The Tier 4 Jump: Up-tiering (Part 3)

Welcome to the final part of this character creation and up-tiering workshop. Last time we discussed the idea of the character personality and the importance of finding a way to give life to the characters we create. We went over some of the ways in which we put effort into the character growth process to improve our character to Tier 3 from Tier 2.

Leveraging the Interview style of character building, we were able to take our existing character and start to add depth and personality to them. While the interview style is not the only way to bring a character toward Tier 3 from the previous, it is an effective one.

One part of our process that we have kept in our heads for most of the time we’ve been building, is the idea of using an existing world. This is something we discussed most heavily in part 1 of this workshop series.

When we use an existing world we give ourselves a big advantage in many ways, for building characters that feel grounded and believable, but it is important to note that just because we are putting those characters into a more fleshed out setting, we are not gaining an uninhibited superpower of creation.

Quite the contrary, when building in an existing world we are actually constraining ourselves more than we are freeing ourselves. At first this sounds counter-intuitive, but in this article I will explain why this is so very important for raising our character’s tier beyond Tier 3, and also, why it is that we want this constraint.

Context Matters

When a character is created we tend to view them as a blank slate, and as we build them up, they start to take the form that we, the creator are choosing. However, one thing that differs for us versus our creations are the simple and unavoidable realities of life.

As human beings our unique experiences and challenges shape the way we view the world and they impact who we are, how we think and what we decide to do with the time we have been given to live.

When we talk about characters however, we tend to envision them with a timelessness that allows them to be whatever we dream them to be.

If we examine our own lives, this is actually counter to how we experience life and the events around us. When we approach our characters in this vacuum of timelessness, they tend to feel like they may lack depth and nuance. This does not mean that they are bad characters per se, but it can speak to the fact that they may have need of more growth in order to provide the strength to be a narrative focus in the future. This is one of the things that separates Tier 3 characters from Tier 4 characters.

So how do we avoid putting characters into a vacuum of timelessness? How do we make them feel like they are living breathing parts of a narrative?

Simple, we let them live life in the world that’s been created.

Context provides strength under plot scrutiny

The concept of a character living life may sound odd to the uninitiated, but bare with me. As I mentioned in the character tiers article, there comes a point where character’s need to start having the context of a world to feel strong in a narrative. This key concept was called ‘Plot scrutiny’

When a character is resilient under plot scrutiny, they do not generate disjointed reactions from an audience where a lesser character likely would. When they are strong under plot scrutiny, they tend to carry the importance of a narrative with them and the gravity of events within that narrative feels stronger to the reader than it otherwise would.

A character who is strong under plot scrutiny is not only strong themselves, but makes the entire narrative stronger too, providing much needed glue to established world building.

A character who is strong under plot scrutiny is not only strong themselves, but makes the entire narrative stronger too, providing much needed glue to established world building.

Conversely a character who is weak under plot scrutiny tends to act as a solvent on the glue of an otherwise coherent story or world. They cause cracks to appear and they make other, stronger characters and their world, look weaker than they are.

This concept can sometimes be seen in media. If you have ever watched a show, read a book or played a game, there’s a chance you’ve seen or met one character who just felt ‘off’ for some reason in the context of everything else. While it is hard to objectively define what makes a character fail plot scrutiny, when we notice it, it’s almost impossible to ignore.

Generating characters who pass plot scrutiny is therefore, one of the key cornerstones of character building and indeed, is one of the steps which is required for a Tier 3 character to be classed as Tier 4.

Let’s take our created character, Kelem ‘Black Viper’ Shae’Lun from the previous two articles in this series and explore how we ensure that his character has a context to allow this growth and help him pass plot scrutiny

Apply the world to the character

In order to let our character have life and feel believable, it is important to understand what form that life is going to take. With every character design it may take a different form. For today’s article we are going to focus on the process of creating a ‘backstory’ that allows us to integrate knowledge of our existing world into the design choices we have thus far made.

As I mentioned in prior articles there are sometimes points at which our design choices such as a personality trait or physical characteristic, conflict with a backstory. Resolving these conflicts is essential and we will discuss how to do so after we come up with a backstory at all.

The creation of a good backstory can be one of the hardest parts of the character creation process, but also provides a much needed insight.

It is made easier, when we have existing information about our character and the Tier 2 and Tier 3 steps of our building have provided some much needed pointers to that end.

I am going to re-iterate both the Tier 2 and Tier 3 lists of qualities and traits we came up with below, and after that we will see how these are actually useful signposts in creating a backstory.

  • Physical / Aesthetic
    • Hil’Raigh, Male
    • Looks unassuming for a Hil’Raigh military role
    • Longer hair
    • Light red/orange hair
    • Facial hair
    • Often seen wearing a hat of some kind
  • Personality & Background
    • Formerly part of a national (Akal’Maru) naval special operations division
    • Single, unmarried
    • Loves to barbecue
    • Likes zero gravity sports
    • Likes oil painting
    • Cynical
    • Macabre sense of humor
    • Largely Calm, aggressive when provoked
    • Goes by his “code name” with most people
  • Knowledge & Skill
    • Trained in many hand to hand combat styles
    • Knows how to use weaponry from all over the galaxy
    • Expert marksman
    • Knows how to operate many types of vehicles.
    • Licensed pilot
  • Mental Traits
    • Has an obvious feeling of brotherhood with other members of the Federation military.
    • Has seen some things he does not like to relive and that affects his outlook.
    • Is a bit closed off to strangers, despite being cordial to them.
    • A driven person who chases his goals.
    • Has some strong opinions on the way the Federation uses its military and force as a whole
    • Sympathetic to the Hil’Raigh colonies and the challenges they face.
    • Is largely un-phased by cultural norms
    • Problem Solver
    • Leader
    • Doesn’t like Corsairs and other pirates
    • A bit blunt
  • Weaknesses
    • Prone to self isolation
    • Dealing with some past traumas from combat experiences
    • Sometimes chases his own goals to the exclusion of others needs and desires
    • Sometimes bluntness causes trouble in his world
    • Has a hard time making new friends outside of military focused individuals
    • Dismissive of some people’s struggles or problems

Now that we have our character’s traits and abilities spelled out for us, we can start to take a look at some of the things we need to cover in this character’s backstory. Starting at a high level, we weave these lists into a narrative tapestry. Because we conducted an interview with our character already, I will also refer to that section for helping direction in the outline of our backstory.

