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.

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