Characters Make Any Story Better

Why are some stories better than others?
Some of you might think this hopelessly vague; who are we to judge whether one story is better than the others? However, you really are better at it than you think. All you have to do is think of the last book/movie/game/tv show you experienced (sufficiently generic) and you either liked it or you didn’t. Well, if you liked it, why? If you didn’t, why?

At this point your probably wondering where I’m going with all this. You might just cite the common answers that you like chop up the zombies with a chainsaw movies, but it can’t be just that. I’m pretty sure I could screenwrite a horrid movie in your favorite genre, so there has to be something else. You could argue for special effects, and that certainly is a factor, but people liked movies even when the pinnacle of special effects was men in animal costumes.

I’d make the argument that in general, the big determinants are the quality of character, the tension of the plot, and the depth of the setting. However, many say that characters are the most important element in any story.

We are people, so that’s what we like to hear about. Even if the story is about aliens or elves, even Chewbacca’s enough of a person that we can sympathize with that walking carpet. We want characters that have goals, work hard, act instead of react, are competent, etc.

KiritoOne example of this is Kirito from the anime Sword Art Online (if you haven’t seen it, go watch it. Now. At least the first 14 episodes). Basically, he’s trapped in a virtual reality MMORPG where death is real. He wants to escape, and that drives the main plot, but it’s his other goals that make us like him. He’s a lone wolf, though wants to help people. He’s laid back and sometimes takes a break just to lie in the grass and take a nap. Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t want to lose himself. The epic battle scenes in the show certainly help though!

Another example is Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender (the movie never actually happened if we wish hard enough). His goal is originally to capture the avatar and regain his honor, but his perspective on life changes. He has inner struggles, and these get the audience to cheer for him when he does the right thing, and cling on the edge of their seats when he’s forced to make a choice. My advice to take from here is make characters dynamic and make the audience want them to change (in a bit more technical terms, this is the character arc).

Of course there are other ways to make a character likeable. Just take for instance one of my favorite AIs.

Wheatley “It’s not out of the question that you might have a very minor case of serious brain damage. But don’t be alarmed, alright? Although, if you do feel alarm, try to hold onto that feeling because that is the proper reaction to being told that you have brain damage.”
I don’t know what it is, but something about Wheatley from Portal 2 just makes me smile inside. Ok, maybe I do know. He’s hilarious! Advice number 2 to make a good character: make them funny.

What good story doesn’t have a decent villain? However, when I try to think of a game with a really satisfying villain, I mostly pull up blanks (this may be my lack of experience in most games showing). A villain has to satisfy most of the characteristics of a hero, though in a more nefarious way. Once again, they have to have a goal that somehow interferes with our hero and are willing to give anything to get it.

200px-Skull_Kid

My favorite video game villain is the skull kid from Majora’s Mask, simply because he doesn’t just want to destroy the world (that’s just one of his goals). He’s like a lost kid whose friends left him, so naturally he goes seeking ancient artifacts of unknowable evil. Well, maybe I’m stretching it there, but you get the point. He was a character before getting mixed up with that plot, and that makes us like him despite his evil ways.

Characterization is such a broad aspect that it’s hard to narrow down to a few key points, but I’d summarize them as: give characters goals not necessarily related to the plot, make them change for the better, have them quip whenever appropriate, and make sure your villains do more than giggle maniacally in a corner.

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2 thoughts on “Characters Make Any Story Better

  1. I really like the way you summed up your thoughts at the end here. As someone who’s sole weakness in writing is characters (I feel like this is the opposite of what most writer’s I know struggle with) I feel like finding my characters’ goals would be a great way to discover more about who they are, and who they want to be.

    This would help drive my stories in ways I have yet to accomplish, as well.

  2. I have to second a couple of comments and add my two cents.

    First, I love Zuko’s character. I agree that when moments come where he has to make a decision, it brings me to the edge of my seat. The fact that he doesn’t always make the decision that we might consider “right” also imbues him with much more realism and makes us care more about him.

    Second, Wheatley is a great character. Portal and Portal 2 amaze me with their ability to create really engaging characters in such an isolated environment, especially in the first game where GLaDOS is the only character with whom you interact. That humor helps a lot, as well as giving the characters layers so that they don’t just act the same way all the time.

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