Before I start blocking out any backstory though, I want to look at some key things that should happen in the backstory for Kelem. This step can take some time, don’t let it feel daunting. Anytime you come up with a new idea for ‘something that should happen’ you can put it down as a bullet point. It is good to order these chronologically if you can. After some close inspection of the lists, and the interview questions, I came up with the following important plot points. These should be the biggest takeaways from the backstory.

  • Kelem is an Akal’Maru Citizen
  • Kelem joined the special forces of his national military when he was younger
  • Kelem has had a number of combat encounters with pirates in his service life
  • Kelem founds Shae’Lun as a Private military corporation
  • Shae’Lun fights with more pirates and helps with frontier law and order
  • Shae’Lun fights in war with NovaCore
  • Kelem keeps an active role in his company dealing with the aftermath of the NovaCore armistice

These plot points make up the bulk of what we want to accomplish, but as you can note here, there is more that we have established about our character than has been put into these plot points.

Using the above as a guide, let’s refine that outline and give it depth. Below is the result of me combining more of the above information about Kelem, with the simple list I just created.

For our mutual benefit, I will include which list section that each of these sub-points was drawn from. This should help give you an idea of how I am engaging this process.

Important to note is that I also will tag some information with “World Knowledge”. World knowledge is information that is gained through knowing and understanding the world as it already exists. Use it to your advantage when telling backstories too.

  • Kelem is an Akal’Maru Citizen
    • When he was younger, Kelem was reasonably athletic, but especially loved zero gravity sports (Personality & Background) because they did not rely on a massive physique (Physical &Aesthetic)
    • Having an outlet for his energy when he was at a more volatile age, helped him develop a calmer more collected personality under stresses (P & B)
  • Kelem joined the special forces of his national military when he was younger
    • He was able to join the special forces because his driven goal chasing attitude (Mental Traits), combined with his problem solving nature, helped him stand out (Mental Traits).
    • Kelem showed exceptional promise as a marksman through his training (Knowledge & Skill)
    • Because of the nature of his secretive work life, Kelem never really found the desire to seek for romance (P & B) and his goal oriented attitude and focus on work made him have difficulty during the few times he tried (Weaknesses)
  • Kelem has had a number of combat encounters with pirates in his service life and eventually leaves military service
    • Seeing combat action tended to make Kelem more macabre in his humor (P & B)
    • Earns the moniker ‘Black Viper’ on early combat mission (P & B) and starts to develop a strong respect for colonial militias and their membership. He becomes an advocate for colonial protection (MT)
    • Kelem is eventually promoted to leadership (MT) for his role in combating pirates, whom he grew to hate (MT) and problems on the Hil’Raigh Frontier (Interview)
    • Kelem is involved in difficult combat operations that, over time, give him a somewhat cynical outlook on the life he’s asked to lead (P & B), this is exacerbated by a particularly rough campaign in which he loses some comrades (Weaknesses)
    • Kelem learns more combative hand to hand styles to prevent previous tragedy from striking again (P & B) and takes up oil painting as a theraputic method (P & B) but the scars remain and he remains somewhat isolated (W)
    • Kelem certifies with a very large number of weapons and undergoes pilot training for many types of non combat vehicles for deployment, landing and transport (K & S)
    • Quits the service eventually (P & B) (MT)
  • Kelem founds Shae’Lun as a Private military corporation
    • Driven to found Shae’Lun after several years because of his expertise, some connections and the brotherhood he has with military minded former service members (W)
    • Gives Shae’Lun goals in line with righting some of what he believed were wrongs with the military command structure he was a part of before (MT) but he is a blunt leader and that causes trouble sometimes (MT) (W)
  • Shae’Lun fights with more pirates and helps with frontier law and order
    • Kelem’s hatred of pirates draws him into a leading role with Shae’Luns campaigns on the frontier for a long time (Improvised)
  • Shae’Lun fights in war with NovaCore
    • Shae’Lun eventually fights with the NovaCore (Interview) as a strong supplement to Akal’Maru naval forces (World Knowledge)
  • Kelem keeps an active role in his company dealing with the aftermath of the NovaCore armistice
    • The rise of the corsairs and Shae’Lun’s dealings with them (IVW) shoves the Shae’Lun corporation to the forefront of public consciousness for quite a while (WK)
    • Losses faced by Shae’Lun weigh heavily on Kelem’s heart (MT), he decides to bring Shae’Lun into the arms business to provide customized solutions for the unique problems facing Shae’Lun’s operators (IVW)
    • Meeting a large variety of operators from various backgrounds and cultures helps temper Kelem’s cynicism and he starts to focus it more on large political and cultural establishments (MT)
    • Kelem decides to bring back the barbecue tradition (P & B) of his deceased military superiors used to like doing for his team and establishes local chapter barbecues as a regular event for Shae’Lun employees and operators (Improvised new idea)

For the sake of brevity, today’s article will not feature a written backstory for Kelem, (That will probably come later as a codex entry, maybe in the short form) but it should be reasonably clear from the above that not only is our character stronger having gone through this process, he feels like an involved part of the world we’ve created while simultaneously becoming more fleshed out and well understood.

Even going through the process thus far has helped me, the creator come up with an understanding of this character that I previously lacked, and almost all of it was from knowledge and understanding placed into our character up till now.

I also hope it is clear that the above benefited greatly from the fact that we kept our character grounded from the earliest days of creation. This design choice helped ensure that our character retains world continuity even now but that is not always the case. In some settings we may not have control over all of the world and it may drive character and world into conflict. If this occurs, you must either world build, or change your character.

Respecting creation

When you cannot reconcile your characters design or backstory with the existing world, it is tempting to homebrew an exception to the norm. While this works in the short term sometimes, it almost always causes challenges later.

