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  1. #1
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    What makes a compelling character

    I'm looking on debate on this and crit, but please if you have an issue with some part of what I say than ask about it first before you call me wrong. Odds are I just didn't explain what I meant to properly, I wrote allot in a short frame of time so its going to be flawed.

    So basically I'm looking to see what I got right on this, what could be added, and what might need to be removed or altered.

    I wrote this fairly recently, I've seen a few of this tests that tell if your character is a "mary sue" and quite frankly I can't stand the things. They are too specific to certain situations and pass judgment on aspects that are far too specific to encompass every character out there like they claim.

    Now this is all information I've compiled from reviews, tutorials, movies, games, and more of the same. I'm no film major and thus I am bound to be clueless on allot of what goes into a character, all the same I want to help people who are completely new to writing because there are allot of sources out there but they just aren't very beginner friendly or very text heavy.

    Thus I wrote this, and I'd appreciate anything you can add to what I've got.
    (I know I have spelling and grammer errors here but thats not what I wan to talk about so if you see em just say so, don't call me out on how bad it is.)

    Oh and this is a copy of what I posted on Deviant Art so the tone of my writing is different than what I would do for here. So I reference allot of media for younger audiences as aposed to macbeth.

    (WARNING: This is not ment for fan fictions, I don't read, write, or have anything to do with them, so I don't know how to write them. Also fan fictions break almost every rule that normal stories need to follow simply because it is a fan fiction. By my understanding, Fan fictions are idealized stories and characters that fulfill your fantasies about a pre-made story and with original stories you are trying to avoid that so please for my sake and yours don't read this if your looking for information on fan fictions.)

    So I have seen allot of Mary Sue and things of that nature, all saying what to avoid but what I feel is missed is that allot of things that are bad in some cases are exactly what you need to do in others. I think this is because the examples are too specific to certain genres along with a plethora of other issues. So these are more general ideas to follow.
    First of all when you make a story you need to pick a starting point and stem from there. I have seen people bad mouth starting from one character and making a plot around that, but there's is no problem with that it just needs to be handled with care and proper understanding.
    If you have a strong character as the basis you need to realize that you cant sit down and make this guy up in five seconds expecting a epic classic to grow from them. If you start with a character you need to do a real character study and fully understand this person's past, future, ethics, morals and so on.

    Heres a good idea of what you should be focusing on when you make a character:

    -Names: When you pick a name you need to realize that while in real life our names are chosen at random and thats fine, but when you have full control over this person's name knowing full well what type of person they are, than you have the responsibility to reflect "them" in their name. Sit down and research the history and backgrounds of names. Even if it's a fantasy name odds are that certain parts of it have routes from another name. You can go through and find a name that is exactly their personalty, or the exact opposite as long as it suites them. Naming your Viking Lord carl might not sit too well with your audience. That's a more obvious example, but names have very powerful roots that people subconsciously pick up on, and it influences a reader's pre-formed opinion about them.

    -Good Flaws: This aspect is vitally important to the structural integrity of your character as a believable person. NO BODY, and I do mean NO BODY, is perfect or has ever been close to it. Now I'm not talking religious figures here, I'm talking everyday normal people like you and me. If you want to entice your audience make your character suck, I'm not even kidding. The more of an selfish, unforgivable, unlikable, asshole, jerk-wad, your character is the more complex and interesting they almost indefinitely will become. My favorite example of this would have to be the early character of Desert Punk, he has absolutely no redeeming qualities to speak of and you know what? It's actually really enjoyable. But those are obvious flaws such as being vulgar and unattractive, there are flaws that simply make them human like psychological disorders. Look at the cast of Winnie the Pooh even. Every character in that series has a severe mental illness, Pooh has an eating disorder, tigger is adhd, rabbit is ocd, and christopher robin even has hallucinations that his stuffed animals talk to him… alright that last one's looking a bit too far into things, but the idea remains that it's the flaws that make them lovable and we remember them. Perfection is a horribly dull and unrealistic thing, but you could always counter their perfections with a bigger flaw and that opens whole new doors. Such as if you have a warrior who is unmatched in a fight and literally no one can beat him, if left alone you have a very undeveloped character but if he were also incredibly lazy that adds depth to him and lets us connect as a reader. You often see characters that are just so freaking perfect it drives you nuts? The ones that never ever lose and when they do they turn right around and win shortly after through some bull training lesson. You know the one's, Ash, Yugi, and all the other shonen characters that have their own merchandise cleverly included with the plot. These guys can be likable, but you'd be lying to yourself if you said you never once got tired of the same recycled plot. So give your character room to grow and react to the events around them.

