Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What is your character's expertise?

On spring break I went camping, and one of the things we did was go on a guided hike with a docent. Our docent, Cathy, was an expert in the plants of the redwood forest, and over the next four hours, she found, identified, and spoke about more than twenty different plants. She told us that people who walk in the woods and look only at the tall trees will often think there is little biodiversity in the redwood forest, when in fact there is enormous biodiversity (especially in fungi!). We had such a good time with her, and heard a little about her life - she lives six miles out of town, in the midst of the forest.

She was a delightful and fascinating person to spend four hours with. And as I often do, I started thinking about writing - characters, in particular.

Characters should have expertise. We all have things we are especially interested in, and things that inspire us. We pursue those things. We gain expertise. A person who does not have expertise in anything is something of an outlier. So it's worth asking:

What is this character's expertise?

Hub Girl is a hacker and really good at coordinating her large gang of kids in raids on vending machines (which is how they get food to eat).

Rulii is an expert fighter and also has a unique view on the social divisions in his society that result from his struggles as a member of the oppressed minority.

Nekantor is an expert at perceiving patterns and anticipating nefarious political motives.

Felo is an expert at knife-fighting technique and is also a kind teacher.

Almost any character will have some kind of expertise. Nekantor is an antagonist. Felo is a secondary character in a short story I'm writing. Even a unique way of looking at the world can give a character insights and expertise that other characters don't have.

Expertise is not just about what people are good at. It affects how they think, and what they perceive in the world around them. The way a character understands something conceptually will affect how they act in the story. An expert will take leaps rather than going step by step. An expert will pay no attention to what doesn't matter, but will pay extra close attention to the details that do matter - and she (or he) may be the only one able to perceive what matters and what doesn't. Their motives will be intriguing, and further examination will reveal aspects of expertise that other characters, or readers, might not have been aware of.

It's something to think about.


  1. Nothing more boring than a team of characters who are interchangeable. When Criminal Minds debuted, the characters had different expertise. One was good at putting himself in the perp's mind and often spent time at the scene trying to re-enact the perp's actions in hopes of getting insight. Another was expert in crimes against women; a third was an expert at the mathematical/quantitative aspects, plotting geographical "comfort zones" and the like. Still another was the press (et al.) liaison. Now they are all pretty much the same, except for the mathematical modeling, which doesn't seem to get done as much any more.

    1. What a shame that the individuality was lost! My husband likes Leverage, and they definitely keep the individuality, even though at a certain point the characters started sharing their roles with one another. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I think your last paragraph is particularly important. This is one of the things that struck me in Hugh Howey's Wool series, that each character's metaphors and expressions, whether thinking or speaking, are so well aligned with their occupation. It makes them feel very authentic.

    1. Yes, I've been meaning to check that series out. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Just like TV shows where no one seems to have to earn a living, I don't like books in which the characters have infinitely available free time.

    Real people have jobs - especially the young and healthy who are most of the characters in books. Jobs take time. Jobs interfere with detecting, romance, and having fun.

    In the characters I have written in Pride's Children, one is writer and two are actors - all three spend time doing their jobs.

    In my other fiction I have the director of an Art Museum - whose attempts to get in the annual budget and manage visitors interfere constantly; a student at a galactic empire Academy; a lawyer who is trying to start a private practice; a recent engineering grad doing a stint as a campus security guard (base on her MP expertise) while her husband gets out of grad school.

    I like characters to have jobs - it makes them more real. The ones I have written so far have real expertise in their job choice area - they are not just marking time in Starbucks behind the counter.

    And I go out of my way to show the expertise, to make them believable. It doesn't really take that much extra space to show them doing something (rather than telling qualifications as in a resume); a couple of those, and the character is established as an expert.

    Good post - you have always given good examples, too, from your writing. I hadn't actually thought about this, but did it instinctively. It is good to make that part of deliberate writing skills.


    1. Thanks for your comment! Yes, it's always weird when characters don't seem to participate in the general culture/economy in any way. I'm glad you like the examples - I always find it's helpful to tie down what I'm talking about! Pride's Children sounds interesting.