In the intro to the series I mentioned the concept of character tiers. Today I will demonstrate why I think they can be an aid in helping anyone, from novice to expert, in gauging how they think their character is doing.
Specifically, they are there to help understand what roles a character can, and what roles a character cannot, effectively fulfill in a story. While you may be tempted to “high tier everything” you might not need to do so. Through the rest of the character design series, and at other times when talking about characters from now on, we will be using these tiers for reference.
You will notice, if you have kept up with the world building series, that I eventually (around tier 4) start saying world context should affect a character, but what should you do if you are “character focused” world building? (If you have not read that series yet, you should get an overview. Check out the index of articles on world building here)
The actual answer is pretty simple, you just have to do both at once. My feeling is that when you have an OC (Original Character) that you want in a story, you are never going to pass tier 3 without a world for them to inhabit.
This is how most of my character centered world building experiences end up to be frank and I think that formula is one of the truest ways of getting a character’s story out there. As always, a versatile and flexible world builder should use more than just a rigid pattern from one technique, to grow their creation.
With that out of the way, before I list the tiers I want to go into the important concepts that make up the character tier system I’ve devised. These concepts, once understood, should help you get into the mind set of being able to classify characters you meet in reading, games or other mediums.
Traits and Qualities
Traits and qualities are generally physical aspects of a character, the sort of superficial descriptors of someone’s being. When I think of traits or qualities in the context of this tier system, I see it as what you would write to describe the physical appearance of a person. That does mean it can’t take on some flavor from the mental side of a character, but the latter is not the focus. For example:
“The man was shorter than average, with a bare head, probably shaved from the look of it. He held himself with the confidence of someone who had little left to lose, a sort of nervous loose cannon. There was a twinkle in his eye, the kind that said somewhere inside, something remained, but his face was a mask of flat emotion most of the time anyone bothered looking at him. When he showed up to the bar, he tended to wear the same jeans each time, the ones with the paint stain on the left thigh and the hole forming in the right knee. His shirts varied but none of them featured buttons down the center. Whenever he spoke, it was only loud enough for the person he was directing it to to hear. Managing to overhear him, one would’ve heard the rasp of something old. He might have been a miner at one time but he was too clean to spend his life in those shafts these days.”
This is a description of traits and qualities and little else. While we get a little bit about the man’s potential attitude, the most important take away we have here is a mental image of who we are looking at. Now, this is not some perfect description; there may be other information that we yet lack about this character, but as it is, this is an almost entirely physical definition.
When character traits or qualities are mentioned, this is what the tier system is referring to.
Characters having a personal opinion is something of an interesting notion but it is important. A character with their own opinions is a character whose thought process, words and deeds are influenced by the world in which they live. A character with personal opinions is not a self insert because no one from outside of the fictional setting can have all of their opinions or thoughts derive from the fictional setting.
A character with personal opinions and feelings, sets themselves apart from the world of their creator in sometimes subtle, but always important ways. It is important that the opinions of a character make sense in the context of a story world and that the character not have strong opinions about topics that have little or no impact on their life or world.
A believable character with their own opinions does not serve as a tool to echo a writer’s personal opinions or biases. This does not mean that a character facing similar situations to those an author or creator wishes to depict, cannot have opinions on the matter however.
If the narrative calls for a situation which parallels a real world situation, it would be expected that a character involved in this situation would have an opinion on such a thing. Just remember, the context matters and that when trying to “add opinions” to a character, you do not simply add lists of ideology for the sake of making your character like you.
There is a temptation to have “real world” parallels and therefore force characters to confront issues from the writer’s modern world in any medium. While this is certainly an option for expression, I feel that it detracts from the nature of truly believable fiction and as a result I feel it is best not to indulge in this practice.
Often times this practice leads to a writer making choices for the character, rather than the character making choices for themselves, which causes disjointed “what just happened?” moments for those experiencing the story.
Weaknesses and Strengths
Characters without any weaknesses, who can do anything without having to think or try, can get boring. You want to avoid a character which feels so capable that there are never any stakes. A protagonist who is always surely going to win might be fun for a Saturday morning cartoon, but tends to fall short in long form fiction.