If you are working with a group of friends or a smaller insular community that agrees upon the changes, then it might fly, but if you are integrating into someone else’s largely understood intellectual property with say, a fan character or a character for a role playing game, then you are going to have a harder time convincing everyone you deal with to accept those changes.

Even when you are working with your own world, be very careful to consider the impact that creating an exception for this character could have.

Even when you are working with your own world, be very careful to consider the impact that creating an exception for this character could have. Ask yourself if it will undermine some key point of your world or destroy the credibility of a story you plan to tell later, or perhaps, have already told.

Respect for your own world and the creation you have built up is just as important as respect for the work which others have made. (Respect does not mean unfounded or baseless pride and immunity to criticism however) Do not make changes to your world lightly for the sake of a single character.

When you gain more experience with design and narrative, you will find chances to make these exceptions in a more organic and sensible way that enhances rather than detracts from plot, world continuity and story telling. When used sparingly, these exceptions can be powerful boosts to a character and story, but do not overdo it.

Onward to greater heights, if you want

With the strengthening of Kelem’s character through putting narrative weight behind him, and adding real world context to him, we can safely put him on the path to Tier 4 now. allowing him to move forward and expand as a character.

From this point forward, most of the growth for Kelem’s character is going to have to come from active story telling. The creator of any character has to spend the time to walk in their shoes and bring them through their challenges and triumphs in order to create the emotional gravitas that is required to move beyond.

Tier 4 is both a starting point and for some characters, a position of station keeping where they can effectively contribute and help a story move along without damaging the narrative integrity to which they are contributing. Keep in mind that not every character must be reaching higher tiers but the options is always there at Tier 4.

Now that we have explored the creation of a character in an existing world, and showed how to use and apply the Character Tier system to them, we are going to pivot back to some more world building articles going forward. We will explore concepts that help enhance the world builds we do by exploring “World Building Master concepts”.

In that series we will cover more detailed topics like how to use religions or spirituality and faith in world building, How to better understand international and internal politics facing our fantastical worlds and how to utilize and build cultures which interact with and influence all of the above. I hope you enjoyed this series and I hope you are looking forward to more character design in the future!

Crystalizing a Character: Up-tiering (Part 2)

Last week we went over the process of creating a character from scratch with the purpose of eventually growing them through the Character Tier’s system.

For that purpose we introduced the character Kelem ‘Black Viper’ Shae’Lun, the founder and owner of the notorious Shae’Lun private military company in the Hil’Raigh Federation. One of the key points we wanted to focus on, and still want to focus on in the coming parts of our creation process for this workshop, is the idea of using our existing world as a basis in which we are creating a new character.

Like last week, we are going to be diving into more of the Star of Ashor setting, and when appropriate I will share information about that world so that even those who are inexperienced with it, can use this article to keep building on the last.

Before we return to Kelem Shae’Lun and improving his character tier however, let’s review how the characters at Tier 2 differ from the characters at Tier 3.

Introducing the personality

A Tier 3 character as discussed in the tiers article, is an important step in the evolution of the character. I like to think that Tier 3 is really when the character starts to grow in the way of gaining a personality.

While a Tier 2 character is largely a list of traits that tends to be defined only within the context of the list, A Tier 3 tries to improve upon this by adding mannerisms and opinions, ideas, and weaknesses the mix.

While a Tier 2 character is largely a list of traits that tends to be defined only within the context of the list, A Tier 3 tries to improve upon this by adding mannerisms and opinions, ideas, and weaknesses the mix.

When a character inhabits Tier 3, they are starting to gain definite behavioral traits. While it might seem easy enough to lump these into the trait list from Tier 2, one should avoid that temptation because of the clear separation of the roles of these lists.

One can think of the Tier 2 trait list as a design guide. If you or someone else were to draw your character, these things would have an effect.

The Interview style

While our list of traits from the Tier 2 article DID include some basic information about potential personality traits in the form of some liked activities, it did not give us a direct sense of who our character is, not yet. While we have those traits in the list, we know they are there, but how they express themselves is another matter.

For example, the character of Kelem is listed as cynical. There are many cynical people or characters in the world, and even in the Star of Ashor setting. How then does this help us? In order to better understand how any of the specific ideas of personality or behavior that we form for our character, actually influence their day to day actions, we want to find a way to connect with them. One novel way to do this, is through the process of a virtual interview with the character.

In order to learn about the people of importance in their society, human beings often interview them. They ask them questions about a range or variety of topics, sometimes simply about their lives and experiences, and sometimes about more specific situations such as the production of a large scale, popular piece of entertainment or even politics.

Human beings like to know things about the world and asking questions to other people is one way we learn about them. We can replicate this very natural process with our new characters, and while it may seem silly at first, there is an undeniable benefit to the process because it requires us to think about things from two perspectives.

First and foremost, conducting an interview means that we, the interviewer, need to understand or figure out what we would like to know. The second is that the interview forces us, using our creator’s cap, to think from the perspective of the one we are intending to answer our questions.

The way someone responds to our questions in the real world is as important as the answer, we want to capture this when we think of using the interview process.

The way someone responds to our questions in the real world is as important as the answer, we want to capture this when we think of using the interview process. For example, one may give an answer we like to hear, but the way their body language comes across may make us uncomfortable. They may say something we disagree with, but say it with such conviction or poise that we are forced to concede or rethink our position in response.

Your characters should have this same chance when you interview them but as was said before, the interviewer needs to know what they want to ask about before hand. With a fictional character in a fictional setting, how are we to know what to ask?

Use your existing world as an interview guide

The best way to ask the “right questions” to your character in an interview process is to use the world setting as a guide. This can be a real challenge if you have not got an established setting yet, however, in this workshop we are specifically looking at the Star of Ashor. This brings with it a wealth of information we can draw on. We can use the current events of this world to help us ask questions to the new character. Perhaps we can ask their opinion on a cultural trend or their opinion on a notable public figure. Perhaps we can ask them about the sports teams they enjoy or the culturally significant hobbies they undertake.

When we use an existing setting, we have the world around this new character to use for forming these questions and it helps us make sure that the questions better prepare our character for their eventual growth to Tier 4 as well.

