Thursday, June 19, 2014

Know Your Characters' Skill Sets

When we moved to our home in Colorado, we knew there were a lot of changes we wanted to make, and we were smart enough to know we should hire out. One area that was out of our skill set was laying tile in the bathrooms and entry ways. As I listened to the workers dealing with laying the tile, I started thinking about layers of skill sets for characters. Depending on our upbringing and experience, we might consider those who work in 'blue collar' trades as people who work with their hands, not their brains. I know the focus on my generation was to get a college degree and work in an office, rising the corporate ladder.

Slight digression here. I straddle the hippie generation and women's lib. But for the most part, the focus for my upbringing as a female, in reality, was to go to college, but the degree was to have something to fall back, or a way to support the requisite husband. Women weren't expected to work if they were married, and certainly not when they had children.

For better or for worse, 'white collar' jobs were seen as 'better' than 'blue collar' jobs. And by extrapolation, 'white collar' people were 'smarter' than blue collar people. However, in chatting with the men who are doing our work, they're not doing it because they couldn't get a 'better' job. The head man says he used to work for Microsoft, but it was too stressful. His partner said he couldn't stand the idea of going to an office and doing the same thing every day. He likes that he's probably repeating a task only for a couple of days before moving on. He enjoys stepping back and seeing what changes he's brought to a property he's working on, and they both take pride in doing it right (thank goodness! – We'd been watching too many horror stories on Holmes on Homes)

Another thing I've noticed – these guys have math skills. Things have to fit, and they can deal with fractions of inches like nobody's business. In their heads. I still count on my fingers for most of my personal math.

So when you give your character a job, or a hobby, don't forget to look at all the skills they need to do it. Can they visualize what an empty space could look like? I can't—that's not in my skill set. Are they able to look at a blueprint and know exactly how many bricks to order, or gallons of paint it'll take to cover the walls? Know those 'sub-skills' and work them into scenes. Those basic real-life skills your characters have can be used to foreshadow the kinds of things they'll be called upon to do later in the book.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

13 comments :

  1. I really hate it when a character suddenly knows how to do something because the script calls for it. In a recent show, a character became a crack shot after one day of practice! It is just as important to build realistic characters as it is a realistic plot.

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    1. I SO agree, Diana -- foreshadow, foreshadow, foreshadow. Or at least be realistic. Becoming a crack shot in a day? I don't think so. A lucky shot, more likely

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  2. Great post, Terry. I do think that's why lawyers write legal mysteries and ex-cops write police procedurals. My character in Murder Deja Vu is a stonemason. I saw a clip on an old Sunday Morning show about a guy who built fireplaces and other stone creations that were beautiful and based my character on him. I sure read a lot about stone masonry. Not every main character has to be a rocket scientist.

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    1. Right, Polly. I, for one, get sick of what seems to be a very limited pool of occupations for heroes. I'm always wondering "why did that person choose that job?" as I'm out and about.

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  3. Terry, what an excellent post. I like this on so many levels. It's something we often forget - giving the characters extra skills that they need to do their job or having an old job where they used those other skills.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca -- in When Danger Calls, the hero had to braid dolls' hair for the heroine's daughter. I'd foreshadowed it by mentioning that he entered the county fair with his pony when he was a kid earlier in the book, so it was set up that it was a skill he could have.

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  4. Everyone in my stories is smarter than me ... how is that? Oh, and I'm with you on the math skills, Terry ... in the summer ... sandal season ... I get a bonus ten digits.

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    1. When my twins were little (and I don't know why) they played some math type games and they were coming up with numbers higher than 20. I asked how they counted so high and they said they used each others' fingers and toes. One of the few childhood moments of cooperation for them!

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    2. Sheesh ... your kids are even smarter than me.

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  5. Wow! What a basic -- and profound -- post on a topic we should be able to figure out, but which we too often forget. I love this, Terry.

    My last novel (and upcoming sequel) features three attorneys as co-protagonists. I spent a significant amount of time talking with various lawyers in order to glean some knowledge about a skill foreign to me...beyond Perry Mason, Ben Matlock, and a couple John Grisham novels. While my stories focus more on their private lives than their professional ones, some basic knowledge of courtroom procedure, etc., was essential for some scenes. One of my beta readers was also an attorney, which was very helpful.

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    1. Linda -- yes, you definitely have to do homework to make your characters credible. I wish I could write something about a stay-at-home mom that wouldn't put readers to sleep!

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  6. Very helpful post, Terry, and you are so right about the skill needing to be foreshadowed if it is not typical for that type of job. Using your tile men for an example was perfect.

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    1. Thanks, Maryann -- if a skill is likely to surprise a reader, then yes, it had better be set up. And readers are as likely to make stereotypical judgements about characters as we all are about people in real life.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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