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.