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TLDR

How to keep a character's skillset hidden, when it will be key in the story later on? This must be done without magic and as subtly as humanly possible.


I am working on a medieval fantasy story, where there is a basic premise of magic - it has essentially all but gone from the world but a select few can do basic conjuring (nothing crazy, no wands, no masterful spell casting, just basic stuff almost bordering on illusions). I want the answer to not use magic however - she is not one of those people who have that ability, she is not particularly special in this regard.

Now, in my story there are multiple story lines, flashbacks (via the MC), and a multitude of characters. The story line that this concerns directly involves my MC and his "partner", let's call her Jane. The MC essentially recruited this partner, and we (reader and MC) meet Jane at the same time. Jane is to poise as his romantic interest for a job, although these two are not romantically involved whatsoever. She is a strong character in her own right (think Catlyn Stark, Hermonie Granger, Starbuck in the most recent Battlestar Galactica). The MC hires her and brings Jane along for what we could call a heist. He hires her strictly because she gives off an aire of grace, intelligence and poise (add to that she is attractive) - all things he needs her to exploit to accomplish their task.

About Jane

Jane, is foreign to the land in which our story takes place. She, due to her past, keeps her story hidden and doesn't share much, unless she needs to and even then it's usually through action.

She is

  • well spoken, and incredibly intelligent
  • can read and write (a skill she doesn't tend to hide),
  • multi-lingual (keeps hidden, but speaks both the old tongue, her language, and the common language of the region) as well as having no tangible accent (so even being foreign is hidden for the most part to the undiscerning eye)
  • basic field medicine and herbology
  • she is also excellent with a dagger, too small for a sword (most people carry some variant of a knightly sword) --- this is a skill she keeps hidden and the skill in question actually.

Question

How can I write about her, letting tidbits of the story go into her background while allowing her to utilize this skill when the required to do so as a result of the story arc? I have gotten far enough in, that I can retcon it to make sense and add details (subtle is fine). I would like her to be a catalyst for change in the story, and killing a particular someone would be the spark that changes things.

I want to avoid a situation where this character essentially steals the spotlight for a moment from our MC via Deus Ex Machina. But I am at a loss as to how to keep this character a tightly guarded mystery, and not have that phenomenon in my story. (I have Checkov's gun covered - she has a dagger she uses incidentally in a non-violent manner).

NOTES

  1. This is not a duplicate of the this question, as it deals with magic or super powers not a hidden skillset.
  2. Nor is it a dupe of this question, "How best to avoid the appearance of Deus Ex Machina with established character?" addresses it, kind of. Amadeus' answer briefly touches on it - but doesn't go into detail. Below is the portion of his answer which made me conclude I should ask my own question.

Now you DO want there to be an element of surprise or suspense, not that the TP was capable of saving them, you want that to be plausible from the beginning. The surprise should be that the reader is led to believe the TP must be dead or imprisoned, and then somehow survived and managed to escape himself, to get there on time to save them.

  1. I have a feeling that utilizing some form of foreshadowing is the key to this question --- but I can't put my finger on the solution. This question here is where I drew some of my ideas from for other events within the same story.
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A story is an experience. The reader has to trust that experience. If they stop trusting the experience, they essentially drop out of the world created by the experience, and once that happens, their enjoyment of the story is over.

Exactly what creates a trustworthy experience is not entirely straightforward. But a couple of things should be obvious.

  1. The experience must be complete. There cannot be parts of the experience that are left blank to be filled in later. Real experiences are not like that.

  2. The experience cannot be a lie or a deception. You can't trick or deceive the reader about what the experience is.

But here is where it gets tricky. There can most definitely be surprises in the experience. Surprises are, after all, a part of life. Anything that can happen in a real experience can happen in a fictional experience. By the same token, the reader can be mislead by a story experience just as they can by a real experience.

They key is that when the reader is surprised or deceived in the story experience, it has to happen in the same way as it happens in a real life experience, but with the additional caveat that the writer cannot lie to the reader. Yes, in real life, people can lie to you and thus cause you to be deceived or surprised. But those liars are part of the experience. They are real things within the framework of the experience. But if an author lies to a reader that is a lie in the creation of the experience itself.

Characters can lie in a story, and if the reader's only source of information is that character, then they may be deceived by the lie. That's fine, as long as everyone else in the story is deceived by the lie, and as long as the reader finds out about the lie at the same time the protagonist does.

