On Characters: Building Mastery

So, your Hero has a tragic past, isolating him from others, and has achieved unheard-of pinnacles of skill that set him even more apart-!

This is actually more Truth in Television than most people realize. Building mastery is advised for people who’ve been through traumatic events. Basically, do something. Something practical, that takes skill that you can build over time, and see how you’re gradually getting better at it. It helps build resilience. In essence, “no matter what else is going on in my life, there is this skill I can perform, and I get these predictable results out of it.” Having a part of your life that is even mostly under your control, that you can turn to when everything else is crashing down around your ears, and still accomplish something tangible – that gives you a solid foundation. Or at the very least a spar to cling to through the storm.

And if your character’s trauma involves violence, and the skill he builds is something like swordplay (good for handling violence permanently) or murder investigation (also handling violence, if after the fact), then he’s taking a big step toward controlling the source of trauma. It is a coping skill.

…It is also, admittedly, a thing that will give a real person some degree of isolation from people who have not been so traumatized. Trauma changes people. Whether for worse or better depends on the person, how determined they are not to let what happened to them define their lives… and, unfortunately, on their surrounding society. See the reaction to the SAO survivors in Sword Art Online, especially the teenagers who had to defend themselves to survive, even to the point of homicide. (Or to Shino, who was a freaking kid when she shot in self-defense.) A fair number of those survivors would really, really like to have viable real-world self-defense skills, because someone tried to kill them. Yet the society around them wishes it would all go away. So attempts at coping turn to a lot of time spent online gaming, because at least there no one constantly disapproves of what you did to survive. You can easily see how this could lead to addictive gaming behavior, even without a scheming guy in the shadows trying to harness AI for war….

So if the Evil Overlord burned down your Hero’s Doomed Hometown and he decided to master the blade, even if he never thought he’d be going up against the Evil Overlord in person – this is a very plausible and very human response. So is a person whose masterwork was stolen learning to detect forgeries, or a youngster whose parents were murdered setting his mind to become the World’s Greatest Detective.

Your character can, legitimately, be The Best There Is at something. But you have to know what drove them to it!

21 thoughts on “On Characters: Building Mastery

  1. Getting to be The Best at something takes obsession as well. Little kids say the want to be The Best, which is part of why Pokémon having Ash leave home at 12 while declaring he’s going to be The Best makes sense. (We’ll, leave the cultural differences and the Implications aside from this conversation.) Notably, most of the people we meet have happily settled into a niche and don’t continue to become gym leaders or region Champions. I want to experiment with textile crafting, and I’d love to spend all day doing it. But not everyday. I’m not willing to dedicate eight to ten hours of my day off to it, plus whatever time I can eek out other places.

    If you’re character is an adult and Obsessed with being The Best, you better have a reason. It doesn’t have to be tragic.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. So true. My coppersmith fits this to a T. He suffered for years and when he finally got out, not in the way he planned but it works, he immediately sought work in his craft.

    And is good at it. A little too good for one his age, but the people he is now living among are happy to have him and want him to stay.

    *giggle* I have a lot of scrap conversations about the townsfolk coming up with ways to get him to stay. Don’t think any will make it in the main story, but I found it helps flesh out the other people in the town.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Well, I guess Feur fits since she’s a Blacksmith. On bad days she turns out perhaps a dozen nails before she feels better since nails are the easiest part of the craft to learn.

    Plus, you can never have enough. Repairs on most things come to mind.

    She may not be a master, but it _is_ a tangible skill where you can hold what you’ve made in your hands.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. “I want to be the very best, like no one ever was…”

    Kid me’s ideas of good and bad in goals were not my current ones.

    There was an essay back in the day, written for MUDs IIRC, that talked about four play styles. Greifers, game system explorers, competitive sorts, and social.

    These also can be life styles.

    There is an overlap between criminality and greifing.

    Some folks don’t care what they do, so long as they can be social while doing it.

    Some folks compete.

    Some folks are ‘Oh, wow, new thing’.

    Anyway, some competers /need/ to be in a certain size group, and to chase a position relative to group performance. I have a competing element, but mostly against my self. I have an idea of work I might be willing to put in, and I’m trying to get oomph out of that.

    I have some ‘oh, wow’ elemetns to my personality.

    But, I’m more social than I would have originally identified as. To stay on track, I need to talking to people doing the same things I do. I don’t have enough center to stay on task when I’m feeling entirely alone in the world, and that is only partly how depression will screw over the ability to get anything done.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The update of this would probably be this lecture at GDC on the 12 Motivations Gamers have. It’s a fascinating study on why people play games and what they get out of them. And also how culture plays a significant role in what people want to get out of their games.


  5. …I wonder, can one “master” JOATing?

    My professional trade involves being at the confluence of a *lot* of very different specialists (and their specialties). Being able to to speak enough of their lingo at least well enough to have an intelligent conversation with them in their wheelhouse, *and* be able to spot obvious snowjob attempts when they happened, was a downright (professional) survival skill.