If a character has no weaknesses, they cannot grow or change, and if a character has no strengths, then they seem incapable and unrealistic as a hero.
Avoid impervious characters or incapable characters because they are boring.
This brings us to another important point about characters; Plot Scrutiny. Plot scrutiny is the concept of taking a character in the context of their world and the narrative in which they are engaged and asking:
“Does what they are doing make sense?
“Is it consistent with the behaviors they have exhibited thus far?”
“Is it consistent with the personality they have shown?”
“Is it consistent with their motivations?”
“Is it consistent with their background?”
When it feels like a character is acting in a logical or rational way with respect to these questions, I call that “Passing Plot Scrutiny” and when the character makes wild swings or deviations that cause them to fail these sorts of checks, I call that “Failing plot scrutiny.”
When characters fail plot scrutiny, it tends to ruin a reader’s suspension of disbelief and the best crafted world or story could come crashing down around this sort of thing as a result.
Failing plot scrutiny is a problem for a serious writer, and while some may dismiss the concerns of readers or others when this occurs, I feel it speaks to a deficiency in the skillset of the creator if this happens often in their work.
Thankfully everyone can improve, and this article series should help us figure out what to do, or how we can approach solving these issues.
Lastly, before introducing the tiers, I want to explain the concept or Character rating. These are simply the levels at which I believe a character can perform the role. When a character is in a role they cannot adequately perform, they are going to cause problems, not the least of which is failing plot scrutiny as described above.
When you are examining your own characters, be conscious of what rating they are, be conscious of how you might have to “up tier” the character with some hard work and creativity. It may mean that you have to change the character in some way but it is worth doing.
Background Extra – This sort of character is just there to serve as background, they are mostly a warm body and when you say something like “a mass of people ran past the hero in the other direction” this is the kind of person who is in the mass. They are unimportant to the plot and so generic as to be fully replaceable without issue. In a game for example, these would be randomly generated NPCs who might not even have names eg. “Bandit Thug”
Information Relay – A relay character is as the name suggests, there to give information to the reader. They do this by relating information to someone more important than themselves. For example, if the hero shows up to the ruined command post on the moon, the relay is the last surviving technician there to tell them, “Some ships landed on the far side of the base…We lost contact.”
Unlike extras, you can probably get away with shoving a name onto the relay character, and thus, they can serve as a nexus for a reader, or in a game, perhaps it is someone you need to find.
Supporting Character – Supporting characters are characters who are not the star, and they don’t need to be. They are there to help the plot move forward and may be fully fleshed out characters in their own right. The spotlight is not on them right now. The job of a supporting character is to make sure the main characters can perform, or try to help them do so at least.
These characters may be a trusty sidekick, a wise old sage or a shrewd commanding officer, but they are important to a narrative. Because these characters will have extended interactions with the main cast, it is important that they make sense and pass plot scrutiny or they will feel out of place.
Main character – These are the stars of your show, they are the ones who do the most winning and even the losing. The narrative tends to happen from their perspective and they are required to bare the brunt of the plot. They need to make sense against plot scrutiny and they are the characters you have to get right more than anyone.
Choosing the wrong tier of character as a main character is one of the most serious detriments that a creator can place upon the shoulders of what may otherwise be an interesting story, world or creation. When choosing a main character, one must take care to make them as good as can be.
Character Tier 1
- No definite qualities
- Mostly a plot device
- Easily replaced by almost any other character
- Background Extra: Ok
- Information Relay: Avoid
- Supporting Character: Inadequate
- Main Character: Completely Unacceptable
A Tier 1 character is a “background NPC” in almost every way imaginable. These are the characters who are described in such vague terms as to be fully and completely interchangeable with anyone else. They seem like complete dead weight but remember, they can be useful.
Tier 1 characters can be employed effectively as long as one utilizes them where they are good; being generic stand ins. Since they usually lack a name or basic description it is almost impossible to find one accidentally shoved into a starring role but in case it was not clear; avoid putting Tier 1 characters anywhere near the plot except as a backdrop.
