Things About Skills, Talents, & Knowledge Writers Need To Know

When writing a character who is supposed to be particularly good at something, it's important to include an element of realism about it lest your character end up feeling too good to be true. Plus, applying realistic principles to fictional skills (EG, magic or some form of fantastic engineering) can make them feel more "real" to audiences, as anyone who has ever worked hard to learn something will be able to identify with the hard work that goes into learning your fantastic ones. Plus, applying realistic principles to fantastic skills is a good way to set things up to help prevent characters with fantastic skills from becoming OP.

So, if you're looking to create skilled or smart characters who feel real and balance well into the setting, read on!

Table of Contents

It takes considerable time to become and remain proficient in ANY legitimate skill or area of knowledge.

Any skill that looks badass or produces awe-inspiring results and any area of knowledge that has people who refer to themselves as experts in represents a considerable investment of time and effort. How long it takes can depend on what it is, but in any case you can be confident that you don't master it or come to intimately know its finer points after a mere few weeks of practice or study. (And yes, this goes even for people who are naturally gifted.)

Take a few martial arts classes and you'll likely be much better off than someone who hasn't taken them at all, but you're still not going to be some kind of Bruce Lee - if you want to do that, you're going to have to make martial arts a lifestyle and stick to it.

You can spend a few days or even weeks reading up on a religion or philosophy and come away with a fairly decent overview of how it works, but there will yet be vast fathoms of nuance, complexity, and sophistication of ideas that will take much, much longer to understand and appreciate - years, potentially. (This is why works attempting to address or involve religion written by lifelong atheists often come off as incredibly shallow and ignorant to people of faith.)

What's more, skills require continuous practice or else those who use them will lose their edge - without it, muscles will atrophy, mental skills will dull, and finer points will be forgotten. Also, many knowledge-based jobs also require constant learning just to stay current in them - for example, a hacker who falls out of the game for a few years will likely need to spend some time re-learning a few forgotten details as well as catching up on advances in programming and computer security before being ready to hack some uber-secure database like a whiz again.

In some cases, things can move ahead of you even while you are learning - college students often graduate to find that the skills they just learned are already too obsolete to get them the cutting edge jobs they thought they'd get with them, which means that they'll either have to settle for something less or tackle yet another learning curve.

It likewise behooves scientists to keep up with the latest discoveries made by their peers, as they'll potentially be able to use that knowledge to improve and refine their own experiments as well as avoid wasting their time on "discovering" things their peers have known about for some time already.

So bottom line - anything your character is supposed to be really good at should represent an incredible amount of dedication, possibly even sacrifice. (The time you spend polishing up your awesome skill/area of knowledge is time you don't have to spend on recreation, socialization, or learning/practicing other skills.) Practice and/or learning must be continuous to stay at the top. (This is also why it doesn't really work to have someone who is a master/expert at all of the things - any time spent mastering something else, especially something totally unrelated, is time that proficiency in what the person is already good at will be decaying and not being put to use paying the rent/taking over the world/whatever.)

There's a lot more to becoming famous than simply being good.

For every celebrity in the field you see reaping the benefits of fame, there are hundreds, if not thousands more in the same field who are struggling in obscurity - and it's not because they're any less skilled, either.

So why aren't they famous? There are a lot of reasons. Sometimes they didn't luck out in getting noticed by the right person at the right time. Sometimes they didn't seize the right opportunities or make themselves visible before someone else beat them to it. In some industries, such as entertainment and modeling, many are passed over simply because they don't fit whatever style or image they're looking for at the time. And then there's the fact that any organization/industry/whathaveyou only needs so many people on board, and that number will always, always be a teeny, tiny fraction of the total pool of potentials. And as they say, it's not what you know, but who you know - people will take on those whom they already know about before they go rooting around in East Podunk in the hopes that they might find what they're looking for.