    -Bad Flaws: If your character is nothing but annoying flaws that come back over and over with no more depth than that, instead of being interesting they become annoying. Now there are special cases out their where this works but they are rare and done by pro's, and if your reading this odds are you aren't developed enough yet to take that kind of risk. If you give your characters a flaw be sure to give them something that makes them cool, or likable to keep them from being that annoying character everyone dreads seeing. Some examples are Wrath (the child one) from FMA, Simon from Gurren Lagan, Kouichi Hayase from LineBarrel, and pretty much the entire cast from Eureka 7. These guys are by no means bad characters, in fact they are incredibly well developed but because they are always complaining, or being an ass, or just being a wimp, they become irritating and that may be something you want to avoid. Having characters like this makes it easy for people to just ignore the story before they have a chance to realize its any good, simply because that one character is impossibly draining to listen to. So use these guys at your own risk.

    -Looks: When your making the look of a character you want them to be "cool", no body wants a character dressed in a white t-shirt, genes, glasses, and boring hair… right? Well not exactly, you need the look of your character to fit and resonate with who they are. This is a pretty simple idea, boxers might dress like boxers, a knight might where armor, and so on. But what about fantasy characters? Well when you are making a new character with no real life occupation to draw from you need to look at their environment and make it fit. An excellent example of this is Avatar the last air bender, each character has outfits suited to what they do and where they live. The water benders in the cold north wear colder climate clothes made from what is available to them and that is practical for every day life there, and when they go to warmer climates they adjust so that they don't sweat to death. Like wise the Fire nation wears intimidating armor and parade around in war ships, this is because they are a war nation and this is a regular thing for them. You see? The things they wear and what they look like is consistent with their culture, climate, and personal past. I cant stand when a character has a giant scar or has a robot arm to replace a missing limb, that has absolutely no explanation to speak of in the story, it's cliche and forced. Spike Spiegal even has an explanation for his fake eye, which is never even brought up until the end of the series and guess what? It still adds to the character and the plot! He doesn't just have giant scars all over because they are "bad ass". The only time this is ever appropriate is when it's a joke or intentionally bad. Another major point is the more unique your character is the more unlikely and underdeveloped they might come across as. So giving your character lime green hair and hot pink eyes for no reason when every other person in their race has normal hair and eyes, is almost laughable. There are times when this works but only because their is a reason their eyes are odd, etc. While normal things with odd colors are a forgivable mistake like giving them something mythical that no one else has is a story killer. If no one else has them don't give your character things like wings, cat ears, tails, and more of the same. Like I said your character can definitely have these things, but it is better if it's not unique to them.

    -Interesting Aspects: When making a character, and especially your main character, it is a really good idea to make them "larger than life". This is especially true in the fantasy genre's (ie: anything that is not meant to be a realistic drama) This is because anyone can see normal events just outside their door, and so characters who are completely normal are not bad per say, but they also are not as intriguing as someone who is insane or maybe a womanizer. Over the top character traits used in moderation help catch the attention of your audience. But just like spices in cooking, if used in excess they ruin the final product. So don't make everything your character does focus on this single trait, and at the same time don't give them so many quirks that it drowns out anything realistic about them. For example Edward Elric from FMA, is short for his age and from time to time people in the story bring this up and he gets incredibly upset over this and freaks out. That is an excellent little problem he has that can add to his personality and it's not brought up too much and he doesn't have too many major problems(that are intended to be funny and don't add to the immediate plot) aside from that.