It is not impossible to play with this rule a bit. In a classic detective story, for instance, the detective generally figures out who did it before it is revealed to the reader. That deception is an acceptable convention of the genre. But if the author lies to the reader about a piece of evidence in order to make the puzzle harder to figure out, that is unforgivable and the reader will feel cheated and abandon the book.

So, in the case of your story, if the MC knows about Jane's abilities, relies on them, plans around them, but the author does not tell the reader about them, the reader will feel cheated.

If the MC knows nothing about Janes abilities, and Jane has a good reason not to reveal them to him, and he only finds out about them when we do, then the reader will not feel cheated.

However, there is another problem with this. The MC's triumphs have to feel earned or the reader will lose interest in the story, not because they feel cheated directly, but because they will not feel like they know what the stakes are, and therefore don't know how to feel about the events as they unfold. You can't have heart in your mouth suspense if the reader feels that Jane is going to reveal some new power every time the MC gets in a jam.

So, if one of Jane's aibilitis is going to be used to get the MC out of a jam, it must have been revealed earlier. It may have been a while back, and the reader may have forgotten about it, but when it happens the reader has to be able to say, Oh, yes, I remember that!

Even so, that only solves half the problem. The MC still needs to merit their triumph. If Janes abilities solve all the problems, even with proper foreshadowing, it is still going to be a boring story.

There is an old rule about this, and you break it at your peril. Surprise and coincidence can be used to get your MC into trouble, but they cannot be used to get him out of it. Escape has to be merited and the means of escape cannot come as a surprise.

In short, if you are hoping that you can resolve your story and rescue your MC by having Jane's powers suddenly be revealed at the last moment, that won't work, and there is no way to make it work. It is not about how you conceal them. It is about that you concealed them, and the reader will not forgive that.

So I would suggest you worry less about how to conceal them and think more about how to shape a satisfactory story that does not depend on springing them on the reader at the end.

  • Wow - that is a hell of an answer that will take a while to digest. – J Crosby Sep 27 at 4:06
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    I'm marking this one as correct for the reason that it discusses the need for trust between reader/author, something that while not directly in the question is incredibly important for good story telling. All the other answers were great and provided excellent insights, and were great answers in their own right. Thank-you all. – J Crosby Sep 30 at 16:06
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Sometimes characters surprise you.

And that's okay.

You're absolutely right to worry about a deus ex machina situation where a solution comes out of the blue with no rhyme or reason. This is the sort of thing that annoys readers, and for good reason.

But this is a character whose past is not well known. She didn't grow up in the same culture as the rest of your characters. And knife work is something you'll already establish (even if most people use swords as weapons instead).

You should also establish that she carries a dagger. That's pretty easy because daggers are common tools that people of that tech era (or even our modern one, especially on a journey) would carry for standard tasks like portioning out meat for a shared dinner, skinning/preparing animals to cook, or cutting plants make herbal remedies.

Probably everyone in your story carries a dagger of some sort. Most also carry swords but Jane does not. The characters can comment on it, can even factor that into their assessment of how the group might defend itself if attacked.

You can also establish Jane as someone who doesn't fear conflict and doesn't easily back down when insulted or challenged. Though it would work even if you make her a bit of a pushover, as lots of people step up when it's an emergency.

When Jane suddenly proves she can fight well with a dagger, it will be a welcome surprise, not an eye-rolling one. If you've shown the reader that her personality is one that does what needs to be done (perhaps with killing an animal for food) and you've shown her skill with the knife (deftly skinning said animal), her suddenly fighting and killing a person or attacker is not going to be all that out of the blue.

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    I appreciate the insights about her development and the potential reaction of the readers. I am really trying hard to not have "eye-rolling" asides from a few terrible (on purpose) jokes. Your last two paragraphs kind of fit with how I have developed her thus far as a sort of "Chameleon" who blends in and steps up or down as required to blend in. – J Crosby Sep 26 at 19:22
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I'm going to pose to you that most of your question (especially all of the magic stuff and who your character is) is superfulous and could be summed up as:

Question: How can I have a surprising character feature be used to solve a problem in a story without the reader feeling tricked or fealing like the author is making stuff up? How do I earn that moment?

