Through a Writer's Eyes - Part 3 (Characters)

It's been a while since I did one of these. I've simply been far too busy to even give this any proper thought. But here I am, with part three! Now, let's take a look at one of the most vital pieces of a good story.

You Are Such a Character!

Yep, every story has them. Some have so many characters you can populate a small town with them, while others have only a handful of characters that bare mentioning. Is one better than the other? I think it depends on who you ask, but in my opinion, no, having more characters in your story isn't inherently better or worse than having only few, so long as you remember to take into account the possible pitfalls of each.

Just the Two of Us.... (we can ma... no I'm not gonna go there)

Take, for instance, a story with very few (central) characters such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. While other names are mentioned to remind us that, oh yes, there are indeed people living in this world besides the dashing young prince and the exotic princess, the entire game focuses on just those two characters. While it works in this particular game, it could have just as easily been its undoing. Because when you really think about it, what does that game's story have to offer besides the growing relationship between two characters?

And that's the biggest issue with having a small number of characters populating your story. You need to make them interesting to your audience. And not just that, you have to ensure that they continue being interesting all the way to the conclusion. We've all been there. We meet someone, and we are immensly intrigued by them, but as time goes by we bore of them. The things that first attracted us to them turn out to be the only thing they've got going for them, and that is not enough.

In truth, Prince of Persia is a triangle affair. The characters aren't just building a relationship with each other, they are also forming one with the player. And if the player doesn't like where the relationship is going, things will come to a premature end. So what do you do? Do you create the ideal character who has absolutely everything going for them and is guaranteed to be loved by all?

Only if you're a bloody idiot living on a constant high and you're always wearing rose-tinted glasses. If you are one of those people, please come here so I can smack some sense into you.

Your characters need to have flaws because the flaws of a person can be just as--if not more--interesting as their strengths. This applies to every story regardless of how many characters it has, but it is, at minimum, three times as important for a game where all the player ever truly learns about are just these two main characters.

Yeah, I'm the motherfucking hero. What of it, bitch?

What this means is that with a small number of characters inhabiting your story, you must be extra critical of them. If you have twenty or more different characters running around in your story (or walking, sitting, crawling, jumping, scratching their privates, whatever), and there's an inconsistency with one of them, no one is going to truly be apalled, unless it's such a big discrepancy that it hangs over your story like an angry Zeus, ready to hit you with a bolt of lightning up your ass.

But lord have mercy on your soul if something ever so minor is off about one of your characters when there are only two of them. Now I'm not saying that characters shouldn't change--change is good--I'm saying that whatever this change is, it has to come from somewhere logical. (Remember? I talked about the importance of logic in my previous post). In the way that we, as human beings, don't change overnight, you can't expect your audience to believe that the stuckup bitch of a princess became a woman of vast understanding within five minutes of meeting her either.

Basically the player needs to see these characters as human beings and not just code and polygons on a screen. And don't over-complicate things out of fear of making them boring otherwise, either. While things can often seem complex on the surface, they often are very simple. I am a very insecure person because I got bullied a lot as a kid. It's a simple as that.

So when you have a story with few characters, make them as human as you possibly can without forcing your audience to learn everything there is to know about them in the short time that they have. Give them a rich past, but don't make it so complex that the player feels like they'll have better luck unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Give them a future, but don't try to predict what's going to happen in fifty years. Make them grow, change, and evolve, but never, ever, force change upon your characters for the sake of forwarding your plot.

That's a Whole Lot'a People!

Try for a moment to imagine giving each character in Dragon Age who gives you a quest as much screen time as the two characters in Prince of Persia. The game would never end! And it would become such a horribly convoluted mess that not even Einstein could hope to make any sense of it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if he was still alive, and you asked him to decipher that mess, he would tell you to kindly go fuck yourself.

When you have this many characters in a story, you have to be willing to make sacrafices. As much as you might love every single character that you've conjured up in your mind, you are going to have to make a choice on which of them matters to you most.

A prime example of a writer who seems incapable of doing this is George R. R. Martin. While I haven't read any of his books personally, I have read the reviews on Amazon, and the general consensus for his fifth book for A Song of Fire and Ice seems to be that there are just too many characters and that George is too scared of letting go of them, forcing his readers to sift through an almost never ending pile of information that they neither care about, nor will they remember it by the time they come to the end.

What do you mean I am not that important?

So go ahead and populate your world with a hundred different characters. Hell, make it a thousand if you feel like it. But don't lose sight of who your main characters are in the process. Does this mean that everyone besides the main characters are just props to fill your world with, nothing more? No, of course not. You can still make a lot of them interesting enough that the player would like to know more about them, but in this case you can't go giving the player everything they want. Maybe you can in a side story someday, but not in this one. Even if you, as the writer, are one hundred percent sure that you can make sense of it all, I can guarantee you that nine out of ten people who experience your story won't be able to.

Likewise, be ready to cut characters out of your game entirely. After all, what good does it do your story to have a bunch of minor characters walk up the player, introduce themselves, and then disappear again? Such a distraction might be funny once or twice, but it'll soon start to wear thin. Obviously Dragon Age has a lot of characters that serve no real purpose in the story, but these should be viewed in the way that we view extras in a movie. They're there to make the world feel like a living, breathing, thing, but that is all the purpose they serve, and rightly so.

So in conclusion, whether you decide to have a hundred characters in your story, or just two, make sure that you are willing to do what needs to be done to make it all work in keeping your audience interested. After all, our stories, no matter how incredible, all rise or fall depending on their characters.

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Posted by Kazona

It's been a while since I did one of these. I've simply been far too busy to even give this any proper thought. But here I am, with part three! Now, let's take a look at one of the most vital pieces of a good story.

