Character Tiers: The Great Divide

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.

Personal opinions

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.

Plot Scrutiny

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.

Character Ratings

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.

The Tiers

Character Tier 1

  • Characteristics
    • No definite qualities
    • Mostly a plot device
    • Easily replaced by almost any other character
  • Rating
    • 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

  • Characteristics
    • 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
  • Rating
    • 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

  • Characteristics
    • 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”
  • Rating
    • 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

  • Characteristics
    • 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”
  • Rating
    • 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

  • Characteristics
    • 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
  • Rating
    • 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

  • Characteristics
    • 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.
  • Rating
    • 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.

Short: Military Cloning Initiative (Part 12)

The following is an excerpt from classified document:

NMSC-1-7f-7d “MTALRES-188-34-11-C LOG”

RE: Lent
To: MTALRES-188-34-11-C.DURNIST.K

I did talk to Junia, and she told me why she was upset with you. I should tell you she is talking to to the ethics head about it too.

You really put my ass in the fire with this Kith, I am trying to run a program where we are shoving CIVIL and MTALRES people into the same space and running on the common standards.

The reality is that I sense a firefighting scenario coming up when Dr. Fendi gets on this because he is big on SRC guidelines as well.

The saving grace of it all is that team 3 has some very solid showings with and because of that COC is probably going to squish the outrage a bit.

For the record, I think hybridization is a valid pursuit but I also understand why the SRC guidelines have been established around resequencing and those sorts of research topics.

Suffice it to say, that by the time this project is done, MILRES guidelines or at very least, MTALRES guidelines are going to have updated rules on the topic, in no small part thanks to your research.

I will be voting for any approval toward that effect.

Cpt. Althea Chalser
MTALRES-188-34-11-C Head
@MTALRES-188-34-11-C.CHALSER.A

Short: Military Cloning Initiative (Part 11)

The following is an excerpt from classified document:

NMSC-1-7f-7d “MTALRES-188-34-11-C LOG”

RE:  Hybridization Success
To: MTALRES-188-34-11-C.CHALSER.A

Althea,

Huge progress on the profiler this week. We have seen a 70% increase in proper marking and cohesion with the new enzymes. The data set we got back from _________ was an amazing boon to the research.

We are going to double check now but the strains are combining better than we ever thought possible when put under the proper conditions.

Fair warning: we have been seeing strip decoupling in some instances but our people are trying to work out the cause.

We are on schedule to have a presentation for this by the next executive committee meeting.

Also, thank you for talking to Dr. Lent for me. I am not very good dealing with civilian sector researchers about that sort of topic. I know it was more heat than you wanted at the time but without your help the shouting match would have been ongoing.

Cpt. K. Durnist
MTALRES-188-34-11-C Team 3 Head
@MTALRES-188-34-11-C.DURNIST.K

Character Design: Better story through better characters

Welcome to a new series on Character Design. In this series we are going to explore the creation and refinement of characters. One of my passions as a creator is making characters and I find that sometimes, some people seem to struggle with doing this.

There are a number of reasons that this happens but sometimes it is simply because not everyone who wants to create a character is armed with all of the tools or knowledge they need to make a character really pop.

There are a couple things that I am going to cover in this series to try and help overcome some of these challenges, but like the world building basics series, I will try to employ a number of examples.

Why is it important?

I like creating characters. I think a well made character, even in a story that I am not a huge fan of, is something to be respected. Like a good world build, a well designed and well written character can be their own masterpiece.

Like a good world build, a well designed and well written character can be their own masterpiece.

When coupled with a good story, well designed characters can be a recipe for lasting immersion in a world and a lifelong interest from a reader or someone who experiences that story. I feel like a well made character is really one of the pinnacles of artistic creation because so much comes together to actually make a character good.

On the surface, many characters may look the same, and indeed, due to the lower quality of some characters, we cannot meaningfully tell them apart. Because of the way that some characters in modern fictional writing seem to be presented, I felt really strongly that I needed to explore character creation more.

My goal was to put my finger on why it was that some characters felt for all intents and purposes, like the kind of thing a young kid in school might come up with as their first original character, rather than a valid protagonist for a novel.

It was all fine saying “that character was bad or uninteresting” but it drove me nuts not being able to put my finger on why that was and I felt like I was doing no one any favors without offering ideas I felt could help improve some of the characters I critiqued.

