Friday, November 30, 2007

Common Mistakes in Character Building

There are some basic problems when people build characters. Let's see if we can handle those, eh?

Mary Sue/Gary Stu's: Some characters have too much power on one hand, and enough psychological issues to pay off a therapist's student loans. Girls' comics are filled with these characters, because not only is empowerment considered a great thing (thus the sheer number of abilities), but so is sensitivity and admitting your problems (thus the sheer number of personality problems). Another way to look at it is that they are given so much, and so must have a number of things to make up for it. There was a reason that I suggested no more than four good things and no more than two bad things; it's a simple way to balance out your characters. You should always strive for balanced characters, and should avoid characters that have too much going for them in either side of the balance sheet.

Caricatures: At the other end of the spectrum are the shallow characters, those that are more caricatures than characters. The problem is that these characters aren't intended to be serious characters, and so the writer doesn't treat them seriously. It needs to be remembered that all characters need to taken seriously, no matter how silly they are; in fact, silly characters need to be taken seriously if they are to be jokes. Think about: If you are making fun of something, you need to fully explore it, and can you fully explore something if you don't fully allow for it? Thus, you need to make sure that all of your characters are fully developed, and that characters that are caricatures show themselves to be fulyl developed in order to make your running gag go to the next level.

Disrespected Characters: Some people just shouldn't write certain types of characters. This is usually most obvious when it comes to military or religious types, or even authority figures in general, but it can apply to any type of character. The obvious example here is the character who is treated as a caricature; the FBI agent that is far too official, harasses the main character while spouting arcane laws or interpreting laws in order to nail the main characters, and is basically not someone who you want to invite to Christmas dinner. More than any other character, this kind has the most possibility of taking your readers out of the book, and possibly ruining any scene that he is in. The only real advice I can give you here is that you need to be aware of those types of characters that you don't have any respect for, and try to avoid writing those kind of characters. If you do need to write those characters, then you need to make an effort to not treat the character respectfully.

Mandatory Characters: Every genre seems to have those characters that are mandatory, and that everyone seems to make sure that they are in stories of that genres, such as the barbarian in fantasy stories or the cool alien in science fiction. The obvious solution is to don't worry about omitting the character type, and be happy about it. However, if you're using the character as part of a running gag, then see the notes regarding caricatures above.

Love Interests, Sidekicks, and Villains: Always make sure that these characters are well-developed. One of the problems is that these characters are part of the story, but combine elements of various character types as mentioned above; sidekicks may be treated as puppies, love interests may simply be elevated trollops, and villains limited to the Snidely Whiplash version. Respect these characters, as they are the most important ones to your story, and the ones that pop up the most.

Remember this advice, and your characters will love you for it!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Character Build For When Quick Characters

When it comes to your characters, you should have a basic build system. For those that role-play, you know what I'm referring to; it's how you create characters. For those that don't do much role-playing, this should be an interesting entry...

“Character build” refers to how you create characters; specifically, it's a standardized process that allows you to quickly create characters, even if you need to create one on the fly. What you need to do is to create a system that allows you to create realistic characters smoothly and quickly. Although I could cheat and recommend the Champions system (which is complete (arguably too compete)), instead I'll lead you through my process.

The first step is to determine what role the character will be playing in the story. You can be as simplistic as hero, villain, sidekick, or bystander, for example, or work the character into the theme (“the character shows the hero that there is always hope”, for example). The more specific you can get the better, as the more specific you are at this stage, the simpler the other stages will be. It's important that you know what role the character will play; even if it amounts to a cameo, the character needs to do something or you're just wasting words, and every one of your words should be well-chosen.

Once you have established what the character's role is, you can then assign a power level. Even in stories where magic and superpowers aren't used, characters tend to have power levels defined in terms of the story; in a military story, for example, rank, experience, and access to weapons and vehicles would define power. In a high school setting, social status, skill sets, and grade level would be determined by power level (a senior with impressive hacking or athletic skills who is capable of asking anyone for favors would have a high power level, for example).

You should limit the number of god-like characters, however. If you have a lot of them running around, it quickly becomes a question of either why they don't take care of the problem, or why characters would want to know everything when they can't use that power. Tolkien had the right idea; the important action was in the background with Frodo, and the power characters were put on the front lines. Even Tom Bombadil was used to effect, even with his limitations of where he could go.

Even if the setting is exploring extreme powers, you need to keep in mind that the characters should not be the most powerful beings in the story. Even Superman and The Authority are not the most powerful beings in their respective comics; there are still entities that are more powerful than them. It's not a balance issue; it's more that, if they were the most powerful entities, there would be no challenges for them, and they wouldn't be as interesting. They would walk through any challenge and you would hard-pressed to come up with an interesting adversary for them, and without an interesting adversary your story would be boring before you even got out of the gate.

You should then determine the character's personality; combined with the power level and role, the personality will determine appearance, abilities, and other basic characteristics. You should define three personality traits, two good and one bad. That should give your character a balanced, three-dimensional personality. While you're at it, go ahead and give the character two to four advantages, things that he does that he does better than other characters, and that allows him to stand out. Also, define one or two negative qualities. Being an apprentice bears special noting, especially given the number of sidekicks and young heroes; an apprentice should be considered a negative attribute, but only because the character is sharing some of his uniqueness with someone else.

And that's my quicky character generation process. All other features should be easy to define; the broad strokes have been painted in, and you should just need worry about details. Hope this helps!