    -Ability to interact: One of the most important things to having your character be a character in a story is their ability to interact and react to both the environment and people surrounding them. If you have a character who can do what ever they like and never have repercussions for it than you have no story just events that might as well never have happened. Why don't you write a story about a guy walking to the water fountain, because thats dull and has no influence on anything other than that he is now less thirsty than before hand. The same thing applies here, if everything your character does leaves them completely unharmed and unchanged physically or emotionally than why should I bother seeing what happens. A story is built around the change and development of a person or group, this allows the audience to become interested in your story. So before you begin you need to understand how your character would interact to the problems they might face and how it would effect them, and those around them. This creates the believability behind a character and more importantly is what makes up their personality. If you and I were to have an argument, it would happen and end differently between two other people, this is due to our personalities and beliefs which are the reason's we respond the way we do to any given situation.

    -Hero Villain or Undefinable: This is very minor but you need to decide this early on or your character is going to seem confused and unestablished later on in the story. Villains as main characters are reserved more for character studies (a story where you focus on the changes of a single character and not anyone else's changes[at least in great detail]) this is because they are going to probably be making good choices to begin with and later end up making one mistake after another until their screwed. With hero's they tend to be the other way around by starting out a mess and turning themselves around (even if the parts where they are down on there luck are not a major part of the story they should still be mentioned to help establish an arc or change of personality.). For the undefinable these are the more in depth and well "convoluted plot" characters, such as princess mononoke where the main antagonist is never really established, people do evil things but only because the opportunity is there, and they are human and thus make mistakes.

    -Age: This is more of a chance based problem. Kids are extremely difficult to write and need allot more planning than an older character, this is because real life kids have undeveloped social skills. Because of this, they often come off as annoying, too shy, too talkative, unable to understand whats going on, and more of the same. Now I'm not talking about your kids, or even your siblings really; but you know that when you go to a restaurant or ride the subway, their is always that one really annoying kid that just won't shut up. So what does all this have to do with the character you ask? Well when you write a character you want to normally make them as true to life as possible, however that's not always true with kids, child characters can be just as annoying if not worse than their real life counter parts. So you need to write them in a way that shows that they are still a child but remove the problems that come with that, but remember the only perfect characters are the flawed ones, so you need to add in flaws that are still in a child's "realm" of thought but not so often or prudent that they are irritating to the audience. So things such as constantly whining about their mother who was killed by a comrade, cough* cough* [Hope from final fantasy XIII] cough* can be incredibly grinding on the viewer. I think that Hope is my absolute favorite example for this, his character's backstory and inner torment is a work of art but the simple fact that he moans and groans so much (like a real kid his age would) ruins his character to the point that you both know what he's going to say next, and your dreading every time he gets the chance to say it. So remember to make them believable but not so much that it is a bad thing. Child characters need to be treated like an adult but more innocent, if you go with that you may have better luck.

    -Desire & Drive: Your character NEEDS motivation(s)! With out a real reason to do what they are doing they become flat and uninteresting. A lack of clear motives also frustrates the audience, for example have you ever seen a movie or played a game where the main character has no major problems, and then they go and make the absolute stupidest decision ever that obviously screws them over. Now this can work if this mistake is the main plot line of the story but if they suddenly decide they are going to make a dumb choice and the only reason for it you can come up with is "I needed to get to the next part of the story", than your best bet is to not have that part at all. (note: this problem is not nearly as major for secondary characters)
    Getting back to motivation, your character needs to be clearly set down. This is because for one it makes things infinitely easier on you to know that the choices they make are right for that character, and two, because it lets the viewer give into the illusion that this person really exists while they are reading. Having a motivation makes up a big chunk of who they are and what they would do. If I want to beat the evil overlord, than I am going to weigh almost everything I do against wether or not that choice will help or hinder that goal.

    -History: This ties back into their appearance, but you need to give your main character (even if no one else) a background. Their history explains why they are the way they are. Go back and look, pretty much every great character from any media has some kind of background story that isn't always part of the main plot. For example in FMA, Al and Ed's mom died when they were young, and their father left them, and then they fail at bringing her back to life. This helps establish motivation, morals, relationships with other characters, and more. And Blue Exorcist, Rin was treated like a monster as a child, had no mother, and was bullied in school. This shows why he is the way he is, and is key to his personality.
    But when you are making the history and past up it MUST be meaningful to the plot, not necessarily part of the plot but it must impact it. Don't just kill off mom and dad to make the reader feel "sad" for your central character. If their past is mentioned it should not be some horrific scene that occurs and then is never again shown the light of day, it needs to be brought up and referenced to what's going on in their lives.

