Question 1: What Is Your Character's Special Gift? (And why it matters)

To Kill a Mockingbird

The first question to ask yourself is: What is the main character’s gift? Often my students have written whole first drafts and don't know the answer to this question.

Sometimes this is because many first novels are autobiographical and most of us don't really value our own special gifts. Our friends do.  It helps to ask them.

Whether your character is based on you or not, usually they do have a special gift, even in a rough first draft, but it may not be developed or externalized enough. Meaning, if your character is intelligent, can you make them even more so? Can you show this intelligence through actions they take rather than just by telling us about it?  For example, can they solve a mystery that pertains to the novel?  In fantasy, paranormal, magical realism and science-fiction these traits can be externalized in dramatic ways. For example, a character can have visions, telepathy, telekinetic abilities or other "superpowers".  In realistic fiction we have to find ways to show a special gift in terms of every day life, and through action! 

This is important according to the 'survivalist theory" of storytelling because a reader needs to identify with a main character on an emotional level in order to go on the journey and identify the meaning of the story, at least in a subconscious way. Otherwise we won’t care, we won’t learn, we won’t “survive.”

Also, gifts can be the thing that allow the characters to survive. As readers, our interest is piqued and we begin to wonder how the gift will be employed to help the character survive. The character may not know or recognize the gift but the writer should know it.

An example: In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout is strong and loyal.  She is also innocent, which allows her to keep her faith in humanity in spite of everything that happens. Her innocence also helps save Atticus when the mob threatens him.  She is many other positive things (smart, spunky, funny) but for the purposes of this exercise let's focus on the first three traits.  Next week we will look at the character "flaw".  Hint: It works well if it is the flip-side or extreme of the gift.