Character Tier 2
- Now has some defined “traits” that make them at least superficially unique from other characters
- Still mostly a plot device
- Most “OC” creations start here (My first character Syndrome)
- When scrutinized heavily with respect to a story plot, may not even make sense
- Background Extra: Ok
- Information Relay: Ok
- Supporting Character: Inadequate
- Main Character: Unacceptable
A Tier 2 character is “the first step of my OC.” Essentially, the Tier 2 character has a few advantages over the Tier 1; they usually gain a name, and a list of traits. The problem however, is that a Tier 2 character has no other value than this; they can be summed up entirely by a list of bullet points.
I tend to place a majority of original characters into this category and though that seems harsh, I have had many characters start here and it is nothing to be ashamed of. So should you avoid Tier 2 Characters? That depends on your needs.
Where Tier 2 characters excel are as information relays. Because Tier 2 characters usually have a name and a basic description, writing about them is natural and they can be interacted with. Keep the interactions with the main cast short, and shuttle your Tier 2 characters off stage quickly or they will become problems. Additionally, though it should be obvious, a list of traits and a name, does not a main character make. Do not use a tier 2 character for a main character or a member of the supporting cast.
Character Tier 3
- Character retains traits from tier 2
- Character now has “personal opinions”
- Character now has “weaknesses”
- Character opinions influence their behavior
- Tends to fail under plot scrutiny
- Takes some effort to get here
- Most Mary Sue / Gary Stu end up as tier 3 at best because their strengths and weaknesses are so out of whack
- Has forced or shoehorned details or traits that may not always make sense
- “An anything goes deck of cards”
- Background Extra: Ok
- Information Relay: Ok
- Supporting Character: Stretching it
- Main Character: Not good enough
A Tier 3 character is a sizeable upgrade from a Tier 2. The unfortunate rub of the situation however, is that a Tier 3 is still about as useful as a Tier 2 from a narrative perspective. This is because while a Tier 3 looks a lot more complicated when one dives into what sets them apart, there is no real guarantee that a Tier 3 holds truly substantial advantages over a Tier 2 counterpart.
A Tier 3 character is akin to a deck of cards where the creator can select from any of the cards they want, even if they do not quite mesh or make sense. If it is cool, just throw it in. The problem is in what it creates.
Picture playing a game where your opponent pulls out a jack of hearts one turn, then a baseball trading card the next, and lastly, finishes off their move with a pokemon card. While you can shove anything you want into the deck. The Tier 3 character has no guarantee of consistency because it is not grounded in a world.
A Tier 3 is what I consider to be an “upgraded OC.” That is to say, they are a tier 2 with more thought put into them in the form of “opinions” and “weaknesses.” I am putting those phrases in quotes because as it stands, the real reason a Tier 3 character is not much better than a Tier 2 is because their opinions and weaknesses are usually very superficial.
The weaknesses of a Tier 3 character usually take the form of humble brags, like “being too nice” or “caring too much about my friends” and their opinions as well, are usually just hollow echoes of their creators own. The superficial upgrades to the Tier 3 are what make them only marginally better than a Tier 2.
The common trope, “Mary Sue” or the male equivalent “Gary Stu” tend to max out at Tier 3 because of the above. Whatever medium you are familiar with, be it comics, manga, anime, TV, books or movies, you have all seen plenty of Tier 3 characters. There is just not enough substance to the Tier 3 character to make them a truly compelling object of storytelling. The most one could hope for is to perhaps, use a Tier 3 character in a very limited supporting role of a much more interesting main cast. Do not consider as a main character.