You Are Such a Character!

Yep, every story has them. Some have so many characters you can populate a small town with them, while others have only a handful of characters that bare mentioning. Is one better than the other? I think it depends on who you ask, but in my opinion, no, having more characters in your story isn't inherently better or worse than having only few, so long as you remember to take into account the possible pitfalls of each.

Just the Two of Us.... (we can ma... no I'm not gonna go there)

Take, for instance, a story with very few (central) characters such as Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. While other names are mentioned to remind us that, oh yes, there are indeed people living in this world besides the dashing young prince and the exotic princess, the entire game focuses on just those two characters. While it works in this particular game, it could have just as easily been its undoing. Because when you really think about it, what does that game's story have to offer besides the growing relationship between two characters?

And that's the biggest issue with having a small number of characters populating your story. You need to make them interesting to your audience. And not just that, you have to ensure that they continue being interesting all the way to the conclusion. We've all been there. We meet someone, and we are immensly intrigued by them, but as time goes by we bore of them. The things that first attracted us to them turn out to be the only thing they've got going for them, and that is not enough.

In truth, Prince of Persia is a triangle affair. The characters aren't just building a relationship with each other, they are also forming one with the player. And if the player doesn't like where the relationship is going, things will come to a premature end. So what do you do? Do you create the ideal character who has absolutely everything going for them and is guaranteed to be loved by all?

Only if you're a bloody idiot living on a constant high and you're always wearing rose-tinted glasses. If you are one of those people, please come here so I can smack some sense into you.

Your characters need to have flaws because the flaws of a person can be just as--if not more--interesting as their strengths. This applies to every story regardless of how many characters it has, but it is, at minimum, three times as important for a game where all the player ever truly learns about are just these two main characters.

Yeah, I'm the motherfucking hero. What of it, bitch?

What this means is that with a small number of characters inhabiting your story, you must be extra critical of them. If you have twenty or more different characters running around in your story (or walking, sitting, crawling, jumping, scratching their privates, whatever), and there's an inconsistency with one of them, no one is going to truly be apalled, unless it's such a big discrepancy that it hangs over your story like an angry Zeus, ready to hit you with a bolt of lightning up your ass.

But lord have mercy on your soul if something ever so minor is off about one of your characters when there are only two of them. Now I'm not saying that characters shouldn't change--change is good--I'm saying that whatever this change is, it has to come from somewhere logical. (Remember? I talked about the importance of logic in my previous post). In the way that we, as human beings, don't change overnight, you can't expect your audience to believe that the stuckup bitch of a princess became a woman of vast understanding within five minutes of meeting her either.

Basically the player needs to see these characters as human beings and not just code and polygons on a screen. And don't over-complicate things out of fear of making them boring otherwise, either. While things can often seem complex on the surface, they often are very simple. I am a very insecure person because I got bullied a lot as a kid. It's a simple as that.

So when you have a story with few characters, make them as human as you possibly can without forcing your audience to learn everything there is to know about them in the short time that they have. Give them a rich past, but don't make it so complex that the player feels like they'll have better luck unraveling the mysteries of the universe. Give them a future, but don't try to predict what's going to happen in fifty years. Make them grow, change, and evolve, but never, ever, force change upon your characters for the sake of forwarding your plot.

That's a Whole Lot'a People!

Try for a moment to imagine giving each character in Dragon Age who gives you a quest as much screen time as the two characters in Prince of Persia. The game would never end! And it would become such a horribly convoluted mess that not even Einstein could hope to make any sense of it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if he was still alive, and you asked him to decipher that mess, he would tell you to kindly go fuck yourself.

When you have this many characters in a story, you have to be willing to make sacrafices. As much as you might love every single character that you've conjured up in your mind, you are going to have to make a choice on which of them matters to you most.

A prime example of a writer who seems incapable of doing this is George R. R. Martin. While I haven't read any of his books personally, I have read the reviews on Amazon, and the general consensus for his fifth book for A Song of Fire and Ice seems to be that there are just too many characters and that George is too scared of letting go of them, forcing his readers to sift through an almost never ending pile of information that they neither care about, nor will they remember it by the time they come to the end.

What do you mean I am not that important?

So go ahead and populate your world with a hundred different characters. Hell, make it a thousand if you feel like it. But don't lose sight of who your main characters are in the process. Does this mean that everyone besides the main characters are just props to fill your world with, nothing more? No, of course not. You can still make a lot of them interesting enough that the player would like to know more about them, but in this case you can't go giving the player everything they want. Maybe you can in a side story someday, but not in this one. Even if you, as the writer, are one hundred percent sure that you can make sense of it all, I can guarantee you that nine out of ten people who experience your story won't be able to.

Likewise, be ready to cut characters out of your game entirely. After all, what good does it do your story to have a bunch of minor characters walk up the player, introduce themselves, and then disappear again? Such a distraction might be funny once or twice, but it'll soon start to wear thin. Obviously Dragon Age has a lot of characters that serve no real purpose in the story, but these should be viewed in the way that we view extras in a movie. They're there to make the world feel like a living, breathing, thing, but that is all the purpose they serve, and rightly so.

So in conclusion, whether you decide to have a hundred characters in your story, or just two, make sure that you are willing to do what needs to be done to make it all work in keeping your audience interested. After all, our stories, no matter how incredible, all rise or fall depending on their characters.

Posted by Still_I_Cry

This is why I write sonnets and short things!!!

Posted by Kazona

@Still_I_Cry: Someone who can write a good sonnet gets mad props from me!

Posted by Still_I_Cry

@Kazona said:

@Still_I_Cry: Someone who can write a good sonnet gets mad props from me!

Me too!

Also, people who write well in general get props from me :P