark to someone who can fix anything or has a photographic memory or is gifted with clairvoyance or the ability to discern tastes or smells no one else can.

There are literally hundreds, maybe even thousands of such scenarios. People can be pretty amazing (not to mention irritating, but we won’t go into that).

But to narrow things down a bit, how about a character who has a way with animals as an example. A horse whisperer, or someone who can identify with all animals in a “Dr. Doolittle” sort of way? That person is gifted with the ability to zero in on physical and emotional problems of animals and get close to even those who would normally be skittish around people. Animals can instantly relate to such a person, recognizes him or her and is more than cooperative with them whereas with others it could be a dog who bites or a horse who bucks.

So what kind of a person would this have to be? It would be one who was compassionate without a doubt. Unselfish and detail oriented so as to be sensitive to the nuances of the animal’s behavior. Very patient and calm. Kind would go without saying, but in a script or book would need to be said. I think it would also have to be a person comfortable with him or herself and okay with spending time alone as animals, especially ones in some sort of distress, aren’t likely to be big on crowds.

Would there be training involved in this area for this person? Might be if it’s a vet or someone who works closely with animal rescue, etc., but could also be someone who’s spent a lot of time with animals, studying them, understanding them, seeing their individuality and how they interact with others. Perhaps the character found a mentor with a similar ‘knack’ and that could create an entire springboard for a story. If you’re going fantasy/SciFi/Paranormal there might be other experience or training leading to their ability.

And speaking of stories, what sort of stories could this particular characteristic, this knack for communication with animals, be a part of?

We’ve seen movies like The Horse Whisperer and Hildalgo and many others. There are lots of examples. But, here’s where we branch off. Fight your way out of the box and give it all a whole new spin.

Go for the futuristic/dystopian in a land where animals are in charge and humans not so much. Author Sherri Tepper did a book The Companions that offers an interesting scenario.

How about a situation where animals are the key to resolving the main conflict?

In the paranormal try a circumstance where the animal(s) are much more than sentient and harbor information the hero doesn’t have access to other than through them. I used a similar approach with the wolves who star in my own novel Stormrider.

You, as the writer, could also use a local where the animals are much more plentiful and people a rare find.

And toss in how this gift is to be manifested, what character will possess it? A child? An adult? An elder? A reformed felon? And is this gift one that applies to all animals or only certain species or only in a certain location (geographical, interdimensional, whatever). And if this gift is even more out of the ordinary than say, the Horse Whisperer, is there a reason the character in in possession of this gift? Creating a reason and following through would make it even more believable to the readers/watchers.

Give some thought to all the possibilities when deciding what sort of skills, abilities and gifts you’ll bestow upon your characters – and then run with it.