I started with making some notes on what I called character tiers. I quickly realized that it helped me to see where characters I had made in the past may have fallen short and what I could do to improve them, or why characters I had in some of my writing felt so much stronger than some of the others I or perhaps others had created at times.

Eventually that motivation blossomed into the idea for this series, a desire to help people I know in person, and those I have yet to meet or might never meet, to create characters that not only fill them with excitement, but the people that they share their stories with.

Characters are the backbone of a story

One of the primary reasons characters are so important is because characters are the backbone of any good work. Without interesting characters to draw in a reader or a player, worlds and stories can feel empty or lacking in depth. Any story which lacks engagement for the one experiencing it, has, in my opinion failed in some way.

A cast of well designed, interesting characters can take a generic plot and make it interesting and immersive. They can turn what might otherwise feel mundane into something interesting and add nuance to otherwise bland situations.

They can illicit emotion from those who are on the journey with them in a way that some bland fill in, just cannot manage. This makes them an integral part of any creative story telling experience.

If you have followed my world building series you may have seen me mention the concept of characters being a sort of backbone for storytelling and this series will try to help make a strong backbone.

No matter what stage of creation your world or story is at, there are ways to make it better and more interesting and one of the best ways, is that it is populated more and more, by characters which are of high quality.

Classifying Characters

As I mentioned, a way I like to classify characters these days is what I call the Character Tier system.

Character tiers are a sort of numeric designator that I feel help identify at a glance, areas where critical development needs to occur for a character to become more interesting or complex.

Each tier in the system has some basic requirements and reaching the next tier requires a kind of effort on the part of the creator.

It sounds quite arbitrary in such an abstract, but I am quite confident that when used as a framework, it provides a good road map toward better character growth and design. Incidentally, the idea of character design is closely tied to the concept of world building too.

If you are not familiar with world building or need some help getting better at it, you might want to check out my world building basics series as well because the character design series builds on that knowledge to move forward.

How will we do this?

After introducing the character divisions the series will explore character creation, both from scratch and perhaps using a prototype. In these articles you will see how I would recommend making a character from the start to fulfill some of the requirements for making a better, more interesting character.

In addition to trying to build new characters, we will discuss some common pitfalls I have observed in modern fictional writing when it comes to characters. Of course we will keep in mind that some mediums are more adversely affected by these pitfalls.

Some of these failings are getting so common these days that they are, in my opinion, strongly negative tropes. Among these are the tropes of; The pair of pants character, The Self Insert Character, The Mary Sue / Gary Stu, The angsty teen who is really angsty, The Anti-Hero with too much edge, etc.

I will do my best to avoid singling out specific writers or works, as the goal is not to try and target any one work in particular, but more so, to arm you, the reader, with the tools to make better characters that do not fall into the traps that some of the above types of characters do.

After we cover the creation of new characters and some of the things I tend to look for in making them, I want to move on to talking about some more advanced concepts, one important one being how to develop and use some empathy in writing.

I personally feel empathy for your characters is a key to making them interesting and believable. It also helps with being able to write them more properly and will improve the enjoyment you get from writing them.

Not everyone has to be a super star

It might sound like I am harping on powerful characters to the exclusion of simpler, more generic fill in characters, and for the most part I am, but it is still important to remember that there are times and places even among a great cast, where characters who fall lower on the totem pole are not only appropriate, but perhaps preferable.

The design series is going to aim to give you the tools you need to understand when and how to utilize both more involved and simpler characters together, to create a richer narrative experience than you might otherwise get.

Simply put, the amount of time a creator has is limited, and while it might be tempting to give even the baker in the shop a detailed backstory despite him simply being a non factor in the overall story, it may not be worth the time it takes to do so, especially if it does not add anything to the narrative.

This is one of the key takeaways for anyone using the character design series really, that the whole purpose of making a character interesting is to make the world and stories surrounding them, more interesting. Detail and nuance for their own sake have no value in creative fiction other than that which the creator places on it.

The real joy of creating though is not for the creator to look over their accomplishment, but to share it with those who want to experience it with them, and that is when better design really shines.

The real joy of creating though is not for the creator to look over their accomplishment, but to share it with those who want to experience it with them, and that is when better design really shines.

So now that we have an idea of where we are headed with the series, stay strapped in because the ride will be fun.