Asking the right questions here will save us time later, making the process of improving our character more gradual, smooth and clean.

Asking the right questions here will save us time later, making the process of improving our character more gradual, smooth and clean. Let’s take a look at some Star of Ashor setting to give us an idea of what may be of interest to Kelem. Let’s take his status, job, background and traits into account and ask some types of questions. I sort of feel like there will me multiple categories of questions for him given his military background. Some interviewers might ask about his military history, others about his contemporary personal life and dealings. Others might ask about a specific thing he has done or said.

Let’s take the chance here to look at Kelem’s traits, and then come up with some questions to ask him from each of these theoretical interviewers.

  • Military Service Questions
    • Why did you join the Akal’Maru Navy?
    • Why the special forces?
    • What was your favorite part of miltiary service?
  • Shae’Lun Corporation Questions
    • Why did you start Shae’Lun?
    • How did Shae’Lun get into the arms manufacturing trade?
    • What is the goal of Shae’Lun in the modern era?
  • Contemporary Questions
    • Do you enjoy the single life?
    • Are you dating anyone right now?
    • I heard you like traditional painting, what got you into it?
    • Your sense of humor is called odd by some, what are they missing?
    • Do you like Kul’Raigh Kunir hats?

Once we have these questions, we should “ask them” by writing the question and the answer down. This interview can be as formally into role playing or as light and impersonal as you, the creator want. Just make sure you answer the questions in the way you feel your character would because this is the best point in their development for them to give free, easy answers to the questions you are asking.

Kelem’s interview

I decided to take Kelem’s interview in a semi serious tone. To set the context, I will be taking the interview from the perspective of a correspondent for a Hil’Raigh media firm, one who is doing a profile piece on Kelem Shae’Lun at the time of the interview. Current events at the time are set many years after the founding of the Shae’Lun corporation and a couple years after the Federation’s armistice with the neighboring NovaCore nation.

Interviewer: Thank you for sitting down with us Mr. Shae’Lun. I know you have a lot going on lately so we appreciate you taking the time for the interview.

Kelem Shae’Lun: Not a problem, sometimes this kind of thing can be useful anyway.

IWR: I wanted to start with some questions about your background in the military if I could. You enlisted in the Akal’Maru Royal Navy at the age of twenty, what brought you to that place in life? Why the Royal Navy?

KS: Well I guess I grew up on the holo dramas like a lot of my peers did, talking about the glorious naval service for the kingdom. That was probably the start of it.

IWR: You transitioned to the Naval Special Services Task Force soon after joining. Can you tell us about that?

KS: I’ve always been driven. After enlisting I found that my drive for that sort of thing was refined even further by the training. NSSTF became a no brainer at that point in my service. I felt like I could hang with the best, and I wanted to prove it.

IWR: Was that the highlight of your service? what would you say you enjoyed most about it? You are a pretty storied individual these days.

KS: I think the highlight of my service was helping to deal with the pre-corsair piracy on the rim. The colonies had a lot of trouble back then and we were all still getting our footing in rapid colonization so there were gaps. The corsairs changed that of course, but I think that the best part of our service was freeing people from that sort of hell formed out during the rush. We were the cleanup crew for it I guess.

IWR: Speaking of the piracy, a lot of Shae’Lun’s work these days purportedly revolves around the Corsairs on the front. It seems like you have a long history with piracy. Is that what you imagined Shae’Lun would be doing?

KS: Not really. I hoped that the pirate problems were going to get under control but when the armistice happened, we found ourselves in pretty much the same place, only the pirates had a banner to rally behind. When I started Shae’Lun I wanted something capable of doing jobs like I would do in the NSSTF, but on a more rapid response basis, and without the same kinds of beauracratic bullshit we always had to deal with.

IWR: Do you consider that mission to be ongoing success? where would you like to take Shae’Lun?

KS: Shae’Lun is doing what it was created for at this point, I am more confident in that now than I was after the armistice. Overall I’d say I’m happy with the direction.

IWR: Arms manufacturing is a good complement to that mission, what was the impetus for that?

KS: My people needed better gear than they were getting. Once we had the money, and I talked it over with the book keepers it was gonna happen either way. Sadly, too many of ours got lost before we got that far. I guess the upside is now everyone in the Federation has access to the better gear.

IWR: It’s been said you are a pretty private person, but I’ve got to ask, are you really single after all this time?

KS: Yes, that’s correct.

IWR: Ever thought about finding someone?

KS: I think a lot of people who’ve worked in the NSSTF would be married by the time they are out, I guess I am the exception to that. As far as seeking partners, I don’t know that it’s for me. I really enjoy being able to focus on my work with the corporation and the people we employ. If someone I met could really support me in that, I’d consider them, but I haven’t met that person yet.

IWR: Your hobbies are varied as far as I have heard but one that stuck out to me, because it is pretty uncommon for someone in your position, is traditional painting. What got you into that?

KS: It started as a coping technique really. I started painting portraits of the guys we lost for their families. Something about the process of putting the brush to canvas helped me put things into perspective, gave me some closure. I still paint but I have branched out a bit.

IWR: You’ve got quite a unique sense of humor I hear, but it seems like some in the military culture really relate to it. Why do you think that gulf exists?

KS: When you face death all the time as part of your job, you learn to get callous about it. Humor can be a tool to help you harden, but it also helps you cope. Sometimes you say things that people don’t get but the people who’ve been in your shoes understand them right away. I’d say I have calmed my humor down though, it was a lot worse right after the founding.

IWR: Shae’Lun is one of the companies that has ties to the Federation government itself, as a result you are subject to some labor participation restrictions from the Kul’Raigh, despite that, we see a lot of Kunir hats on the Shae’Lun personnel. Care to explain?

KS: I think Kunir hats are nice, I like them. They remind me of old world military caps so I tend to think they fit well, but it sortof became part of our look. With patrol caps like that, people know you are Shae’Lun pretty fast and I think that has helped set us apart.

IWR: Do you own any?

KS: I own several.

Application of the Interview

Once we have conducted our character interview, we want to digest it. You can definately see a myriad information there, some of which we might not have an explanation or context for. In these cases you have two options.

