Character and World: But You Do This Wrong….

A long time ago, I wrote about minimum acceptable skills or knowledge, the kinds of things that people need to be able to know or do in order to be accepted into an organization, be respected in a society, or otherwise show themselves as being worthy of a position or title. But today I found a converse to that, one that can be both used as world-building and expressed with more variety in individual characters.

For many people, there is at least one skill that they judge people by regardless of its relevance to what they’re being judged for. Often, this is something that they do pretty well at or find some other reason to value, or else something that society itself has a fixation with (see below). (For instance, mine is writing: I found this topic after having my read through my ballot information packet perpetually interrupted by my irritation with the grammatical skills of the various candidates in their statements, or the fact that they switched font types MORE OFTEN and WITH less reason than even the text in my game.) While the skill can be many things, I find that the ones that most often come into play have to do with communication or presentation; dubious writing, illegible handwriting, indifferent physical appearance, bad hygiene, you get the idea.

This also extends itself to subcultures, and even to societies; for instance, in the heyday of venereal terms, it didn’t matter how good you were as a tracker or with a bow, you were a churl if you hunted but didn’t know all of them.

What’s the effect? The skill or failing in question will often have a strong impact on the character’s first impressions; they might be inclined to give more credit to an incompetent who has this one thing down pat than to someone whose skills in most other areas are extraordinary but who falls flat in this one particular area. The skill doesn’t have to have a direct bearing on whatever the character is judging people for, mind you, but it’s a lot easier for the character to justify when it relates at least tangentially.

What can this do for you? In its individual iteration, it can serve as a way to further explore a character; what skill(s) might this particular character zero in on? Similarly, a societal focus on a certain skill can help to characterize that society as a whole. But it’s not just characterization; it can also affect the plot. A protagonist running headlong into a person or society whose most valued skill is one of her weaknesses (she doesn’t even need to be horrible at it, just bad to indifferent) is going to run into more difficulty than one to whom that skill comes easily. Likewise, if properly justified rather than deus ex machina’d in, a match between the protagonist’s skills and the priorities of the society or individuals she’s dealing with might lessen or even remove her major social obstacles.

It doesn’t have to be logical, it doesn’t have to be reasonable, but all in all it’s going to be interesting. Do you have any characters whose pet peeve skills you know?


  1. Brickwall says:

    For more exotic requirements, this can function as a subtle version of a “hat”.

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