I got skills, baby!
Updated: Sep 11
Every once in a while, some writers pull off a successful story that features an unlikable protagonist. But for the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you’re like me and trying to write a likable, sympathetic hero or heroine. And if that’s enough for you, no need to keep reading this post.
But likable and sympathetic–that could be your grandma. The milkman. Your 8th grade Social Studies teacher. A lot of nice people that you know in real, boring life. And I’m not saying those people don’t have some interesting stories in them, but c’mon–I think I want a little more than nice for my book. This is, after all, my wish fulfillment, a way to live everything I’m not. (And I’m nice, okay?) But that’s not enough. So I want a cool protagonist for my book–a kick-ass hero that makes readers pump their fist in the air and cheer, “Hell, yeah!”
So how to pull this off? When I started thinking deeply about characterization, I remembered a writing workshop where the presenter gave a list of character attributes that make a character immediately sympathetic.
This list included:
is loved by someone
having plans, purpose, or dreams (duh, your character needs a goal!)
genius (I think intelligent is probably sufficient)
in jeopardy (and no, not the game show–although that’s pretty cool)
no self-pity (no whiners, please!)
This is a great list of traits. A trait being defined by Webster’s as: a distinguishing quality (as of personal character)
a: a distinguishing quality (as of personal character) <curiosity is one of her notable traits>
b: an inherited characteristic
So to a certain extent, your character’s traits are inherited and beyond their control. Regardless of how our personalities might or might not be determined by a genetic lottery, we like people who have positive character traits. I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus by Ackerman & Puglisi and their corresponding The Negative Trait Thesaurus. It’s a great way to come up with likable traits for your hero and unlikable traits for your villain and at the same time, balance both positive and negative in both kinds of characters so you don’t end up with a goody-two shoes cardboard hero or a moustache-twirling, evil 2-D villain.
But traits alone are not enough to a make a kick-ass, cool, hell-yeah kind of hero. For that, we need skills, baby, skills!!
Here’s a free-stylin’, random brainstormed list of skills that could, with varying degrees of success, catapult your hero into the coolest stratospheres of Cool Cat-dom.
Athletic skills: How about a character who excels at a particular sport? They could run fast or swim. Skateboarding, skiing, surfing, snowboarding? (Yeah, you know those are cool)
Martial arts: Karate, jujitsu, tae kwon do, etc. They don’t come much cooler than Daniel LaRusso, right? (You can roll your eyes here, but you know, I did have a poster of Ralph Macchio in my bedroom once upon a time and it’s hard to let that go. And he was, after all, the best around and nothing was ever going to keep him down.)
Weapons: Swordsmanship, anyone? Archery? It worked for Katniss as much as Robin Hood. Or maybe even think bigger. Fighter jets. Maverick from Top Gun fo’ sho. I don’t want to think too deeply about why holding the power of life and death in someone’s hands makes them so cool, but it does.
Techie skills: I married a computer programmer. ‘Nuff said. Seriously, in today’s world, being way skilled in technology gives you a serious advantage and a lot of power. Think Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Artistic: If anything might be sexier than computer programmers, I mean, only a smidge, of course–it’s musicians. Or what about someone who can sing like an angel? A painter or sculptor or photographer. What about an amazing dancer? Now that I think about it, writers are probably THE coolest people ever. I can see you’re nodding in agreement. Bottom line, artists are cool. Just visit Greenwich Village. And then tell me what it’s like, please, because I’ve never been.
Domestic skills: What?! I hear you say. Do you mean mopping like a fiend or something? No. Two words: Supermarket Sweep. Give your character mad grocery shopping skills! Okay, kidding. But cooking really well can be very cool. What about a person with a green thumb? It’s incredible how everything comes back to The Karate Kid, but remember Mr. Miyagi and those bonsai trees? That was kinda cool, right?
Magical/Paranormal powers: Something along the lines of Harry Potter or the X-Men. I do, however, understand where literary agent Russell Galen was coming from when he told me he’s turned off by “Master Race” stories in which characters are inherently more wonderful than ordinary people. The trick is to give your characters a villain worthy of their magical powers. Or maybe it’s not as big as a super power. Maybe it’s telepathy like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse character. I’m reading a fun paranormal western right now, The Curse of Jacob Tracy by Holly Messinger and her cowboy hero can see ghosts. (Check out this original book!)
Survival skills: Bear Grylls! Okay, maybe he’s not the best example. Drinking your own urine is never cool. But someone who can build fires, track people, put up a four-star shelter with just some twigs and branches, and catch a fish with her/his bare hands is pretty cool. Maybe more Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins or Julie in Julie of the Wolves than Bear Grylls.
Smooth criminal: I guess we shouldn’t root for criminals, but they can be oh-so-cool sometimes. How about Hans Solo and his smuggling? Or books like The Grifters and Fight Club? The character of Fergus in the Outlander books and his pickpocket skills. Frank Abangale in Catch Me If You Can certainly had some skills–even if it was pure nerviness.
Word to your Mother Nature/Mad Scientists: Can I get a shout-out for the coolness of people who rock climb, mountain climb, scuba dive, spelunk, and hike? The character of Saul in Lucy Clarke’s A Single Breath opens up an underwater world of free diving for Eva. Or maybe your character can commune with animals. Do they have a special relationship with nature? Anna Pigeon, the Park Ranger in Nevada Barr’s mystery series is one example. They could be a storm-chaser. Scientists who study the natural world. Neil deGrasse-Tyson, am I right? So cool. Albeit not a character, but a real person.
Handy-(wo)man: Who doesn’t love a character who’s good with their hands? Mechanics, carpenters, general handy people. We’re talking real skills. Nora Roberts must have a thing for this because so many of her leading men remodel houses. I think her husband did something in this line of work so I get it now.
Speed Demons: People who do things fast. Drive sports cars or racecars, fly airplanes or helicopters, speedboats, parachute. Or spaceships like in this fun sci-fi book about a lizard pilot, Would I Ly to You by Lawdon. You know. Cool.
Medical know-how: Claire Fraser in the Outlander series (again, sorry I keep coming back to this series) is a perfect example. Or the woman in The Midwife of Hope River. Just like people skilled with weapons, the medical expert holds the power of life and death in their hands.
People skills: From charming to manipulative, this can be an incredibly powerful –and cool–skill for your character. Tyrion Lannister, though small, is packed with people skills that carry him to a position of power many times throughout Martin’s Game of Thrones series.
Deductive reasoning: There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes has been done and re-done to death. The dude is just plain cool. Or how about Caleb Carr’s character in The Alienist? A sharp, observant mind is the bees’ knees to me.
Random skills: The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse featured a heroine who was skilled at…you guessed it, taxidermy. A quirky or one-of-a-kind skill can make your character a cool standout. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Heroes Are My Weakness featured a ventriloquist heroine who was surprisingly cool in a dorky way. Think of a random skill for your character and then work it into the plot–or maybe an entire plot will stem from the skill itself. Can they speed read? Wing walk? Identify any song in less than five seconds? Make the world’s best balloon animals? Are they a champion at curling? Your imagination is the limit.
Positive character traits take you most of the way to creating a sympathetic character, but for a truly memorable, cool character, don’t forget to give them some serious skills!
What kind of skills do you think make for the coolest characters? Let me know in the comments.