In the case of Kelem Shae’Lun, I, the creator of the character and his world, have the context here, so the interview makes sense to me. I understand his answers because I created the context.

If however, you find that your character is not entirely meshed or has some holes in their answers at this stage, DO NOT worry.

A bit of a disconnect is likely in this phase, and it is something that we will keep an eye on because it is to be expected with most character builds.

A bit of a disconnect is likely in this phase, and it is something that we will keep an eye on because it is to be expected with most character builds. In the case that we really want to explain the discontinuity though, it is also a good chance to world build. If you are doing an existing setting, this might be hard, but if you are the creator of the setting, world building to give the background to the interview is the better of the two options available to you when you have this happen.

Regardless, we now have an idea of our new character. While we have not got him down perfectly, we can look at his answers and try to ask what those tells us about his personality and behavior. The way we write the character and how they respond to the interview tell us a lot about them. Even when we do not yet fully understand a character, we tend to develop a writing style for them fairly fast. We leverage this now, and extract some meaning. This part can be challenging, but take your time and look earnestly. When I looked at the question answer session above I learned a couple things about Kelem that I had not planned on. The below list is but a few of the personality and mental traits that I picked out.

  • Mental Traits
    • Has an obvious feeling of brotherhood with other members of the Federation military.
    • Has seen some things he does not like to relive and that affects his outlook.
    • Is a bit closed off to strangers, despite being cordial to them.
    • A driven person who chases his goals.
    • Has some strong opinions on the way the Federation uses its military and force as a whole
    • Sympathetic to the Hil’Raigh colonies and the challenges they face.
    • Is largely un-phased by cultural norms
    • Problem Solver
    • Leader
    • Doesn’t like Corsairs and other pirates
    • A bit blunt

Looking at the above, I hope it is clear that while we came up with some personality traits in part one, the traits we are seeing here are borne of the character’s answers and are much more about his thoughts and feelings. We can look at some of these and we might say they could show us a weakness that Kelem has. Remember, weaknesses are an important part of the Tier 3 character, just as much as opinions and ideas. Looking at the above list, I think I have some ideas as to what some possible weaknesses may be.

  • Weaknesses
    • Prone to self isolation
    • Dealing with some past traumas from combat experiences
    • Sometimes chases his own goals to the exclusion of others needs and desires
    • Sometimes bluntness causes trouble in his world
    • Has a hard time making new friends outside of military focused individuals
    • Dismissive of some people’s struggles or problems

While this list too, is not exhaustive, it gives us an idea of where our character sits. When we take a look at the weaknesses, it is also important to try and avoid the appearance of all of the things listed there being “humble brags” rather than actual weaknesses. Once we have done this, we have a much more exhaustive understanding of our new character

Standing at Tier 3

Now that we have compiled a list of Tier 3 mental traits (and combined some of our Tier 2 mental traits) and also explored some weaknesses, we have a much better understanding of our character. In addition, because we wrote down an interview with the character, we have a good source on how they are going to deal with others in a sort of inquisitive session. While we knew some things about our character thanks to Tier 2, we can get a picture of how they interact, now that we have performed this work.

Because of this, our character is ready to be classed as Tier 3. They have a design and appearance. How they look (Tier 2) is defined well enough and now, How they act (Tier 3) is layered on top of it. Next time, we will explore the final tier increase for this workshop, the Tier 4 jump.

In the Tier 4 jump we are going to need to make sure that all of our character’s strengths, interests, thoughts, feelings and opinions, have a logical place in the world they inhabit. In the case of Kelem Shae’Lun, that means we will be making sure that his character fits in the Star of Ashor setting. We will trim, edit and adjust the character as needed, but we may also perform some world building to tie off loose ends if we so desire.

Stay tuned for the next in the series and we will continue the journey of creating a robust character in an existing setting.

From the ether: Character creation and Up-tiering (Part 1)

Today I want to start with a workshop article series about character creation. Having explored Character Tiers already, and having been able to explore the origin of one Star of Ashor’s protagonists, Tony Karo, I now want to try and go through an exploration with you, the reader, following some of the methodologies we looked at in previous articles.

Our focus for this workshop series is, as mentioned in prior articles, to bring a fresh character from Tier 1, to Tier 4 in relatively short order, through directed, goal oriented design.

In order to facilitate this design, I have settled on the idea of using an existing world which I have an intimate understanding of, that of my novel, Star of Ashor. (You can read a bit about the world here, explore it here or maybe just read the book itself)

I decided to settle on using this existing setting because I wanted to explore how characters can come to be in a world as it exists. This is an important thing for me because a majority of first characters in my experience, tend to be fan characters or even characters in role playing games.

I think the process of using and existing world would be greatly beneficial to readers who want to figure out how they can use existing worlds as a guide within which to grow their characters to a more impactful tier.

Aesthetics vs enjoyment

When creating a new character, it is a good idea to have an idea of the sort of role or aesthetic you want the character to fill. This helps not only with passing plot scrutiny later, but especially with aesthetics, we can use the mental image we create of a character, to create the list of traits that define a Tier 2 incarnation.

While it is not required that you have an “end goal” for the character up front, it is very helpful in eliminating some uncertainty along the way. Therefore, if you have an idea of this new character’s role before creation, or at least, possible roles they could fill, consider using one of them, rather than always creating a new role for every new member of your cast.

When doing this phase of your design, think of what that role implies about your character and what they may look like and how it may change their aesthetics. Perhaps this comes from the years of drawing, but I consider this mental image to be of great help when making characters.

By using this concept you can give yourself the direction you need to make aesthetic and creative choices later. It is often much easier to build a new character with a role in mind, than to create a character and then try to shove them into a role later.

That said, we should avoid trying to make every decision about the character as if that role is the only thing that matters, there are many factors that we need to consider when designing characters and one of the most important, is that we, the creator, must enjoy creating them.

If you are not enjoying your character creation, it will show through in how much depth or care you take in crafting them. It is always better to have a character who is a labor of love, and rougher around the edges, than to try and polish one you dislike into something amazing. If you attempt the latter, you will always fail, and if you choose the former path, you can always polish.