So no, your characters simply existing and being qualified for a glamorous or prestigious position are not on their own enough to actually them get there, as there are many, many factors that affects those sorts of odds. And it's especially unlikely they'd ever be chosen for these positions if they never took any real effort to get themselves noticed in a positive way. Contrary to what a lot of fiction would have you think, being noticed isn't about drudging away until one magical day someone somewhere notices you and gives you a ride to stardom - it's about getting out there and and making yourself noticed.

Most skills require having other skills to get the most out of them.

Whatever skills you might be thinking about giving your characters, there are probably a lot of other skills they'd also need to have in order to make good use of their primary skills. Let's look at a few examples.

You might have perfect aim or the ability to call lightning from the sky, but without the ability to keep your head together under high pressure, work with others as a team, and get from Point A to Point B without running out of breath and/or tripping over your own feet, you're going to be useless on the battlefield.

You might have a beautiful voice with perfect pitch, but if you're going to succeed as a stage performer, you'll need the ability to entertain people while you're out there - which at the very least means also being able to hold a commanding presence and having the stamina to sing for an extended period of time. Unless you have people who do it for you, you'll also have to be able to write lyrics, compose music, and put together a decent outfit. Even if your singing voice is great, standing like a shy little stick behind a microphone in an ugly outfit is going to make for a very boring performance that won't hold people's attention for long.

If you're going to be a successful hunter, you need to be able to do a lot more than creep along silently with your weapon. You'll need to be able to maintain your weapon and use it safely. You'll need the stamina and patience to be out for hours, even days looking for a kill. You'll also need the knowledge and the stomach to field dress (read: remove the organs from) your kills, watch for potential hazards (EG, dangerous terrain, plants, animals, and weather) along your way and know what to do if you encounter them, and what to do if you or someone with you gets hurt. And depending on where you're hunting, you'll need the navigation skills to avoid getting lost.

So whatever skills you're thinking about giving your characters - stop and think: what else would they need to know and be able to do in order to get where you want them to be with them?

All the skill and knowledge in the world won't do you any good in an organization or group if you essentially amount to a thorn or millstone.

In a functional workplace, people aren't hired and kept on for what they might do, but for what they actually do. No matter how skillful or knowledgeable you might be, it won't make one iota of difference if you can't actually do what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it, or if you generally make things so unpleasant or difficult for others that they can't do what they're supposed to do.

Are you a brilliant mechanical engineer who can whip up a robosuit practically in your sleep? Good for you, but if you're constantly insulting or demeaning your co-workers and putting off the work your employers give you, don't expect to stay employed for long.

Are you capable of writing detailed stories with perfect punctuation and grammar? That's well and good, but those skills aren't going to keep you in a roleplay group if you can't be relatively civil out of the game, portray a character who contributes to the story rather than perpetually parks on the sofa or stays slunk off in a corner somewhere, and roll with unexpected plot turns instead of getting upset when things don't go as you planned. In fact, a lot of people are more likely to take the person whose writing isn't perfect but can still contribute to a good story with a sense of fun and fair play over the "literate" player who can't or won't.

Are you a badass martial artist who can take on a dozen mooks at a go? Cool beans, but if you keep blowing off your teammates' plans to go and do whatever you think needs done (particularly if you undermine or complicate the plans they agreed upon) you're quickly going to find yourself off the team.

And no, things like "but I meant well!" or "it's not my fault that everyone else is so annoying/unfair/uncooperative/inconsiderate/touchy!" aren't going to cut it at the end of the day, because ultimately, only one thing really matters: whether the people you're working with/for feel like they're getting their time/money's worth out of you.

So think carefully about your character: even if your character is technically talented and has a lot of great potential, does your character's actual performance merit keeping your characters around, or might the others actually be better-off finding someone who might be slightly less talented but actually puts in the effort to do the job properly and without making things needlessly difficult for others?

There are no intellectual shortcuts for physical skills.

