Recently I had an interesting conversation with Wench Pat Rice regarding writing about characters with talents and special abilities. Like most the other Wenches, Pat and I have written our share of heroes and heroines with gifts and talents – some of them remarkable, extraordinary or downright strange.
As a mom, I’ve had sons in various Gifted and Talented Programs, which has been mostly a joy and a source of pride, and sometimes plain exhausting. As an author, it’s not dissimilar, minus the driving hours and the homework supervising. I love learning about my character’s gifts and abilities; I admire and respect them, and of course I think they’re the best ever… and I want those gifts to enrich the story for the reader, too.
For example, over the course of twenty books, I’ve written about heroes with musical and artistic talents (a fiddle player, a swordmaker); physical prowess (warriors, archers, swordsmen, forest outlaws); training and aptitude for healing or even mysterious healing powers; and psychic abilities (the ability to see the Fey, for instance). My heroines have been healers (both trained and natural) and psychics able to see the future or into the Otherworld; musicians, such as singers and a harpist; artists, including a stonecarver; and physically gifted heroines, such as a master archer as well as a swordswoman.
What is the appeal of a fictional character—whether hero, heroine, main character or villain—who possesses abilities above and beyond the norm (or slightly off center, if we’re being directional about it)? Often there’s something compelling about those who have certain gifts, abilities or qualities; sometimes it is the gift or ability itself that fascinates. Some of my stories and their main characters were inspired as I researched a gift or vocation—such as Catriona, the Victorian folksong collector and singer in my 2003 novel, Kissing the Countess; a medieval archer so adept that he could catch arrows in flight, paired with a heroine whose skill at archery was a match for his own, in The Swan Maiden; or James Lindsay, a Scottish forest outlaw with an uncanny ability to train hawks, and Lady Isobel, who can foresee the future, in Laird of the Wind.
Sometimes I’ve been so fascinated by the idea of the burden, the blessing and the price of an extraordinary gift that I’ve begun a story from that point. That was the case with Lady Miracle—where Lady Michaelmas’s gift of spontaneous healing touch is something she must hide, though it compels her to seek training as a physician in the fourteenth century; or To Wed A Highland Bride (Avon, 2007), where Elspeth can read others’ thoughts and knows the truth about others, especially James MacCarran, who doesn’t know quite what to make of it all.
Pat Rice has explored similar themes and issues in her novels. “I’ve never really tried to analyze the appeal,” she says. “It’s just something I’ve drifted toward naturally, as a more visible aspect of the character’s personality, I suppose. In MYSTIC RIDER, my heroine arouses emotion through her voice and her music. Skillful musicians can accomplish that without paranormal gifts, so Chantal’s abilities take music one step further, just enough to cause the hero grave problems. Possibly adding the extra element simply raises the stakes and the conflicts, which always makes a story more exciting.”
I know what Pat means here, and I’ve done the same thing. A story with a truly gifted, talented or extraordinarily able character naturally lends itself to situations out of the norm. Action and conflicts are a notch or two above ordinary; in historical romance, where events are often well beyond the realm of what might be considered normal, that’s useful for an author, and hopefully interesting for a reader. A character might be a gifted singer, but in fiction, that’s not always too exciting—music and art are not easy modes to convey in writing. Personally I don’t want to be told that a character is a brilliant musician, artist, or whatever. That’s a definite “show-me.” But if that gift raises the stakes, motivates story or characters and adds conflict and challenge, the label of brilliant or extraordinary is easier to accept. A character like Chantal in MYSTIC RIDER, whose astonishing musical ability ratchets things up in the story, adds a fascinating dimension.
Years ago, when I was writing The Angel Knight, I was well into the first draft when I realized that the heroine was…a total bore. There was plenty of plot—a medieval Scotswoman held in an iron cage by the English, dying of exposure; the hero frees her and then chivalrously marries her; but to his surprise, she recovers (he has that healing-touch thing goin’ on); he is stuck with a wife, a ruined castle, and a life he never planned. But I freely admit that the heroine was an utter bore in that first draft. What she desperately needed was a hobby. But what did medieval ladies do?? Needlework? No thanks….
Impulsively I gave her a Celtic harp, and (after much research!) she became a gifted harper. That changed the nature of the character and the story so much that I learned the value of giving heroes and heroines something to DO — regardless of how exciting or fast-paced the story, believable characters, like all of us, need something that holds worth and meaning for them alone. In a story, that gift or ability can make all the difference when it dovetails with and enhances plot.
As writers, why do we choose certain gifts for some characters? Is it because it fits with the planned development of plot or character, or does it come from the author’s interest in exploring the gift itself? Mary Jo Putney says her answer to this is, quite simply, YES to all of the above, and the evidence is clear in A DISTANT MAGIC (now in paperback), and in so very many of her books.
Pat Rice gifts the heroes and heroines of her amazing Mystic Isle series with some extraordinary paranormal abilities, suited to the mystical world they live in part of the time. “After twenty-five years and forty-five books, I’ve covered most of the known territory that interests me and that the market allows, and the paranormal was a huge area relatively untouched during that time. I have never done a hero who can foresee the future like Ian from MYSTIC RIDER, for example. It adds a nice alpha quality to him if he “sees” danger and still walks into it–and I got to build plot and character around a man who willingly approaches danger."
Sometimes a writer chooses a gift or special ability for a character based on legends and myths that suit the time and setting of the story. I did that in The Sword Maiden, for example, when the heroine, Eva, is compelled to fulfill a clan prophecy in medieval Scotland; I put a sword in the girl’s hand, as she was obliged to defend her people. The research needed to make her smart and skilled with the blade was fascinating for me, and included some swordplay lessons. In that case, the character’s gift began with the model of a legend.
That’s not often the case for Pat, who says that she while she plays on the myths of a beautiful legendary city that disappears, in MYSTIC GUARDIAN, she took the Breton legend of sea princess a little further with her mermaid heroine, along with the archetypal elements of a quest for a chalice. “But it’s not as if I set out to use those myths. They just fell into place as I plotted,” she says.
I find that a lot of what goes on in a story just falls into place, as Pat says, and that’s fodder for other blogs… and in the case of the Gifted and Talented hero and heroine, that ability has to fit in the story, and not simply stand alone. If it enriches the character and the story, it’s worth it not only for the author but the reader as well.
Currently I’m still exploring the G&T Program for Heroes and Heroines–this time with a Scottish Regency heroine, Fiona, who must see a fairy with her own eyes in order to inherit her grandmother’s estate in my next Sarah Gabriel romance, THE HIGHLAND GROOM (Avon, January 2009). Dougal MacGregor, a Highland smuggler who makes whisky according to an ancient fairy recipe, knows that if Fiona has the gift of looking into the Otherworld, that only means more trouble for him.
After a gap of several years, I’m once again researching harps for my work-in-progress about Queen Margaret of Scotland, whose household includes a female bard. This time, to make certain the details of the bard’s hobby are just right, I’ve started taking lessons in Celtic harp!
What talents and abilities do you like to see in heroes and heroines? Does it appeal to you more, or less, if the gift is paranormal or "normal"? And have you read novels in which the character’s special ability made the story truly extraordinary for you?
~Susan Sarah, on a hot, humid, rainy day in Maryland