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The main character of a YA story I am working on is fast becoming a polymath, i.e. someone with a broad base of skills and interests across unrelated areas of endeavor. I really like how this character is developing; I feel that the experience of having to pick up so many things in his first year living in a new environment sets the stage for adaptations he'll have to make later.

My problem is that, as a pretty extreme polymath myself, I don't know how to gauge whether he is becoming "too much" of one -- to the point that readers who aren't polymaths would find him unrealistic or hard to identify with.

His early development will have effects that ripple through the rest of the story, so I'm not sure that finishing this part (it heading toward the 200 page mark) then rewriting the whole thing if he strikes a few well-chosen reviewers the wrong way, is how I should proceed.

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I don't know what exactly are you asking about? –  Jakub Hampl Dec 12 '10 at 17:57
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@Jakub Hampl: The main character has had to learn: how to repair water-powered machinery, some politics, to grow food, to fix a derelict space vessel, the history of his colony (not the one he was taught in school), leadership skills, how to build a bomb, wilderness survival, and much more -- it's the logical result of being in a family that just moved from a clean, modern, and tightly controlled colony to its long-abandoned predecessor. There will probably be more. When has he picked up too many skills or interests for most readers to find him realistic and identify with him? –  HedgeMage Dec 12 '10 at 21:37

6 Answers 6

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If you're asking yourself this question, you may well have a problem, or... this could be normal writers' insecurity.

  • Sherlock Holmes, say, was a polymath who was believable because he was an unbearably obnoxious person who loved to show off his genius; James Bond is also a bit of a polymath in ins field, but impatient, careless, and a misogynistic womanizer; in both cases, these characters are pretty much infallible in their fields. (Almost.) We suspend disbelief, but Holmes and Bond are firmly two-dimensional. Does your character have vulnerabilities that would make them three-dimensional and believable?
  • Can this character have reasonably picked up these skills within a normal human lifetime? Is it believable that this character has skill A as well as skill B, and so on? If the skills are somehow related, you'll have an easier time selling them to the reader.

You have a few options when it comes to fleshing out such a character.

  • Rewrite the character to either take out a few skills, or better yet, make the character a little shaky in some of them. Why should life be easy? If all problems are solvable, there's less conflict and danger. The skilled pilot is less interesting than the guy who's taken a few lessons having to land that plane.
  • Cast the character as two or more characters. That introduces other problems, and could kill any momentum you've got going.
  • Add some backstory to make these skills believable. Be careful with this one; you want to hint at why the protagonist knows how to fix a jet engine with a Leatherman while it's running, not tell an unrelated story about that time in a B-52 flying over hostile territory with an enemy agent trying to sabotage the mission. See how distracting that is? A fun backstory can easily take away from the main story unless it's very carefully crafted to move the main plot forward.
  • Ask yourself, since this character has picked up skills [foo], what would have driven someone to know all these things?

If you still can't make up your mind about whether or not you have a problem character in your story, you could decide to temporarily not worry about it, take advantage of the momentum you have going and finish the book, put it in a drawer, and look at it with fresh eyes in a week or two. (Number one piece of advice for writers: keep writing!)

All this advice is a shot in the dark without reading your work, of course, so please read this with several large salt licks handy.

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good answer - underscores how much craft I still have to learn ... –  slashmais Dec 13 '10 at 8:49
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You know, the thing with Sherlock Holmes is that I found myself reading him as more a plot device than a person. –  justkt Dec 15 '10 at 19:49

I think most people identify better with someone who has failings - as noted by other respondents. Keep in mind the trope "Jack of all trades, master of none". Most "average" people gain a little bit of knowledge in a whole lot of subjects (I know how a hydroelectric power plant works, I can cross-stitch, I know the basics of nutrition and exercise physiology, I am trained in first aid, and I am decent with a watercolor brush... but I am not an engineer, a seamstress, or a doctor, let alone an artist! And our knowledge tends to be extremely specific to one environment or situation. I know people who can use a windows computer at home but not one running a different windows version at work, and if handed a mac they would freeze up.

I'd believe a character who mastered three or four different skills, but if he's coming up with pro-level knowledge of everything he has to do, you might want to scale back. It's fine that he's learned survival skills, but maybe he learned them in an area where staying warm isn't a problem - so if he needs to survive somewhere cold, he'll have to take a moment to reassess before he can get on with survival. Or he knows the basics of growing food, but when faced with a particularly arid or wet or acidic growing environment he has trouble until he learns to apply his skills a different way. We all like characters who have problems, because they make us feel better about our own failings!

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I wouldn't worry about it. Being sorta good at a few different things is very believable, and quite common. A real polymath is pretty rare. For example, I know a guy who has had a painting in the Philadelphia Museum, a scientific invention in the LA Museum of Science and Industry, 20+ scientific papers published in top scientific journals and a patent sponsored by NASA on one of his inventions, 2 essays of his in textbooks on creative writing, written over 50 songs (music and lyrics) and performed them on TV, radio, and in such venues as the Whiskey in LA (playing lead guitar and keyboards). He has both a degree in Fine Arts from the top Art School in the US, and a PhD in a hard science for one of the top 10 universities in the world.

He's a true polymath, having achieved master-level skill at many different fields, as his record demonstrates. (BTW, he is very shy and hides his accomplishments. You have to know him for years before he will talk about himself).

This person is not believable (although a real person), and writing about someone like that is a mistake. But writing about someone like, for example, James Bond, or Roarke from the J.D. Robb books is not a problem. Most of what is called 'polymathic' is not, it is simply someone with a few skills.

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When has the character picked up too many skills and interests to be found realistic?

At the point you seem to be describing, he already has. In this reader's view, anyway. But that does not mean readers can't identify with him or like him or that he can't carry us through the book. We have a large capacity to not just love MacGyvers and da Vincis but to also root for and feel for them, in both created life and real life.

A character out of control might truly be in need of a down-dressing or a heartbreaking deletion. If you're writing about, say, Paul Robeson, however, the key might not be to downplay his talents but to let readers know how he earned them. Even if the character is unbelievably polymathic, the solution might be to let her go on being that way while making sure readers have reason to gladly suspend disbelief. You have all of the tools of story at your disposal for reinforcement or, if you choose to go about it as such, for diversion: themes, plot, interactions, setting, other characters, the same character's other and perhaps less than revered traits, ...

As readers, we're content-- sometimes thrilled-- to let plenty of clearly fictional qualities slide when we're enjoying the rest of the fiction.

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In stories that I have read involving similar characters, I never had a problem with the absorption of skills as long as the scope and depth were appropriate for the time spent. For example, someone who already plays several string instruments picking up a new one in an hour is fine, someone who has never played music doing the same is not (well, to be honest, one such latent talent per customer is still probably OK as long as it is well done). If you are concerned about believability, lay some ground work or bump up the internal dialog during skill discovery.

Is the character really learning totally new skills, or is he applying current skills to new situations in novel ways by drawing parallels that a more average individual would not?

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We've run across enough polymaths in Real Life to be both empathetic and (a bit) jealous. Keep him in there; maybe even find Yet Another Interest to explore.

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