Short: Military Cloning Initiative (Part 10)

The following is an excerpt from classified document:

NMSC-1-7f-7d “MTALRES-188-34-11-C LOG”

RE: _________ development stable
To: MTALRES-188-34-11-C.Exec

Hello Everyone,

I am proud to announce on behalf of Team 1 that _________ has reached stability for the purposes of our work. This means that we are going to be moving forward with _________ as outlined by Dr. Chalser in that presentation.

Thanks again Althea, the talk we had afterward is, I’m told, one reason our team had the breakthrough. Dr. Halsey has a writeup for you if you are interested in some of the final steps. Sort of a shame that we cannot submit this to SRC this year.

Now that we have _________ available in a stable form I will transfer the availables to Team 2. It should solve the challenges they were facing with _________ during the latter phase.

I’ll be giving the team leads and Exec members a hard copy of the data at the upcoming progress report so if anyone has any questions that are not listed in the STAFFNET release that was put out by Team 1, please let me know ahead of time so I can make sure the answers are in the hard copy for your reference.

Lastly,

Since the shipping day is coming up, I took the liberty of ordering some ingredients for the kitchen to put together the celebratory luncheon Althea promised when we reached this milestone. I made sure to look into the dietary restrictions of all team members before ordering but if you have anything to add please send that in to logistics before 0550 tomorrow since that’s when the comm window cutoff is.

Here is the menu so far .

Regards,

Dr. Junia Lent
MTALRES-188-34-11-C Cochair
@MTALRES-188-34-11-C.Lent.J

Short: Military Cloning Initiative (Part 9)

The following is an excerpt from classified document:

NMSC-1-7f-7d “MTALRES-188-34-11-C LOG”

RE: New Directive (from MILRES)
To: MTALRES-188-34-11-C.Exec

Hi All,

I was informed today that MILRES has approved a co-development initiative based on a proposal by Dr. Durnist, the Team 2 lead. If you have not read the proposal you should read it before continuing to read my message. I made it available on STAFFNET for executive members of the team only at this time.

It was cleared by MILRES with regards to ethics, so while I know some of you might not have wanted to make a call either way, it is going to be supported by MILRES.

To summarize, the proposal calls for a branch development of _________ for hybridization with _________ genetic set.

We have a robust genetic pallette from within that set already selected thanks to some data made available to us from MILRES. The best traits are being screened in and Team 3 is working on a new network that should start generating profiles for the mixed gene set as early as a month from now.

_________ are the only thing we are doing for now (My call) and we should focus on testing the viability. If we can’t even get _________ or the _________ right, the project is dead in the water.

I know most of you are _________ specific research degrees so we have word out to MILRES to see if there are any MTALRES cleared experts we can bring in for the initiative.

So to summarize,

Team 1 will work on the current project as is, using _________ as the basis.

Team 2 will shift focus onto the new sub project, developing what I assume to be an _________ for creating the mixed pallette. (No idea what designation yet but I have a guess already)

Team 3 will finish the hybrid profiler, then finish working on the _________ for team 1 while team 2 develops _________. We are not going to bother with _________ until (IF) the _________ bare fruit but if that happens then we would prioritize it after the _________ is done.

-Althea

Cpt. Althea Chalser
MTALRES-188-34-11-C Head
@MTALRES-188-34-11-C.CHALSER.A

The Universe: A World Centric Build

In the previous world building articles, we explored both Character Centered world building, and Conflict Centered world building. Today I want to explore the process of world building I like to call World Centric.

Today we will learn what differentiates this style from the previously introduced styles, why it is important to understand this style, and what advantages and disadvantages it carries in comparison to the other two styles. While World Centric building has overlap with both of the previously explored approaches, it is important for anyone who wants to world build this way to understand the other methods too.

This is because at its core, World Centric builds are a combination of character driven and conflict driven development. Only if we understand both of those techniques can we properly leverage them.

World Centric building is not something designed to provide a single narrative. Rather, a World Centric build is something that would be best suited for a shared setting, or large expansive work of fiction instead.

When one engages in this style of world building, one must understand that it is extremely easy to get sidetracked, and while that could be damaging and detrimental in any world building, World Centric builds also require some of this chaotic focus, something I will detail later in the article.

For now, let’s get started.

Finding a seed

The best way to start a World Centric build is with a concept or a statement of intent about the world. How one defines that concept or statement could take a number of shapes. One might choose to have a checklist, a set of requirements they want the world to fulfill. While one tends to want a large scale conflict in Conflict Centered building, a general premise works better for World Centric building. I call this special statement, a ‘seed statement.’