Leveraging existing world building

In the world of Star of Ashor, there are four Major species, sometimes referred to as “The Great Races,” The Hil’Raigh, Kul’Raigh, Novian and Terran (Human). The Hil’Raigh form the governing body in the Hil’Raigh Federation in which both they and the Kul’Raigh reside. The Novians are split broadly into two nations, and the Terrans (Humans) are a relatively new to space faring, but mostly single government species thus far.

Above: Princess Kirashira Ren’Tauru of the Starlight Compact, a member state of the Hil’Raigh Federation. Princess Kirashira is a primarily Kul’Raigh genetic hybrid between Kul’Raigh and Hil’Raigh species.

Hil’Raigh have a largely dimoprhic population while the Kul’Raigh have an overwhelming androgyny across their own genetic gamut. The Novian people feature a genetic and dimoprhic variation much more closely aligned to that of Humans.

All four of these species are very human in appearance overall, with some exaggerated characteristics present in the Hil’Raigh Federation’s populations, namely their elongated ears, though both species look largely similar.

While it is impossible to understand all of the cultural context that each kind of character could bring, I wanted to introduce this much here, as it helps us understand what kinds of characters we might have access to.

It is important that when we are building characters in an existing world that we carefully weigh whom we are creating against the established continuity that already exists.

In the Star of Ashor world for example, it would be jarring for us to create a new alien species solely for one new character unless we planned to introduce them as a species. This is especially difficult when one is creating a role playing character or a fan character for existing works. Setting a realistic expectation from the start will do wonders for our ability to pass plot scrutiny later.

A chosen role

When deciding who to create, I realized there was a potentially interesting person sitting in my mind for a particular Hil’Raigh, that of the primary founder of the “Shae’Lun Corporation”

Above: The Shae’Lun Type 1 Plasma Rifle, a product of the Shae’Lun corporation and the most common rifle in the Federation.

In addition to design and research for military applications, Shae’Lun has its own ship foundries, and other military manufacturing capabilities.

It trains, employs and deploys millions for private security, sensitive data recovery, support for general Fedeation military operations and even has its own private navy and special forces segments.

The organization is a rich canvas of interesting ideas that I would love to explore and as a result I think it will be quite fun to build a flagship character in their history.

For those not in the know, the Shae’Lun Corporation, commonly referred to as “Shae’Lun” (Shay-Loon) is an extremely large and powerful paramilitary organization. This organization is actually more powerful than some national military forces on its own and owns planets, ships, stations and even has its own jurisdictions.

Because of that interesting potential I think our character will be one of the driven, military minded individuals who helped found the organization in the first place. This will give us the chance to have some guidance in our creative decisions and also explore a topic that makes our new character design interesting, both key points in a smooth design experience.

Our traits

Once we have chosen the role we want to fill, it is time to start filling out traits. We do not want to always choose with the cookie cutter approach of taking only traits we think are typical of a role we may have chosen. Remember, this is a new character and especially in the early stages of design, the traits that we choose are supposed to be negotiable and fluid.

When starting out with the traits of a new character design, make the choices first based on your preferences for aesthetics and design, there is always time to adjust, trim and add to the list later in the design process.

The point of looking for a role for the character to fill is to help provide an important seed of creative direction that we otherwise lack. It is not there to cripple our imagination.

When we properly use our character’s role as a sort of sign post, we are free to make our way there at first by means of the trait list. I want to stress that while a Tier 2 character consists almost entirely of a trait list, ALL in depth characters have traits too. Remember, this is a first step and we need to have a foundation upon which to build a mental image, it helps us think of everything from personality to behaviors.

It is not an instant process to come up with traits. If you are following along in a way, with this workshop thus far, coming up with your trait list is going to be the thing that you take away as a sort of “work assignment” from this article. I spent some time coming up with my own trait list for this new character and here is what I came up with:

  • Physical / Aesthetic
    • Hil’Raigh, Male
    • Looks unassuming for a Hil’Raigh military role
      • Longer hair
        • Light red/orange hair
      • Facial hair
    • Often seen wearing a hat of some kind
  • Personality & Background
    • Formerly part of a national (Akal’Maru) naval special operations division
    • Single, unmarried
    • Loves to barbecue
    • Likes zero gravity sports
    • Likes oil painting
    • Cynical
    • Macabre sense of humor
    • Largely Calm, aggressive when provoked
    • Goes by his “code name” with most people
  • Knowledge & Skill
    • Trained in many hand to hand combat styles
    • Knows how to use weaponry from all over the galaxy
    • Expert marksman
    • Knows how to operate many types of vehicles.
    • Licensed pilot

For you, the wonderful reader, I took the liberty of trying to organize the traits into three categories. Physical / Aesthetic, Personality & Background and Knowledge & Skill. I do not think every trait list has to be made that way, but in this case it helped me organize my thoughts. Never be shy about organizing your thoughts.

Last but not least, in order to make a real Tier 2 character, we will need a name for our new individual. After much soul searching, a bit of thinking about my world and some careful consideration, I’ve come up with the following: ‘Kelem “Black Viper” Shae’Lun’

Congratulations to the Black Viper on his new list of traits!

Traits and more

I hope it is obvious from the above that there is room for some fun, or silly / unexpected design choices when making a character. One of my own favorite created characters for example, is one whom I decided loves all kinds of cake, not because of anything other than it was fun to draw them chasing cakes. The same sort of attitude should apply to all of us when making character design choices, especially at this tier. Make a character you are happy with.

That said, Black Viper looks a little bit light on the backstory, and we know very little about him still. If all we got from a narrative involving him was a rehashing of the above list, it would be a boring narrative indeed. Remember, this is what a Tier 2 character looks like, this is the level of depth they have. When broken down like this, it looks rather simple, but we can sometimes forget that our current darling character may be just this shallow.