    -Symbolism: This is a minor one, but if you associate your character with something keep in mind what that something means symbolically. For example owls are often viewed as intelligent (even though they really aren't they are still known as being the wise animal) So if someone has an owl as a pet than that might mean they are smart. People associate these things subconsciously even and if your characters "symbols" don't match up with their personality than something may seem off kilter. So it's a good idea to consider this before hand.
    FEEL FREE TO BASH OR LIKE MY SKETCHBOOK (either or is great fer me)

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  4. #2
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    Aug 2010
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    Thank you for this post, I've been completely terrible at character writing and this should help me out a lot. You have no idea how helpful this is.
    I felt like a bulldozer
    Trying to catch a butterfly

    [. My Deviantart... ]

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  6. #3
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    Jan 2012
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    Great piece!!!

    I love character designing, but it is always hard to keep an overview on all the character, but this really helps. Please keep writing these great pieces.

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  8. #4
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    Oct 2010
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    Since People liked the first one so much, heres a second. (this is again C&P from DA)

    [Feel free to use this and repost as you see fit but I would still like credit if you could link back to this original post]
    Basic tips on writing characters and plot:

    (WARNING: This guide does not apply to fan fictions, I don't read, write, or have anything to do with them so I don't know how to write them. Also fan fictions break almost every rule that normal stories need to follow simply because it is a fan fiction. Fan fictions are idealized stories and characters that fulfill your fantasies about a pre-made story and with original stories you are trying to avoid that so please for my sake and yours don't read this if your looking for information on fan fictions.)

    -What's the Point?:
    Everything in your story must have a purpose or else it has none, it might seem obvious, but you really need to focus on this. This simply means that if what you're adding to the story does not actually add anything than it subtracts. This rule is absolute when it comes to standard story telling. By adding in pointless events or characters you are only making room for mistakes and problems to arise where they wouldn't have before. Now don't misunderstand me, you can get away with having a side character or two, with some filler here and there. And so long as you don't slip up it won't be a deal breaker. But it will take away from the over all effectiveness of your plot, and unless you can make those characters or scenes essential your better off without them. Anime seems to do this allot but I think it's because of it's long running time and the fact that the animators often run out of manga to draw from since creating actual plot takes allot longer when you know where you're going with it. Some people don't mind filler but I have yet to meet anyone who can't wait for the next string of episodes featuring Naruto jumping through trees for an entire season.

    -The "not gays":
    This is a really weird problem that seems to arise allot with characters whose sexual orientation would other wise be ambiguous. This problem should not be confused with when a main character has a love interest that actually contributes to the plot. No, this is when some random individual (generally of the opposite sex of your central protagonist), this character is of little or no consequence to the plot (this ties back to our rule of thumb if it can't add it subtracts) and is only there to prove that this guys so totally not gay. The same can be said for gay characters the writer often feels the need to make it unquestionable of the antagonist’s sexuality. Why bother though, creepy little otakus are still going to make porn of it in whatever way suits their fancy. It seems like Kingdom Hearts is a perfect example for this, they appear to understand the concept pretty well in at times, but can't help but prove that their characters are straight in other cases. For example Roxas likes Namine even though they've never met, and before you get all defensive look at him and Xion. That relationship had meaning and was developed through out the entire game.

    -A clearly defined threat:
    Without this, the plot slows down, and confuses the audience. Why should we care if the bad guy gets the magic plot device if we don't know what the damn thing does? In my experience this is a much more common problem in the fantasy genre because the threat is usually mystical and so its easy to forget about defining what it does. Dragon Ball Z does a great job of this with its dragon balls because they are about as simple and easily adjusted of a plot device as you're going to get. Some magical objects that grant you any wish, you can't define it as a good or bad thing and it is easy to understand. See, simple yet versatile is perfect.

