Susan here – like the other Wenches, I’ve written my share of heroes and heroines with special gifts, talents, occupations – some of them remarkable abilities, some of them unusual, some just the right sort of hobby or occupation to expand and ground that character and add dimension to the story.
What is the appeal of a fictional character—hero, heroine, main character or villain—who possesses a particular talent or remarkable skill, or even abilities above and beyond the norm? I find it a significant aspect of any story, whether I’m writing it or reading it. Characters need to be multi-dimensional to add substance to not just character but plot, detail and story arcs. And characters in a historical romance need a center to their lives that is separate from the love interest, even when the relationship is central to the story.
With every book, I love discovering my character's gifts and abilities, and love researching to learn more about characters’ talents and skills. I want my heroes and heroines to have something unique about them that belongs to them, whether it’s dormant and they need to discover it, or a skill that is a particular focus in their lives. And for me, it’s a great chance to learn something new that I can share with readers, such as harp playing, hawking, forestry, archery, swordsmanship or engineering design, music or art – it’s a long list, and often I’ve had the opportunity to research something new to me.
Among the heroes I’ve written, there have been warriors and knights, soldiers, swordsmen, archers, forest outlaws, Highlanders keeping cattle or stealing it. There’s a fiddle player, a swordsmith, a medieval surgeon, a hands-on healer, a falconer, a Regency doctor. And there are the intellectuals—lawyers, scholars, professors; the lawmen and the outlaws; a deep sea diver, a lighthouse designer, a bridge engineer, a road engineer.
Heroines who have a core interest in their lives beyond the hero and the relationship, something that is essential to them, a personal purpose — that to me is a naturally rendered heroine – even if it's an extraordinary ability. We all have something that we do, something we feel compelled to do.
Some of my heroines are healers ( a medieval physician, a midwife, a natural hands-on healer). Some have the Sight, some can see the Fey. Some are musicians (singers, harpers), some artists (a stone carver). Some are physical gifted—an archer, a swordswoman, a warrior-princess. Some are academics, writers, poets, historians.
What's intriguing about that gift or skill might be the process of learning it, or how they handle the gift. Other times, the complement or contrast in the special interests of hero and heroine create possibilities and tensions in the story that otherwise wouldn’t be convincing.
The Victorian heroine of Kissing the Countess is a folksong collector and singer who goes into the hills in search of the old Gaelic tunes—and the hero is the landowner, newly returned and set on clearing those hills. Juliana in The Swan Maiden is an masterful archer who meets a forest outlaw so adept he can catch arrows mid-flight. James Lindsay, a Scottish forest outlaw with an uncanny ability to train hawks, and Lady Isobel, who can foresee the future, must find ways to avoid the king’s men in Laird of the Wind.
The burden and the price of some extraordinary gift can become a character’s challenge – in Lady Miracle, the medieval heroine’s powerful natural healing gift must be hidden, though it compels her to train as a physician. Another heroine with the Sight in The Raven’s Wish sees the hero’s death and warns him to go away–and she wishes she had never seen that vision.
With a good talent to play with in the story, events, situations and conflicts can be out of the ordinary and add consequences and raise the stakes in the story, adding motivation and conflict—such as the Scottish prophetess whose ability causes problems for the forest outlaw intent on training his hawk.
Years ago, while writing The Angel Knight, I was well into the first draft when I realized that the heroine was a total bore. I had 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, and then he has a wife, a ruined castle, and a life he never planned. But the heroine was just not interesting and had nothing to offer the story. She desperately needed a hobby.
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?
What talents and abilities do you like to see in heroes and heroines? Does a paranormal or a “normal” gift appeal more to you? Do you prefer more familiar talents — like cooking or needlework — to less common abilities in heroines?