It has to sound interesting to you, the creator. Do not bother with building from this seed until it sounds interesting. Focus around some idea or goal that your new world has and try to make it feel like it is your own. The less you stick to the established tropes or rules imposed by other creators, the more free you are to understand your creation as its own undertaking.

Focus around some idea or goal that your new world has and try to make it feel like it is your own. The less you stick to the established tropes or rules imposed by other creators, the more free you are to understand your creation as its own undertaking.

A simple statement of intent for example could be something like:

“I want to create a fantasy world with an interesting and orderly magical system that allows for various types and styles of magic to coexist.”

The above statement is one that I derived from looking back at a world build I have engaged in myself for a fantasy setting. Why? Because I wanted to have a magic system that was worth exploring, something that could be interesting to myself and or someone who experienced it.

I wanted this sort of magical system to exist because I enjoy various types of magic in fantasy, be they elemental magics that manipulate energies in the world, to the more esoteric types of magics such as levitating a book or a spoon. Perhaps there are magics such as necromancy or summoning of demons or dimensional entities that should be possible.

Because of those goals, a strong mission statement for the world I am creating, would be focused on its magical systems and the methods by which those magics work and interact with each other.

Lets look at a statement that I feel is similar, but would not work for a World Centric build. Hopefully this will provoke some thought:

“I want to create a fantasy setting with some of the classic fantasy races like elves and orcs.”

As I mentioned, this statement works as the seed statement. The reason this statement does not work is because it lacks a sort of interesting premise. It has nothing about it that makes it unique or different. What about this world makes it so much more worth exploring than any of the other already existing fantasy settings ‘with some classic fantasy races like elves and orcs’

I have to get more creative with the statement. In a flash of what some might call inspiration, I slightly changed the above to the following instead:

“I want to create a fantasy setting in which the traditionally good guys like elves, are harbingers of an evil demon god, and shift the standard good evil fantasy trope into reverse.”

This statement is less generic sounding, and it is more interesting to contemplate. While it may not be entirely unique (there are plenty of examples of evil elves in fiction for example) the goal of a seed statement is not just uniqueness, but to be interesting. The uniqueness comes from the way that the creator builds around the seed statement and establishes a world build of their own.

A Historian’s inspiration

In World Centric building we want to borrow the detached, high level perspective we employed in Conflict Centered building. We want to keep our seed in mind and start to develop the world in such a way as to allow us the freedom to keep moving and going. While we are surely going to have potential character ideas or conflicts arise as we build, we want to keep ourselves aloof enough to look at the world we are building as if we are perhaps, some detached historian.

I like to think World Centric building benefits quite a bit from this idea, that the creator views themselves as a sort of anthropologist, or historian, a scholar of this world and its denizens, all rolled into one. It is important to note that eventually a conflict Centered Build comes to need some characters around which events coalesce.

The same is true in World Centric building. While developing a cast of characters off the bat is a mis-step for World Centric techniques, one must also be prepared to create figureheads to populate the history one is creating.

So there we are, we are historians with a seed statement about our fictional world. Where we start and how, is up to us, the creator. There is no single right way to start a World Centric build, and as such I will try to list some ideas that I have used in the past that have had some results I am happy with.

Keep in mind, these are all real ideas that have netted various world builds, some of which I feel were more compelling than others. Some of them are also places I would say other world builds may have started. Here are some ideas and why I think they can be useful jumping off points:

  • A dream inspired me:

    Start your world build based on some of the realities that a dream you remember after waking has introduced you to. I have had several story worlds start off because a particularly interesting dream managed to seep into my memory. You can combine this with an existing seed statement, or, perhaps, refine your seed statement to better fit the dream. I think dreams are a good example of something we might never think of as possible or normal, and as a result can provide a bounty of unusual settings or ideas with which we can start our build.
  • The beginning of known time:

    Start with a sort of biblical perspective. I find that for a story using ancient mythology, this sort of approach can work great. Envision yourself as a narrator for something like an ancient historical text.

    Present the world as you see fit. Your job is to summarize the important events, but you have not got room to go into detail about everything. There are many examples of this, but the King James Bible’s old testament is the best example I can think of for this sort of perspective. (I am not commenting on the truthfulness of its contents by using it as an example).