Character Tier 4
- Retains traits
- No longer simulates opinions because they are now actually sensible for the world
- No longer simulates having weakness because weakness is actually there
- Feels like they exist in the world they inhabit
- Plot scrutiny performance is pretty resilient, though sometimes needs ‘handwavium’ help from the author
- Requires serious mental effort to get here and good world understanding
- Drops any shoehorned or forced detail imposed by the creator if it conflicts with the world or cannot be explained
- “A deck of cards where you can build any deck you want, but only from allowed cards. The allowed set of cards are chosen by the world”
- Background Extra: Overkill
- Information Relay: Causes readers to want to know more about them despite short involvement
- Supporting Character: Reasonable choice
- Main Character: Great starter character but has room for work
Tier 3 to Tier 4 is the break-point where almost all “OC” creations drop dead in their tracks. Tier 3 to Tier 4 requires a significant desire to improve one’s characters and as a result, compromise on both character and world vision. Ego is the biggest reason characters languish in Tier 3 rather than upgrading to Tier 4 over time.
A Tier 4 character adds a critical element to the mix, one that potentially redefines the character; Context. The Tier 4 character is set apart from the Tier 3 because the character is now grounded in the world they inhabit. The things they do, say or think, now make logical sense in that world. Their motivations, strengths or weaknesses follow the same rules as everyone else in the world. They are a person who feels not like they are in a world but actually belong in it.
To use another card analogy, the Tier 4 is like a deck of cards where the World has declared that only certain cards can be put into the deck. Some of them simply do not make sense to have in this character’s deck and thus, they just are not included.
Sometimes this means that the way a character looks, acts or thinks, has to change significantly from their Tier 3 version. It is to be expected that no character reaches Tier 4 in the exact same format they were in at Tier 3, but this is a good thing. When a creator takes their world and story seriously enough to realize that some aspect of one of their characters did not fit within it, then they are far more likely to try and adjust.
At the point of Tier 4, a character has moved beyond the simple list of traits, and feels like a fleshed out individual. These are the kinds of characters that start getting interesting to read about and learn about. Compared to some of their higher tier kin, they might still pale a bit, but because of their world consistency, these characters are the first tier where plot scrutiny is possible to survive.
First time writers and creators would do well to consider Tier 4 as a good starting point from which they can build upon the character as a serious member of the main cast. Not all characters pass Tier 4 and I consider Tier 4 to be the “main character breakpoint” or, the point at which it is okay to use them as a main character.
Character Tier 5
- Traits, Opinions and Weaknesses retained
- The qualities of the character are now more than believable in the world, they feel like products of the world.
- Tier 5 Characters are well understood by their creators and their qualities remain consistent.
- Elicits more empathy in readers than Tier 4 characters
- Requires significant thought and planning. Getting to Tier 5 is not a cheap investment in mental energy or time
- “Walking in their shoes” required by the creator when writing this character
- Strong to plot scrutiny, standing on their own
- “A Deck of cards where you can build only a certain type of deck. The cards you can use are still chosen by the world, but unlike Tier 4, you have to build a specific kind of deck, centering them around a believable combination”
- You have to tell stories about the character to reach Tier 5, you don’t have to share them, but if you don’t, Earth will be sad
- Background Extra: Only as a cameo, this is doing injustice to the character if this is the only way they are ever used
- Information Relay: As above, using them for a cameo or to “introduce them lightly” is okay only if they get more writing later
- Supporting Character: This character will have their own fans if they are put here. A supporting character should get enough writing for it to be okay
- Main Character: Where a main character starts to shine
Tier 5 is a paradigm shift from all the previous tiers. When moving up to Tier 4, you were focused on getting them into the world. To reach Tier 5, you make them a literal product of the world.
At Tier 5 a character feels so consistent and real in the world they live, that they carry the narrative on their shoulders. When you start hitting Tier 5 character design, the character becomes more than words or ideas to the creator, they are something special and unique. When written, they will gain the attention they deserve from those who experience them.
Unlike Tier 4, a “deck of cards” made for a Tier 5 would have to follow a theme. The cards allowed by the world are the same, but rather than choose only from the world sanctioned cards, one chooses a more coherent logical combination of them instead, creating a theme for the deck as it were. (A Deck focused on a specific strategy rather than being a generalist)
One important reason that a Tier 5 feels so much more substantial than a Tier 4 is that they are someone the creator has empathy for, that is to say, the creator can walk in the shoes of the character and understand how and why they’d react the way they would.