    -The end comes first:
    I know what you're thinking, "Medusoid… buddy? Stop being crazy… you were ranting about your opinions that no one cares about, remember?" BUT WAIT, I can make sense here I promise! When it comes to making a solidified plot you need to consider how your story is going to end. If you don't it's hard, or damn near impossible to make it seem like your plot was building up to anything, because well… it wasn't. If you have no end in mind when you creating all the events in your plot, it can seem like everything's fine, that is at least right up until the end. While you can force the end to fit the events that lead up to it, it will most likely appear as forced as it really is. This is especially bad considering that the human mind,(especially the younger the individual) remembers the beginning and the end of a story better than anything else. So if your ending sucks, people will forget how epic the rest of the story was, and the whole thing might as well have sucked. This problem is surprisingly dominant even in professional media.

    -Plot holes:
    Nobody likes it when glaring continuity issues show their ugly mugs, but luckily if you follow the rule I keep harping on, than this will probably not even be an issue for you. You see, if events and characters have a purpose than odds are that you won't forget about or use them improperly later on. Adding junk in only makes it all the more difficult to keep track of.

    -Show don't tell:
    This is one of those things that won't immediately destroy your story, but when relied on too heavily it begins to get on the audiences nerves. The problem essentially boils down to creating understanding of what is going on without belching out expository dialog every five minutes. Now for some reason, this idea has lead to the demonizing of expositions, and there is nothing wrong with having characters explain things to get your story going, its when you do it too often and too obviously that the problem occurs. Old video games are a gold mine for this sort of crap; you end up wondering where to go, or why you're going where you're going. No, you're not dumb for wondering this, you simply got bored because you weren't given a legitimate reason to care or differentiate things that matter, from casual conversation and you have nothing to tell your mind why it should be going to random village A and not B.

    -Find your Tone:
    Understand your own tone early on, and don't stray from it. This may sound like odd advice, but it's still important that you do this. If you stray from what your tone is, its kind of like betraying your audience. If you lead them to expect a gore fest, don't wimp out later on by censoring this sort of thing. The same is true with picking your genre. Usually if you start out telling an action story don't add in five other genres later on, this makes the story appear indecisive and unplanned.

    -Cheap Tricks:
    These are for when you want those sappy, easy, emotional appeals from the bleeding hearts out there. The truth is unless you're a total cynic, than you probably won't even notice when the director/author does this sort of thing, so long as they are good at masking it. All of these tricks are fine in moderation, especially if your story doesn't take its self too seriously. But if it's done too much it might just be something to roll your eyes over.
    -1D villain: Make your bad guy the most irredeemable scum of the earth, he eats a healthy portion of puppies every morning with a big glass of baby tears on the side and he loves it. This makes for a great guy to boo at, and makes it easy for the audience to turn off their brains. These guys aren't just evil; they know their evil, mega doom weapons, hordes of henchmen, long monologs, the works.
    -Picking on the little guy: This happens when you make the antagonist going after what seems to be the person or group that seems to have done nothing wrong, and for bonus points they can’t defend themselves. This is done in Samurai 7, but it understands the rules and they don’t go overboard. The villagers have no chance of defending themselves against the robot army and so it’s up to our hero’s to save them. This makes us want to cheer on the good guys and boo the bad guys all at once.
    -Sappy love stories: Having a love interest who is a damsel in distress or a helpless woman makes for great tension, especially when the villain is keeping them apart. Why won’t he just let them be can’t he see their love is pure? Yeah right, this is one of the more difficult ones to get away with but it can work. I mean look at Romeo and Juliet, that story is a masterpiece but revolves around this premise.

    -Beauty is not skin deep:
    This is a big problem in chick flicks and one of the most annoying things about them. Why are guys not allowed to sexualize women in our media and yet the key criteria for a chic flick is that the make love interest is some guy that has no more depth to him other than to be attractive? The fact that this happens doesn’t bother me it’s the fact that it’s only a problem when guys do it… any way, you want to make it so that your characters can be appealing and relatable even if they have some deformities. I mean look at District 9; they do an amazing job of this. You don’t expect to feel anything but nausea for these hideous, foul, things but by the end of the movie you felt genuinely sorry for them. Actually, Dream Works studios pretty much use this as a strong theme in almost all of their films; Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Mega Mind, etc.

    I wrote a rant on Super Man but because it has the potential to stir up some hate I'm just going to post it here [link] Feel free to read it but please don't discuss it on this deviation ^^
    FEEL FREE TO BASH OR LIKE MY SKETCHBOOK (either or is great fer me)

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