    The personal downside is that now there’s *way* too many people convinced I can do *any and all* of these various things, when the reality is that for most of them, I can just barely scrape by (and I know how to explain my problem to subject-matter experts when I call tech support, which is Really Helpful to leverage the most out of tech support, not to mention getting past the “did you plug it in?” level of tech support).

    For many years now, I’ve had a personal conviction that the Renaissance Man– er, Person– of the Information Age is someone who knows how to *find* just the critical know-how they need, when they need it, and not drown trying to drink from the Google fire hose….

    Liked by 3 people

    1. …I wonder, can one “master” JOATing?

      In the sense of “redneck engineering” type ability to see potential in unusual things, yes, I’d argue.

      It takes knowledge of substances, situations, how things are generally done, how they CAN be done, why they’re done in a certain way…..

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Generalism is Really Hard TM.

      What develops very often is extremely intelligent extraordinarily skilled people who try a wide range of things, never realize if they make esoteric mistakes doing that, and are very confident in continuing their efforts, until they make some pretty serious mistakes.

      The basic issue is that a skilled person can potentially verify their skill levels on past work. If the mistakes made on previous work fall below the threshold of whatever detection method they use. But, detecting mistakes is also a skill, an area specific skill, and for many areas there are always going to be new mistakes to discover, and/or poor preservation of knowledge about certain mistake types. The number of things that one could, potentially, do next is always going to be much greater than the number of things that one has done.

      Add to that, the full range of fields is such that there are huge differences between some of the specialties.


    3. Those are a few very different things, not all one. What you describe as your profession sounds similar to what Stephen Lawhead described in one of his SF stories as a “sparkplug”: someone who isn’t themselves a master of any of the various trades involved, or even necessarily a JoaT (which requires _actually doing the stuff_, if at a lower level than mastery), but does know enough to be able to recognize both “who is the expert to call for any given thing” _and_ “when are experts in two different fields missing something that’s obvious, because it’s only obvious with the other field’s knowledge, so working together will actually let us solve this problem?” The Sparkplug’s job is riding herd on the actual experts, and getting the right experts from different fields working together in a way that allows developments that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

      The JoaT, by contrast, is all about “this person can and has dabbled in a little bit of a great number of things, and can personally at least produce usable (if not good) results in most of them”, rather than about any potential to work together with others or figure out where multiple fields working together could produce a solution to something. A hobbyist and producer in their own right, rather than an instigator.

      And then there’s the Renaissance Man, who may or may not actually _do_ anything with their skill, but has reached at least the lower levels of mastery in a wide range of skills. It’s less about their actions, and more about the combined breadth and depth of their learning. Where the JoaT may have kludged through several random things because they were necessary, the Renaissance Man has gracefully achieved mastery and understanding of entire fields, because “why settle for less, when it’s not that hard for me?”

      As for “mastering JoaT’ing”, the answer is “yes, it’s entirely possible” (and it’s still different from being a Renaissance Man). The master JoaT is extremely skilled at kludging together workable solutions to problems he encounters, using workarounds that may not actually be necessary if you specialized in the field, but which still produce usable results. Macgyvering or “redneck engineering” (as Foxfier called it) fits in that category when done well.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. There’s the concept of ‘system engineering’ as a discipline of engineering.

        If you buy the conceit, this is an approach for complex projects and programs that uses a specialized expert that can talk to all of the experts involved, and get the communication going, and keep it going.

        Developing this approach has a lot to do with the post WWII history of aerospace engineering.

        Of course, with a lot of these large bureaucracies, it isn’t necessarily done as a rare aptitude, but more as a process that they hope that they can teach to a much larger group of people.

        The ones that can actually think outside of engineering, and can grasp much of the humanities, seem to be pretty rare.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. There’s also the consequences of devoting that much time to a skill.

    It’s common for the specialist to be depicted as having poor social skills.

    The thing that throws me is memes.
    They have some omni-scientist, able to understand anything in any field, and build a devise to solve the problem, constantly overworked… and they also constantly make references to every obscure movie and game from the last 70 years.

    Where do they get the time for that?
    Are they playing movies in the background while doing their research?
    Are they building things in 5 minutes, then spending the rest of the time playing games while pretending they are under constant deadlines?

    “Oh, I’ll get that resurrection machine built as soon as I can, but I have this urgent project I need to finish first… damn boss fight…”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The omni-scientist part is conservation of casting (ie, in NCIS you have Abby taking the place of an entire office, Ducky is an entire office, etc) but it’s common among a certain set of the normal-end super smart (possibly genius, I can’t remember the specific definitions for that) where they not just can follow TV in the background while they do stuff, they ALMOST NEED IT.

      It’s like.. you have something that you can have that’s taking up attention until you NEED to sacrifice part of Focus to shift to what you are really doing.

      It also is used as research in How To People, and fandoms are much more welcoming of, ah, idiosyncratic behaviors than the general population.

      I have a similar thing with liking talk radio in the background while I’m working, which I only noticed because I would be doing something that required greater focus and that’s when my husband would talk to me… and the last 15 seconds of radio got dumped, because I’d shifted attention over to Answer Person.
      It’s similar to how when you’re focused and you won’t even hear someone talking to you.