The character is one that is well understood, and thus, the creator can explain this character’s motivations, feelings, weaknesses and strengths. This understanding is derived not just from an understanding of the character, but the world they live in, and as a result, it is quite hard to reach Tier 5 without significant world building as well.
A Tier 5 is a character that people should strive to create whenever they need a protagonist, and as a supporting character, Tier 5’s will practically demand their own “spinoff” stories; people will want to know what happens to them. These sorts of characters make people genuinely invest time and energy into the what you’ve created and to provide them shows a genuine respect to those you are sharing your narrative with.
A Tier 5 cannot be relegated to a background character unless it is a “fan service nod” or something of that nature. The Tier 5 will steal the spotlight from any lesser tier characters operating in a similar role so it is important to note that if you cannot provide equal or higher tier characters, even in supporting roles, the Tier 5 simply steals the spotlight and becomes the main character by default.
You want to avoid using a Tier 5 when the rest of your cast cannot “hold their own” so avoid using them as supporting characters as well, unless you have equally or more capable characters to fill the main character slots.
Character Tier 6
- Somewhat subtle improvement over Tier 5
- Demands emotional and mental investment from the audience
- “Walking in their shoes” does not due justice to the emotional and mental energy a creator makes reaching this point
- A Tier 6 character is absolutely bullet proof from a plot scrutiny standpoint
- A Tier 6 character has it all, and feels so real, that they seem real enough to be sitting next to you
- Reaching Tier 6 is impossible without narrative driven growth.
- Background Extra: As a cameo, this character will elicit squeals of glee from the audience
- Information Relay: See above
- Supporting Character: “Where is the spinoff series for this character?”
- Main Character: Excellent Choice
A Tier 6 character is what I consider to be the pinnacle of character design and is a total labor of love by the creator. These characters are a rarity and not all writers ever produce a Tier 6 character. I would love to rate my own characters, or at least some of them at Tier 6. I think a few have reached that point, but others have not. The key though, for Tier 6 characters is that they add a level of emotional attachment to the mix that is hard to produce.
These characters feel iconic because of how engrossing they are and when they are on screen or on the page, the audience is basically stuck to them. When a Tier 6 character suffers, the audience feels it, when they are happy, the audience feels it. Their roller-coaster is one on which the audience is strapped in for the whole ride.
A Tier 6 character is one that can take years of effort and dedication to get right but is so rewarding to make that the creator gets happy simply telling their story. That is not to say every single Tier 6 character is a perfectly equal literary masterpiece, but to me, Tier 6 is the goal of every serious character we create.
As a main character, these are the best option. When they are a supporting character, people truly need their story told too, and they are the kind that make people giddy or clap, when used as a cameo. Think of the iconic characters you know and love. While not every single one of them is a Tier 6, the feeling you have from seeing them on the screen or seeing their name on the page, is the kind of thing that a Tier 6 character makes you feel.
Where to go from here
Today we covered the character Tier system and some associated definitions. I hope you can look at characters you see and, using these criteria, try and get a feel for the “tier” of character you are looking at. Remember that just because a character is lower tier DOES NOT mean they lack value! Quite the contrary.
Low tier characters have the potential to be great! Do not get discouraged if you have trouble crossing some of these tier barriers because we have ALL been there. I know I have and that is what this series is for, to help you create the characters you want to really share. Together, we can do just that.
In the next article I want to lay out an example of what I was able to do with one of my important characters, Tony Karo. I want to describe how he grew and what process I engaged in to get him there, and then, the next week we will try and apply that example to creating a new character.
To that end, our eventual character creation will take place in the conflict centered world build setting I described in the world building basics. By doing it with that build as our basis, we can start with a completely scratch built character to run through the process from start at tier 1, moving to tier 2, then hitting tier 3 and importantly, crossing the tier 3 to tier 4 barrier as that is the “main character breakpoint.”
Stay tuned and strap in, it’s going to be great.