    This book begins with the narrator describing the beginning of time on earth. The granularity of details is limited, save for when the first influential individuals and their actions are introduced, but even then, the information is kept to a minimum and only the impactful events are related to the reader. Indeed, in the bible, whole centuries of time are skipped or glossed over in favour of the more world shaping events. This sort of perspective can be amazing for World Centric building.
  • A conflict:

    Yes, this might be odd to see here, but sometimes starting a World Centric build at an important and defining conflict point can be the best place to begin. The perspective however of the creator needs to be suitably different from when they are engaging in Conflict Centered building though.

    One must remember that when doing World Centric builds, they are describing or observing the conflict through a more detached historical lens, rather than exploring all of its detail.

    Using conflict to explore World Centric builds allows for a flashpoint but the creator should expand in both directions, forward and back, from any sort of conflict they started with. Care should be taken to avoid focusing too much on the one particular instance of conflict.
  • A world defining figure:

    Like Character Centered builds, World Centric builds can also start around an extremely important character. A powerful god or deity, for example, could be a figurehead and inspiration for a world build.

    As Conflict Centered builds and World Centric builds featuring conflict differ, so too, do Character Centered builds and World Centric builds featuring influential figures. One may choose to start their world build because a particularly influential conqueror or perhaps a scientist or mage, had done something that forever altered the world in which they lived.

    Remember, that if creating from this sort of starting point, one wants to avoid going into too much detail or depth about what the individual did, keeping it mostly historical.

While these are not the only ways you might start a World Centric build, they are ones I have found tend to work reasonably well for the purpose and as a result I feel like I want to list them. Perhaps you have some other idea in mind. As long as you can use it as a starting point, you are ready to begin.

Inspiring the seed

Now that you have your seed, you need to apply your inspiration to it and make them work together. For example, in the fantasy world building example I provided, with the complex magic system, I might be tempted to start with a ” beginning of time” approach. I can marry these two ideas and together, they become a stronger more fruitful well from which I can keep drawing creatively through the build. I’ll give an example statement. I decided to put some flavorful text together for you to see what I mean about taking an inspiration:

In the beginning , there was order. Therefore the gods came to be, and with them, the orders of gods and the magics of gods. And below them the lesser orders and the lesser gods, that the mysteries of all order were defined. Wherefore, the gods looked upon the chaos that was and evoked their orders, and with it, their magics, and thus the chaos obeyed and was shaped, and so came to be the world of….

This sort of excerpt gets at the heart of what I intend to demonstrate; The seed and the inspiration, or the start, of the build, should work together somehow. With the above statement I intended to provide a starting point for a history for the entire world I was creating, and through the combination of my seed and my inspiration I have effectively planted my seed in the fertile ground, where it can now start growing.

This growth process can now continue and should still be kept at a high level. Think of it like this. A sapling, a fresh new barely planted tree still casts a shadow, but to get a real context of its influence, one needs to take a step back. When they do, they will see that its shadow is in fact, quite small compared to the world around it and that focusing on the tiny little shadow does not make for a very interesting picture yet. This can change when the tree grows.

There will eventually be a time and a place where the tree (build) is large enough that even a small portion of its shadow will contain more detail than the entire shadow it cast as a fresh idea. Do not dive into detailing a World Centric build too quickly or you will risk losing this important perspective.

Wild vs Controlled Growth

Once your world building experience has begun, you have two styles of growth. Wild and Controlled Growth. When using Controlled Growth, one decides to follow a sort of cause and effect chain. This means that when one defines some important historical event, things that happened because of it should be explored. In addition, things that occurred before it and caused it, (if any) should also be explored. This Controlled Growth relates parts of the world together and is a great way to create a coherent history. Every World Centric build needs a good amount of Controlled Growth to feel coherent.

Where Controlled Growth often falls short however, is in really adding those unique details to a world build. Sometimes we have just got to add some unique cultural idea, or a species that caught our mind’s attention. Perhaps we just wanted to define what some ancient temple or monument looked like. Perhaps we just felt the need to define how some long dead empire operated. While we are trying to create a history, we are also trying to make it interesting and creatively inspiring.

When our ideas fall outside the cause and effect chain, this is Wild Growth and it is akin to the branches on a tree splitting out where they want. They are our mental explorations of the world we are delving into and building, and they can sprawl reach and look in all directions.

When we are using Wild Growth, we can add a surprising amount of beauty or detail to our build. We can make sure that the Coherent Growth has a more varied environment to occur in and even that cause and effect chain can be modified or deflected because of the Wild Growth we are pursuing. Equally important however is that it is also possible that we grow so wild, that we create a tangled mess.

