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  • Creating Compelling Characters

    Creating a character is easy, right? Thatís the first and most basic thing we all do - fill out a character sheet and slap it up. The GM asks for your characterís name, age, gender, and appearance, and thatís all anyone needs to know about them, right?




    For a simple story, the basics might be fine, but as you advance as a writer and start to tell tales that are more complex and character-driven, youíll want to delve deeper into creating characters that really capture peopleís thoughts and hearts. The more dynamic and realistic your characters, the more nuanced your story will be.



    1 - No Mary Sue. No Gary Stu.

    No. Just donít do it. I feel like how to accomplish this is addressed all over the internet, so Iím not going to really go into it. Itís also been addressed here on RPGC. Perfect characters are not compelling. Theyíre tedious to read, and annoying to try to roleplay with. Avoid at all costs, and always do Sue/Stu health checks on your characters periodically to make sure that they havenít contracted this vicious disease along their journeys. Donít forget to do the same when writing an evil or unpleasant character - the scariest villain is one we can relate to on some level, so giving them certain good qualities keeps them from falling flat.


    2 - You are What You Do.


    Your character can be the coolest dude ever, with the best one-liners and comebacks. They can have all the answers, be unfailingly charming, and have the best fashion sense. But, what really defines your character is their actions. Your character is what they do. Writing has the unique ability to let you inside the headspace of a character, but sometimes we end up detailing so much of characterís internal monologue, thoughts, feelings, and history, that we forget to have characters actually interact with the world and other characters. In real life, most of what we can know about another person is by seeing what they do, and this an important idea not to forget while writing. A characterís internal struggle is important, but what really gets us to come back to a character over and over is the desire to see what they do next.


    3 - Agency.


    Okay, right here Iím going to defer to quoting two successful writers, with great points regarding character agency, who can say it much better and more concisely than I can:

    ďOne of the biggest mistakes rookie screenwriters make is not having a strong intention or obstacle. The drive shaft of a car, beautiful leather seats, a fantastic sound system, a really cool paint job but the car isnít going to move forward if the car doesnít have a strong intention or obstacle.Ē
    -Aaron Sorkin, writer of The West Wing and The Social Network.

    ď... if your story is about accomplishing one particular task, consider having your protagonist want something separate from that task.

    Your character should wander off the path ó and pay attention to points where a real person wouldn't necessarily just walk straight into danger, or make the decision that will move the plot forward. Often times, when your plot is going too smoothly, it's not just because you haven't introduced enough complications ó it's also because your characters aren't really making their own decisions. Real people will have their own agendas and qualms, and they won't just go where you need them to go.Ē
    -Charlie Jane Anders, novelist.

    The point is, great characters have their own desires and goals that may or may not align totally with the plot. Note that I am not suggesting you torpedo a plot with a character who just refuses to cooperate ever, nor am I saying that the plot of a story should be all about your character. The point is that your character ought to have some agency of their own to be believable.


    4 - Donít commit to too many details too soon.


    Iím talking about things like this character sheet. While something like this might be useful to break writerís block, or for a character youíve created and are having trouble with, generally pre-planning every single detail of your character is a waste of time and effort. Is your characterís favorite food important to either the plot or youíre characterís development? No? Then who cares, really? It ends up being an extraneous detail that never gets used and in most cases, doesnít do anything to expand your deeper understanding of your character. Many times, a writer can get so caught up in planning all the little details of their character that they write themselves into a corner. If so and so needs to go to a rock club, but youíve already decided that they only like classical music for no reason other than the purpose of deciding things about your character, youíve gotten yourself into the dilemma of either trying to work around a meaningless detail or feeling like your character is a malleable tool rather than a person. Try uncovering facts about your character as they become relevant, rather than deciding them all in advance, and your character will be much more dynamic.

    5 - Donít love your character too much!


    We all love the characters we create, and thatís a good thing. However, itís possible to love your characters too much, and end up not wanting to let anything bad happen to them. If everything always works out in your characterís favor, then there is really no interesting story to be told, and an otherwise interesting character can end up becoming very boring. Adversity is the main force that drives characters to grow and change. The solution to this issue is simple - Be mean to your characters. Stop protecting them, and start throwing awful, awful things at them. Make them deal with stuff that they just canít handle, and find out how they react. Do they love something? Take it away. Make everything go wrong. Have their every attempt to fix or mitigate a situation snowball out of control and make everything worse. The only way to really see who your character is, deep inside, is to throw garbage at them and see if they break or overcome.

    6 - Why, God, Why OR the Five-Year Old Technique.


    So youíve made it this far! Your character is dynamic and interesting, with a range of good and bad personality traits, a personal goal, and a buffet of problems. Now, why is your character the way they are? Why do they do the things they do, and react to certain things differently from other characters? Why do they hate certain things or hold some things dear? After all, people donít act a certain way for no reason. We don't have likes and dislikes because we simply decided one day that we did or did not like something. It should be the same for your characters. One way to build a good, cohesive backstory, is to ask yourself (or imagine asking your character, if thatís easier) what causes them to do the things they do. Essentially, every time your character takes an action or reveals something about themselves, ask why repeatedly until you feel youíve really uncovered the experiences in their past that caused them to be that way.



    Youíve made it the whole way through! Great job, and thanks for sticking around! Now go forth and write!

    This article was originally published in forum thread: Creating Compelling Characters started by Sets View original post