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A Character’s Skill Set: Does Your Character Have What It Takes?
Each of the first-born must compete for the hand of the fair maiden.
I am Merida, and I’ll be shooting for my own hand.
Wait. Wait a minute.
Before I get started, I have an important announcement to make.
When I grow up, I want to be a Pixar character with masses of fabulously curly, perfect, bouncy hair just like Princess Merida.
Now back to my regularly scheduled article. Because hair isn’t a skill set, it was just drawn that way.
The stories we write chart our characters’ journeys through a significant episode in their lives. Our characters start in one place, but by the end of the journey they are, at least psychologically, if not physically, in a different place as a result of the experiences they’ve had along the way.
This character arc is not a random whim of fate. Neither is reaching a successful resolution to all that conflict—that Happily Ever After ending. As authors WE are in control of plotting the course of our characters’ lives, even when it sometimes seems as though we aren’t and THEY are!
In general, our job is to make life as difficult as possible for our characters. As authors we need to find ways to challenge our characters’ assumptions about others and themselves. Along the way, our characters will learn new things about themselves and discover new ways of dealing with the obstacles they face.
But our characters do not start as empty slates. To create empathy and a sense of connection with readers, our characters need to spring to life right from page one. They must come with a pre-packaged set of character traits. Like the journey itself, those strengths and weaknesses, foibles and eccentricities are not chosen haphazardly. At least they shouldn’t be.
If we want our characters to succeed, we need to assign them what I like to call “the tools for survival,” a skill set that they can call on that will help and may well hinder them on their journey. These tools will be different for each character, will depend on the needs of the story, and on the life lessons you want your characters to learn.
A lady enjoys elegant pursuits.
In the Pixar movie, Brave, three clans arrive in DunBroch so that their first-born sons can compete in Highland Games for the hand of Princess Merida. As is her right, Merida gets to choose the type of competition. Her choice should come as no surprise.
Mom, you'll never guess what I did, today!
What's that dear?
I climbed up the Crown's Tooth and drank from the fire falls.
From the first moment we meet Merida, we discover she is enchanted by the bow. As a teenager, she enjoys nothing more than to ride through the glen on her horse at breakneck speed, shoot arrows at various targets (and hit them), and scale cliffs. She views her tomboy activities as an expression of freedom. Her mother views them as unladylike activities.
Thus archery—an ability she learned and mastered—and her other “wilderness adventures” are one part of her skill set.
As a tool for survival on her unexpected journey, archery leads her straight into trouble. Indeed her skill combined with her stubbornness acts like a catapult, hurtling her headlong into her journey, when she decides to win the archery tournament, much to her mother’s displeasure.
The question is: will these skills prove useful when Merida faces the greatest challenge of her young life?
©Robin Matheson, 2013
BIO: Award winning author Robin Matheson holds an honors specialist degree in Classical Civilization and English and a Master of Education. She’s taught numerous courses at college, overseas and, more recently, online courses on writing. One of Robin’s greatest passions is traveling. In addition to their home base, she and her family have also lived in South East Asia and South Africa. Visit her at www.robiemadison.com.