Some people try to fast-track their characters to awesome physical skillage by giving them some kind of genius intellect that lets them simply logic out how something is done, thus enabling them to nail whatever they're trying to do without any real practice beforehand.

Here's the thing, though: these logical skills aren't going to build up the muscle necessary to carry out the actions, nor are they going to make up for a lack of hand-eye coordination. Even if you can calculate the trajectory of a bullet fired from the pistol you're holding with perfect accuracy, it won't do you any good if you can't actually hold it steady or accurately enough to hit your target. That's something you'll only get through actual physical practice. (And once you have the physical part down, you don't need to perform complex equations to aim your pistol accurately because your subconscious mind is already doing those calculations for you far faster than your conscious mind ever could.)

Likewise, you might be able to remember a face perfectly, but it doesn't mean you'll be able to draw it perfectly. It takes physical practice to develop the fine motor skills needed to hold a pencil steady and to apply just the right amount of pressure to get the level of shading or line thickness you want.

So yeah, no matter how good at math and logic your characters are, realistically they'd still need to put in the physical grinding to develop their physical skills.

Things are usually done way they are for good reasons.

While any discipline or area of knowledge will have its share of brain bugs (IE, ideas that have latched into one's consciousness that one simply assumes are true even though they have no basis in fact), it's important to note that unless the whole thing is based on some sort of pseudoscience, most things are done, taught, or believed the way they are for very good reasons.

For example, making each and every NPC in a video game fully unique can sound like a great idea to someone who has never worked on a video game, but those who have any serious experience designing or even modding games will immediately appreciate that such an undertaking means a bigger, more stressful workload (as it'll require a lot more graphics, coding, and testing/debugging), more money spent to develop the game (which they might not even have), possibly having to push the release date back, and then potentially ending up with a game that takes a lot longer to load and may not even perform well on systems that can't properly handle the extra graphics and coding. So depending on what limitations developers are working with, this actually might not be such a great idea.

Also, while exceptions do exist, by and large any "shocking" new perspective or "groundbreaking" technique that a newbie thinks of has already been proposed by a thousand other newbies - and rejected for very good reasons. (What's more, there are very good odds that the oldbies are sick to death of hearing it, and many of them won't hold back when telling the fifty bazillionth newbie where to shove it.)

For example, Egyptologists don't fail to consider the possibility that the pyramids were built by aliens or Atlanteans simply because nobody's brought the possibility up to them yet or because they're stuck on some kind of anti-alien/Atlantean paradigm. They do so because there is no evidence that they did and plenty of evidence that they didn't. (And no, they probably wouldn't cover it up if they did find evidence.)

Similarly, those who try to design functional weapons haven't failed to create a gunblade simply because they haven't thought of it yet, but rather because it would make a horrible weapon. (Pretty much any design you can think of that combines weapons and/or gadgets, especially antiquated ones, probably wouldn't be very functional.)

So yes, even though there might be some that things people do, teach, or believe that have no good reason behind them, there's usually a good reason behind most of it.

To recap!

Also, you might want to take a look at:

How To Write Powerful & Extraordinary Characters Without Being Obnoxious Or Boring
Basic Tips To Write Better Geniuses, Scientists, & Intellectuals
Things About Computers & Hacking Writers Need To Know
Basic Tips To Write Better (And More Likeable) Badasses
Spies: A Few Things Writers & Roleplayers Should Know About Them
On Writing & Roleplaying Characters Who Are Good Leader Material
Assassins: Tips & Guidelines To Write & Play Them More Believably
On Writing & Roleplaying Wise Characters
On Writing & Roleplaying Smart Characters
Things About Training & Teaching Writers Need To Know
Random Character Skills Generator

Building Better Backstories - Tips & Ideas
On Giving Your Characters Flaws & Weaknesses
On Writing Misfits, Loners, & Malcontents
Creating & Writing Fictional Organizations
Tips & Ideas To Make Better & More Interesting Powers

Back to Character Conceptualization & Creation
Go to a random page!