Reprise: Four Ways to Show a Character’s Skill Without Having Her Use It

Originally posted on June 30, 2009

One complaint people often have about bad writers is that they claim their characters are good at doing a certain thing or have a certain interest, but there’s next to no evidence in the text that it’s actually true. Characters who love books don’t seem to be any more literate than their friends who don’t, the charismatic strike the audience as ordinary and possibly a bit off-putting, and in general, the skill comes out looking like it’s just there in name only. But at the same time, sometimes a character is going to have a skill that, while it might be relevant for her to have it, just isn’t actually going to come up most of the time—or you’re going to want to properly foreshadow a skill she has before it becomes the thing that will save her bacon during the climax. Without just telling the audience “And oh, yeah, she knows how to do this.”

Here’s how.

  1. Jargon. It’s more common in technical fields, but just about any skill or interest has its own unique vocabulary. If someone has trained in the skill, or spent a lot of time on the interest, it’s probably had an impact on her vocabulary—just think about the kinds of words and phrases that being a gamer tends to sneak into people’s dialogue. If someone knows about dice designations, they’re probably a gamer; if they know what you mean when you talk about “Pulling a Miko”, they’ve probably read Order of the Stick.
  2. In-jokes. These are a subset of jargon; essentially, a set of references and ideas that people in the know would find hilarious and people who aren’t might not even realize were jokes. The difference is that not all of these are based on necessary knowledge; some are just as peculiar to experience and specific groups as they are to people with the skillset. To use a gaming example, just about everyone who knows from gaming can identify with jokes about saving throws or failing a Spot Check, Exalted players would probably chuckle over my group’s Terrifying Apparition of Stealth, but you’d have to actually be in my group to understand why we get such a laugh out of waffles.
  3. Analogy. People often frame things they don’t entirely understand in terms of things they do, whether they’re trying to explain something or make sense of it. I’ve seen the immune system explained in terms of a police force, the seasons demonstrated with a fire and a marshmallow, and making an argument put in terms of carpentry. Characters with a strong body of knowledge in a subject or interest are likely to do the same thing; why wouldn’t a magical theorist, having trouble with an idea, suddenly brighten up and start making connections when someone begins analogizing the issue to sympathetic magic, or maybe attempt to rationalize shapeshifting through her knowledge of alchemy? It doesn’t even have to be correct.
  4. Application of Skills/Knowledge. Ability doesn’t occupy a vacuum; skills and knowledge involved in some fields are likely to spill over to others. A light physicist may not be too good at hitting the cue ball in a game of pool, but she’s probably going to know what angle it needs to bounce off the edge at; a demonologist may not know much about most of the history of a city, but she’s probably going to know about the part when Lisar, Lord of the Seven Fires, had made his home there and how he was driven away. Give the character’s gifts a chance to be pseudo-relevant; you can probably even get away with having them chalk their success up to what their original field did for them.

If you scatter these, people are likelier to react to the discovery that the character has background in the field with “Oh, that makes sense” or “Thought so!” than with “Where did THAT come from?”


  1. Very nicely put. Just reading that has got me looking back and rethinking some characters, and some writing I’ve done.

  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Down time is another way to make these skills known. What do you do around the campfire at night? Are you whittling, cooking, or taking furious notes of things you are looking up in three arcane tomes?

    What do you do when you have a day in a city and no threat looming over your head? Do you seek out the horse track, head to a party, visit the museum or walk acorss the waterfront?

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