Next time in this workshop series, we are going to explore what we must do for Black Viper to reach Tier 3. Keep in mind that as we start going upward in the tiers, we are going to start hearing more and more about the world of Star of Ashor to give us the context we need. I hope that by seeing this process play out, that each reader can gain a better appreciation for how to grow their characters. Join me again next time and don’t forget to check out the codex for glimpses into the world we are diving into

Character Growth Profile: Tony Karo

In the last article in the character design series, we looked at the idea of character tiers, a way to classify characters that I have come to feel can encapsulate quite a bit for anyone looking to design their own characters.

Periodically, in support of this series, I thought it might be nice to talk about how some of my characters started, what I feel put them in a particular tier and what I did to make them more complex and interesting. A process I would like to call “Up-Tiering”

If you are not familiar with the character tiers system I introduced in the last part of this series, take a look at it because you will need to understand the concepts there to make sense of this article.

Now, lets talk about one teenager’s silly OC (Original Character) concept and how it became a lead in the novel I wrote.

Tony Karo: My longest running ‘OC’

Tony Karo is a character that I have had floating around in my head for a long time. He is one of the main protagonists of the Star of Ashor story, but he was not always related to Star of Ashor or it’s history.

He was not always the person you see depicted in the novel, and in fact he had very different beginnings to what he became. It’s because of that, that I chose to make him the focus of today’s article.

One of the most important things for me about Tony, and why I wanted to share him with you today, is that he grew from something I would consider a very cookie cutter character idea from a middle school student.

One of the most important things for me about Tony, and why I wanted to share him with you today, is that he grew from something I would consider a very cookie cutter character idea from a middle school student.

As a character, I feel he has become a much more nuanced and interesting individual than he started as. His format has varied and some of his traits have changed or been abandoned. He gained some new perspectives during his journeys and in turn, he served as a way to unify a lot of nebulous ideas and world building concepts I had floating around in my head over the years.

Humble Start

The previous article in the series explained the tier system and I un-apologetically said that most people’s original character creations come up short of being that interesting. To be clear, I called almost all ‘OC’ creations Tier 2 characters, meaning they lack a real context and are mostly just a list of traits that the creator considers cool or interesting.

I will admit plainly that at the first time I conceived of Tony Karo, he was as Tier 2 as they come. The trait list was the biggest part of his creation at the time and some of it was related to other influences that, as a preteen, I found rather exciting.

I’d like to share with you some of the most important bits of Tony Karo’s character in the manner I defined them. Yes, it is a list of traits, like any other Tier 2 Character would have. It is also just as pretentious and superficial as it sounds. Look at this list and tell me whether you think this character seems very interesting off of the description of these traits. (I sure don’t think so.)

  • Black Hair, like yours truly
  • White bangs on the black hair, because that is what I was practicing drawing
  • Middle parted hair, (same reasoning as above)
  • Mid 20s male
  • Alien of some kind?
  • Wears a trench coat that is black with red trim
  • Has sword with fancy hilt
  • Cool headed, smart and capable at basically anything.
  • Totally a Dragonball Z character, who is just as strong as the main cast
  • Edgy
  • Some kind of martial artist who can shoot energy beams etc

The above was quite literally all that mattered about Tony Karo when he was first made. He was about as interesting as this list of traits is, with as much depth as the screen you are reading it on.

He had all the hallmarks I discussed in the tiers article: He was mostly a plot device that failed under any kind of story plot scrutiny and was extremely superficial.

Thankfully, Tony did not stay at Tier 2.

Stuck in Tier 2

Tony Karo was not the first character I had made at that point in my life, but he was the one to whom I was most attached. He was a sort of Dragonball Z fan character in his first incarnation.

A friend and I both worked at making our own characters, which we drew doing cool energy blasts and other powers. I took influences from the characters and media I liked most at the time and was always coming up with some cool thing this new character could do.

The desire to emulate characters I liked was all consuming and Tony became a ‘time cop’ because my favorite character in Dragonball Z was a time traveler too. Tony’s design was very heavily influenced by this character, both visually and in other ways.

Drawing was the first form of expression for Tony, unlike many of my other characters. He existed primarily as a drawn character, with story giving me loose reasons to draw more versions of him. The drawings were nothing amazing but they got the job done and kept my mind churning.

The biggest boost to Tony however, was the need for a meaningful antagonist which I provided in the form of a cybernetically enhanced warrior from some opposing faction.

While this antagonist was not himself a masterpiece, he started something bigger. He introduced me to the need for Tony to have a team, a group to be a part of, some organization which could support him. Conversely, his adversary also needed the same, and thus, my first character centered world build started.

This new world build was what birthed the idea of the NovaCore, a faction of time keepers who employed Tony Karo to keep order between timelines. While Karo kept the energy blast powers and the sword at the time, he was now rapidly shedding his fan character status.

Enter tier 3

The world build pushed forward slowly but surely. Gradually, the staples of external IP that had made Tony Karo in the first place, started finding themselves pushed out. Tony’s antagonist now had a name, Takell, and the two alien guys had it out for each other for some reason that I had not yet defined entirely.

Star Trek and Starwars had captured my imagination as a kid and as my world building moved along, the world that would eventually become Star of Ashor took on its own space opera. The nations and factions of course were simple at the time, but the foundations had been laid.

For his part, Tony Karo was still very Tier 2, while that list of traits changed or grew, the character had not fundamentally changed. He had not grown much but the door to that growth was opened only when I had finally decided to let Tony be his own character, not a direct remix of existing characters from someone else’s creation.

Tony Karo did not truly fit the Dragonball Z world or story, his destiny lay elsewhere. Exploring this new world and setting allowed Tony to start forming opinions and have weaknesses, critical advancements for reaching Tier 3. When Tony started being what I would call, a proto-person, he reached Tier 3.

The process of reaching Tier 3 is one that I think is really easy for someone who understands a character they want to make, but getting there is harder for people with a low amount of experience and so it can take time. It is important not to be discouraged by that.

The key question to reach Tier 3 is simple: “Why?”

The Tier 3 wasteland

Almost all characters die in Tier 3, at least in terms of development. Tony Karo was very nearly a casualty of the same wasteland. Even when we start asking why, in order to find motivation, that does not guarantee character growth beyond Tier 3.