      I annoy the piss out of my relatives because I’ll be sitting in a room doing something else entirely– including reading a book– and I’m following the TV show they’re watching better than they are. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Got something similar from my dad’s side of the family. We can go to family gatherings, the tv will be on, and everyone can converse while watching. My late grandmother (my dad’s mom) always had the tv on when we visited. I will have music play when I work on something.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This so much. I have three “senses” I *need* filled if I want to concentrate on something. If one of thous three isn’t “filled”, then I will spend more time concentrating on filling that “sense” than I will on the thing I should be concentrating on. The thing the thing “filling” the sense needs though is *predictability* on my end. If whatever is “filling” the sense isn’t *predictable* than it doesn’t “fill” it correctly. It “overfills” it and then it very distracting.

        The four “senses” I need filled are… (1) Audio, (2) Touch/Kinetics, (3) Visual. These don’t have to be *literal* mind you. My Visual sense is so strong that so long as I can see something happening inside my head, I’ll be okay. Audio can do this too, but having actual music works better. Touch/Kinetics always has to be something physical.

        In terms of predictability… pop songs of all kinds are predictable since they all follow the same “verse, chorus, verse chorus, bridge, chorus” pattern. Video game music is also *designed* to be done in the background of some more complex task and works *very well*. Visuals are almost always predictable. Touch/Kinetics is often related to things like fiddling with my phone (sudoku, majong work well) or even something like chewing gum, drinking water/coffee or typing. Playing video games I’m very familiar with on my computer works wonders (for concentrating on audio especially).

        This leaves the unpredictable thing to be what I’m trying to focus on in the first place. Weather that’s a conversation with people, a lecture, a book, some other physical task, etc. I can and will focus on it best once I’m no longer worrying about where all the distractions are coming from… because I know *exactly* what the distractions are… and then can subsequently ignore them in favor of something else.

        I guess it’s kind of the idea of White Noise. Only it’s very colorful White Noise (and also White Visuals and White Touch/Kinetics!)

        But yes, there really are people who can and do *need* to multi-task in very specific ways to really *get* stuff done. *Most* of the people I know who are like this have very strong dyslexic tenancies and multi-tasking is a very common way dyslexics will “burn” their excess energy so they can approximate “concentration” for long periods of time.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d also add that the opposite is
    also true. Skills and skillets tend to come with communities, however small. If something happens in your life, or just life circumstances change and you can’t dedicate time/money to that particular thing anymore – that loss is isolating. Said isolation comes both because there’s something you know you’re good at that you can’t do anymore, leading to feelings of frustration, stagnation, and uselessness, and also because it cuts you off from the people associated with that skill. Doubly so when said skill is something like music, which all but requires it to happen with a group.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This can also be really fun character fodder when you need someone to be impressively stupid.
    (Note: stupid doesn’t mean wrong.)

    Think like… “I really don’t like bullies.”
    Or “But I have to help, she’s crying!”

    Good guy, bad guy, main character, random guy on the street you’re adding to the party….

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Re: building mastery — I just found a rather good webnovel. It’s a rebirth novel set in 1980’s China, in a very ordinary apartment block in an ordinary town. (Later there was a cover-statement about it really being the “Tian Dynasty” of the “Celestial Empire,” but before that we heard all about the effects on the family of the Cultural Revolution and the one-child rule, and we start out at the local People’s Hospital. And the protagonist occasionally quotes Mao as a power move to older adults, to get away with things.)

    It’s called Rebirth to Military Marriage. And there’s tons of protagonist trauma before the protagonist goes back in time. But they do some interesting things, like the protagonist having to study hard for junior high during the summer, because it had been so many years in her original life since she’d had to do algebra or memorize certain Chinese characters.

    She has a lot of skills from her previous life as an adult, but they don’t help her much in junior high. It’s almost a relief when she does have a “cheat,” for once.

    Of course there is unrealistic faceslapping, but at least it’s believable that teenagers would mouth off to each other, or that a dysfunctional parent would say bad stuff.

    It’s a very clever novel, I think, but I’m only about 100 chapters in.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ohhhhkay. Apparently some branches of traditional Chinese medicine think that strong emotions cause heavier menstrual flow.

      Now… obviously “don’t upset women having their periods” is a sound idea. And possibly moodswings and amount of flow could be related, because of hormone levels affecting both.

      But…yeah, this is why I keep a very large grain of salt with traditional medicine. And this is why a modernized version of TCM is usually presented to modern folks.

      Also, you don’t drink hot drinks because they’re soothing; you drink them to prevent “cold uterus.” Because that’s what causes cramps, according to TCM. So no popsicles for you, missy!

      (Yes, menses and traditional ideas about menses are a fairly important thread in this novel. And apparently some Chinese girls without enough nourishment have gotten their first period as late as 17-18, because that’s part of the heroine’s sad former life.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Come to think of it, Jonnet is studying a magical form that splits up her power set into three because of her parents’ death when she was young. She’s utterly determined to emulate them despite the current thing being to concentrate on one set and call in others if you need the other two.

    It will have effects.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s