Skills can make the character

One of the things that makes a character in a story likeable is being good at something important to him or her.  Or maybe not just good: exceptional in in an unique area of expertise.  A likeable character is one that, at least in some way, the reader or audience can respect.  It also helps if the character knows what they’re good at and uses that knowledge well.

One good example is Han Solo — who transcends just being a witty bad boy by actually being an exceptional pilot.  Similarly, Marshall from Alias is the most sympathetic character partly because he (unlike the others) is great at his job and doesn’t make mistakes.  The audience of Buffy the Vampire Slayer can like Giles because he is, in fact, a great researcher.

With a real hero character, the special skill that makes them great may not be immediately obvious.  The thing that really allows Mr. Incredible to be an effective super hero isn’t his strength or indestructibility — it’s the fact that he has a perfect understanding of physics.  He can calculate in a split second exactly how to jump or how to throw something in order to do what he wants.  Captain Jack Sparrow’s capability as a pirate comes not only from his charm, but from the fact that he as really good balance.  In Pirates, Jack is able to perform most of his amazing feats thanks to the fact that he can stay upright and functioning against the odds.  The audience may not consciously realize it, but part of Jack’s appeal comes from his understanding and inventive use of his great balance.

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2 Responses to “Skills can make the character”

  1. Nate Austin Says:

    I know this is true for myself as an audience member. When I encounter a main character without any real skills (e.g. Terry Pratchett’s Rincewind), I cringe. Pity or indulgence is not an emotion I like to feel towards heroes.

    And I agree that for me, competence can excuse a lot of other flaws. The entire crew of Serenity in the show Firefly exemplifies this. They’re a bunch of misfits, most of them with gaping personality flaws, but they’re each brilliant in one or more ways. I eat it up. But then, I also love such over-skilled heroes as Buckaroo Banzai, Doc Savage, Remo Williams, and Batman…

    Hm, this post reminds me of your post on finding action attractive.

  2. oneirichaberdasher Says:

    That’s a good point. One of the things I’ve read about in game design (and I think it comes from creative writing) is trying to create things that are verbs (that is, actions) rather than nouns (that is, something that just exists for itself).

    So, maybe there is an overarching theory here, about actions and verbs being more interesting, and more attractive, than just descriptions.

    Also, you’re totally right: the characters in Firefly are good examples of this.

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