To develop more, Tony (and any character) really needed a world. As with any character who intends to reach Tier 4, Tony Karo needed to feel not like he was simply a character with a backstory, but a character whose story had produced the person one saw. This meant I needed some real world building, more at least, than I had completed at the time.

The NovaCore, the Star of Ashor world, still did not exist, it wasn’t on his radar or mine. This world build was still very much centered on him and his efforts, his coolness and traits. While he was more interesting now, he was still stuck in Tier 3 and the things I was doing were not changing him or making him grow. His character development had stalled.

Because Tony did not feel like he was truly attached to anything around him, he would “fail plot scrutiny” and anything he did would feel like it had holes in it. Like many Tier 3 characters, Tony was stuck because of the fact that I did not yet understand how he fit into the world and why. I was asking about motivations and weaknesses, but I was not asking key questions like, “Where did these motivations come from?”

I was asking about motivations and weaknesses, but I was not asking and answering key questions like, “Where did these motivations come from?”

Asking that question is all fine and good, but until one has an answer, they will wander in Tier 3. Such was the case with Tony Karo. He spent many years in this puddle deep Tier 3 pond.

Escape to tier 4

One of the key elements that allowed me to escape from Tier 3 with Tony Karo was the addition of other cast members. Up until that point, a loose love interest and an antagonist were the only other people ever considered in the story. Everyone else was almost completely ancillary and unrelated to much of the story at all.

Truth was the product of this cast member creation and filled an important role. Suddenly Tony had a friend, a cause and a reason to do what he did. There was more to him than simply being a ‘badass’ because he wanted to help his friend. Truth in turn, would be one of the people in the world who really understood Tony, since I had realized that his focus or skill might have been a source of conflict between he and his peers while growing up.

While Truth herself was important, the character who really pushed everything forward with a massive jolt, was Kirashira Rentauru, the princess of the Starlight Compact.

Kirashira (named Kirashi at first) was an instant reason to world build. While my desires and goals for the Star of Ashor story were largely visual at the time, Kirashira required me to start thinking of things that were as yet undecided in the world building of Tony Karo. Through Kirashira I started exploring things like the political factions, nations and situations that made up the world. I started exploring species and peoples, varying cultures and why it was significant that Tony and Truth would even help Kirashira at all.

This world building, brought on by cast members, was the reason that all of these characters could keep growing. Now, they could feel believable or grounded to their situations. I finally let go of certain character traits for Tony, things I had kept for years and if you remember my tier notes, this happens sometimes in the transition to Tier 4. If a creator cannot let go of an unjustifiable trait or behavior for a character, they can never reach Tier 4.

If a creator cannot let go of an unjustifiable trait or behavior for a character, they can never reach Tier 4.

By providing a richer world for Tony, he (and the others) were able to grow. I started letting that world building take shape. Thanks to character centered world building, I did not have to change he and the others too much to make it happen, but I did have to start giving valid reasons for his motivations, behaviors, existence, skills, interests and everything else. This is why Tony reached Tier 4.

Tier 5 through narrative

One of the keys to reaching Tier 5, as outlined in my prior article in the series is through narrative driven growth. Specifically, the creator needs to put a large amount of time into the planning and thought surrounding a particular character. One of the best ways to achieve that investment of mental energy is by narrating and creating a story.

This is also one of the most challenging steps because it is a sort of rubber meets road situation and many may think that they do not have the time or energy to write say, a whole book about a particular character. Not all characters need an entire book per se, but the more energy expended, the more likely you are forced to put the proper planning in and round out any of the rough edges of Tier 4 that stick out and damage your character’s ability to pass plot scrutiny. This process is something that occurred for me while writing the drafts of Star of Ashor.

Writing the draft of the novel helped me to start understanding Tony Karo (and other characters) better but more than that, I was forced to put myself in the position of my character and narrate in a way as to make their actions, words, deeds and thoughts feel believable and rational. This is what I call “walking in their shoes” and it is essentially the process of building a personal understanding of how a character should behave in the situations they face. As a creator follows their character through these situations, the understanding grows until it is easy to apply this character’s behaviors to almost any situation they could encounter.

With Tony Karo, things like exactly how he acted with his friends or foes and way he would respond to disagreements were not things I ever considered until writing. While it may seem like these are small or inconsequential, these sorts of details add to a character and help establish them in the world.

When Tony Karo and Truth speak together, it is borne of a relationship that is well understood now, because of writing. This kind of growth is extremely difficult without writing and narration backing it. While the first draft may not have entirely defined this dynamic, I feel that the revisions of Star of Ashor provided the polish to reach Tier 5 and potentially push the characters further.

Tier 6?

The first thing I feel is important to understand about Tier 6 is that it has a sort of infinite ceiling. Tier 6 characters are a pinnacle in my system because of the fact that I do not feel there is a definite process by which a character can keep growing. Sometimes what works for a particular Tier 6 character to grow more, does not work for another.

The same is true for Tony Karo. I would like to say he is Tier 6 character because I feel he passes plot scrutiny and feels like a real person. I feel that the exploration of emotion that he has offered to readers or myself, has put him in a tier above what Tier 5 can really offer.

Tony Karo is a character who has passed through many crucibles and through narration both written and upcoming, he will continue to grow. As a creator there is more to him than I have yet explored, challenges he will face that he has not yet confronted. It is my hope that as I write for him, that I can put forth the sort of character that people can enjoy reading about and grow to care for. I hope that for each of my characters but Tony holds a special place because of his prominent position in helping to spark such a journey for me.

While not all my characters are Tier 6 yet, I want them all to have the ability to reach that place if I decide to take them there. Next in this series I want to start with a character design and use it as a basis. We will start with a Tier 2 Character and then use what we have explored in this series to grow that character. I will try my best to guide you through the process of reaching Tier 4.

I think we will stop short of pushing for a Tier 5 or more since I do not have the ability to write a suitably complex narrative just for these sorts of workshops. As we go, I want to try and emphasize the process and the steps that we use, that way new and aspiring creators, or those in need of a way to “grow” their character, can find a logical method of making the progress they seek. Stay tuned!

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.

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.