As anyone who has ever manicured trees can tell you, they sometimes get out of hand. Sometimes those extra branches don’t go where we want them to be. The same is true in world building. If we ignore the cause and effect chain too much we will lack the appropriate places for our Wild Growth to occur.

We may, by not exploring our Controlled Growth enough, miss out on creating a particularly interesting cultural practice for one of the peoples we create. We might lose the chance to create a whole species, or involve an otherwise unique concept in our story simply because we lacked those controlled branches to grow from.

In addition, we may grow so wild that we simply have no space for sensible controlled growth to penetrate the tangled mess we have woven. Our world building tree, in effect, can become lopsided because too much of our energy is being expended in only one aspect of the world. This is where most creators attempting this sort of build will get (pardon the word choice) tangled.

When Wild Growth goes too far

Getting tied up in one particular aspect of the world build can be the end of an otherwise successful build and it will certainly be noticed in any story or narrative that derives from the world in question. Those who experience the content will see a definite shift in detail and focus when suddenly, the topic of discussion becomes more intensely intricate or detailed.

Readers will notice when the descriptions for the landscapes and features become generic and boring, and when they become detailed and enthralling. They will notice when an in depth, well crafted magical system clashes with a haphazard and unbelievable set of governments or the laws they enforce. They will notice detailed culture designs giving way to impossible strategic choices and blunders, all because we focused so much on one aspect of the world build, that we did not bother to properly ground the others and give them sturdy branches.

We as creators all have our own personal interests, but when a world build is being done, it should not be an obvious carbon copy of the creator’s personal interests. While the focus and the goals of the build should reflect that seed statement and draw from the inspiration whenever possible, creators must take responsibility for their creations enough to provide them with the coherence and stability required to prop up the areas they are most interested in. Even a topic one might not wish to explore in great depth needs some level of thought and contemplation when doing World Centric building.

While not every aspect of a World Centric build needs to be equally fleshed out, creators need to take care when doing World Centric building to ensure a comparable amount of respect goes to the different faces of the build.

While not every aspect of a World Centric build needs to be equally fleshed out, creators need to take care when doing World Centric building to ensure a comparable amount of respect goes to the different facets of the build.

Even if magic or politics are the focus of your build, the rest should not feel like it was taped on after the fact,effectively being drawn in a completely different style. While a creator does not have an answer to everything all at once, it should feel like the answers they do create, have equal weight to those that they may have already created.

The truth is that any world build, when going long enough, will start to resemble a World Centric build. The longer one explores a world, and dares to venture outside a particular conflict or set of characters, the closer one comes to World Centric building from wherever it was they came. As a result, World Centric building can be viewed as a sort of living end state for most world builds.

I feel that the most major of my worlds and in particular, the world for my Star of Ashor Novel have long since moved past some of the character or conflict centered ideas that started them. There is no definite line as to where one technique starts and where one ends and we just end up with world building as a nebulous catch all at that point.

My hope is that through reading about some of the ways we can start world building, that you have been able to understand how you can start in creating worlds around your favorite original characters, or interesting conflicts you have envisioned. Hopefully with the knowledge from prior articles and this article too, you have become better armed to tackle world building itself.

Moving forward

With the conclusion of the world building basics series, we will be exploring more topics in the future, but do not fret. World building workshops, and important topics will be detailed in upcoming series. Look forward to the next world building series on what I call Master Concepts in World Building. When we explore master concepts we will move beyond general world building to the art of creating more specialized categories of ideas within our worlds.

Among other things, we will explore the idea of creating spiritual systems for fictional worlds to ground themselves with, or the art of trying to craft in-depth nation states and therefore, capture more believable political intrigue in our worlds. We will explore how to create unique and varied cultures that give credibility to our stories and how existing works of fiction and even human history, can provide help in this regard. I intend these future articles to contain a mix of both theory and example to help other creators find their grounding within these potentially challenging aspects of world building.

For more world building goodness however, you will have to wait, since our next series, Character Building and design, will be a departure from the creation of entire worlds and instead, focus on the creation of the varied and interesting people that a creator should be populating their world with. Whether you have a partly developed original character you want to include in your creations someday, or you have only the vaguest hint of a prototype in mind, we will explore the process of taking your character from concept to creation.

Take care reader and happy world building! I look forward to seeing you again soon.