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!

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