Answer: Construct an Inverted Mystery

The answer is basically with carefully seeded prep. Looking back at the story, an astute observer should be able to recognize a reverse mystery. Usually a mystery's central result is presented at the beginning of a story and the story works to uncover why the mystery occurred. Here, you're presenting the mystery at the end of the story, but the foundational elements of mystery are not lost.

Motive, Opportunity, and Means

If your main character is going to have a secret ability, that they don't use or discuss, but then suddenly do at a very important moment you must have given enough before hand to imply that this is possible.

Means

It must be established that this sort of thing is possible. If your main character never shows that they can do it, someone else must by reference or direct observation. If this sort of thing has no prior appearance in the story then your reader won't trust that you aren't just making things up. If done well, then a reader might enter the pivotal scene thinking someone in the party/story might have this ability. Red Herring could be used here to imply it could be many people who have this ability.

Opportunity

Basic opportunity is established by your character being there. But, also you must answer "why not before," "why this moment", and establish that it is possible. There are likely many opportunities prior to this that magic could have been used to solve. To make this work, you'll have to have good reasons that magic couldn't or wouldn't have been used in prior settings. These reasons must be apparent to the reader and must also be apparent for why this moment is different. There are ways to handle this. Most of them involve consequences: direct antagonists, the price of using magic, or the social cost of having done so are common elements in fantasy. There is no right answer here, and you'll be wise to pick something that is similar, but different to what people have seen before.

Motive

This is really the crucial element that ties the prior elements all together; you'll notice I couldn't prevent motive from bleeding into the prior section. This situation where the feature is displayed needs to be personal. It must cause your character to overcome something. And after that personal quandry is solved, the only reasonable result is to reveal this. It needs to be the only way to solve the problem. It needs to come with a cost so that we understand that previously this was not desirable or possible. And it all has to logically make sense.

If you are successful, the result is surprising, but inevitable when looking back over the story.


Any more than this would likely get into how to write it, and that's a problem for you to solve. Do note that if this is something you want to do, you're going to have to make room for it in your story. Its good you understand your characters, but you can't let that get in the way of your objectives or prevent you from changing them or the story to make everything work better. I honestly and without malace didn't read the details of your story. Those are for you and I don't need them to answer the question. I advise you to trim them back so this doesn't get closed as "asking what to write."

  • I actually added the details to try and avoid the common problem of "Asking what to write." I appreciate your insights, and your word choice. – J Crosby Sep 26 at 19:14
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    For more on this technique, see some of Brandon Sanderson's work, where you get to a certain point in the story and $THING happens and you say "OF COURSE! WHY did I not think of that?" Particular stories of note where this happened to me were Elantris, Mistborn: Final Empire, and Words of Radiance. – atroon Sep 27 at 16:43
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I think you don't have to show her USING the dagger, you can hide the skill in plain sight: She knows about daggers, she knows about dagger-fighting, the terminology, the stances, the holds, the moves. Maybe even let her act some out, with a stick or a carrot or something, to demonstrate what someone did.

She claims that earlier in life, as a kid, she was a superfan of the dagger-fighting blood sport, she watched dozens of contests. Plus you already gave her a great memory.

By analogy: My brother knows everything about football, he can quote stats, knows all the players names, their standing, who's hurt, the names of plays, all that. He doesn't PLAY football, never played football in school, but he knows everything.

If your girl knows everything about dagger fighting, it doesn't mean she's a dagger fighter. But it won't feel like a deus Ex when, in a pinch, she IS a dagger fighter.

Your creative challenge is coming up with those drop-the-mike scenes where she knows things that others do not, perhaps that professionals do not.

One way to do that is to have your crew come upon a ring fight using daggers. Some are disgusted by it, others are not, but she is rapt, and commenting as it progresses. She points out mistakes, good moves, when a fighter is in trouble. "His only chance is a Surriman defense, he has to take the cut," and so on. Her crew turns from watching the fight to watching her watch the fight, after which she has some explaining to do. Which as I said, she attributes to an early period where these were common where she grew up, and she was fascinated by them.

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    How would this answer fit with the fact that the character is expert with a dagger when most people carry a sword? 'she is also excellent with a dagger, too small for a sword (most people carry some variant of a knightly sword' – Spagirl Sep 27 at 9:37
  • @Spagirl You are right, I misunderstood the question. I corrected it. Basically the same as my previous answer, but talking about daggers and dagger fighting instead. Thanks for pointing out the error. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Sep 27 at 19:59

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