Sunday, 1 March 2015

Well-written Characters (Part One)

(Character sheet for Avatar Korra, from Legend of Korra, source)

As both a consumer of various entertainment media and a writer, characters are one of the key factors that decide if I end up liking a franchise or not, and that's probably true for many people. As shown by my One Hundred Character Meme, I enjoy a variety of different characters.

However, what I like even more is a well-written character. What defines what this is will be different for different people, but it got me thinking: what makes ME consider a character well-written? How can I adore one character in one series and yet dislike a very similar character in another? And better still, how can this help me make sure the characters I create are similarly written?

So, in this four-part series, I'm going to apply some simple criteria to several examples from books, video game, TV and film, and see if they fit or fail the Sam's Well-Written Character Test (TM).

Please remember this is a completely subjective set of criteria and it's simply my personal opinion, nothing more!

My deciding criteria consists of:

Personality- how is the character presented, what traits define them, how easy is it to identify the character, do they stand out compared to others?

Flaws/ Roundedness- what are the character's flaws? How do these interfere with/ hinder the character? Do they make the character feel more real?

Relatability- how relatable is the character? Can we empathize/ sympathize with them?

Consistency- is the character written consistently? Do they have any out-of-character moments, and if so are these plot-drive or convenience driven?

Development- does the character have an arc, do they learn anything/ change as a result (for better or worse)?

Each one will be marked out of 5, and the standard to qualify for well-written for me will be 15/25 (60%) (average 3/5 for all criteria). Not an easy one to please, am I?

So let's kick off with BOOKS!

1. Sabriel (Sabriel)

Personality: 4/5

Sabriel is the protagonist of the first book of the Abhorsen series. Even from the opening chapter we get a feel for her personality- against her better judgement she resurrects a dead rabbit, as it's a pet of one of her classmates. And when she discovers her father is in danger, she doesn't balk at the thought of traversing The Old Kingdom to rescue him.

So she's kind, has a good dosing of common sense, she's brave (albeit somewhat underconfident in her combat and Abhorsen abilities), and has a strong sense of duty. Enough to define her against other characters, sure, and considering the personality types that dominate YA (young adult) now she's quite a breath of fresh air!

Flaws/ Roundedness: 2/5

Oddly enough, Sabriel doesn't have much in the way of flaws. She's not particularly selfish, reckless, angry, jealous, or petty, she's accomplished in her magic and her powers in Death, and while she's a bit green when it comes to combat, it's never presented as a major hindrance. Her lack of knowledge and understanding about the Old Kingdom is probably her biggest Achille's heel, but this isn't out of her own ignorance or unwillingness to learn, it's out of external circumstances. She does have bouts of underconfidence now and then, but again this never seems to impact her or the plot in a significant way, as she still figures out what needs to be done. 

There is a little bit of the 'need to do my duty, no time for personal stuff' but there's nothing special about this; it's just a character's want to be normal.

Relatability: 4/5

Sabriel is a typical YA protagonist- thrust into an unknown, hostile world as she comes of age and learns about her place and the mantle she must take up. Her kindness, sense of duty and selflessness are traits we admire and can relate to (even if we can't step into the realm of Death on a whim and outrun tidal waves). Her plight to rescue her father is also a sympathetic one, and I can't say I ever disagreed or thought badly of most of her choices in the book. She's doing the best she can with what limitations she has- something I'm sure everyone understands and has had to deal with at some point. She's pretty likeable too, which doesn't hurt.

Consistency: 5/5

Sabriel is written pretty consistently. I can't recall any particular out of character moments, and I don't think the plot ever challenged her on this aspect, either. She sticks to her sense of duty, even at great personal cost, and doesn't act or behave in ways you wouldn't expect.

Development: 1/5

Looking back, Sabriel's only real development comes from learning bits and pieces about the Old Kingdom. As we discussed in Flaws, she doesn't really have any personal ones, and thus there's not much scope for her to change any aspect of herself. She's still as brave, dutiful and kind as she was in chapter one; all that's changed is her combat experience and the fact she can brag about defeating an evil even her father had trouble with. She does have to deal with personal loss, but the story ends before we really see if this has any lasting consequences.

Total: 15/25 (75%)

So Sabriel passes!

2. Maerad (Books of Pellinor)

Personality: 4/5

At the start of the first book Maerad is a slave, but holds a great power that has the potential to transform the land and restore peace. Thanks to the conditions she's been living in, she's rather reserved, and a keen observer, using what she can to her advantage (playing on her masters' suspicion she's a witch, so they're less likely to sexually prey on her). Unlike Sabriel, she's not got much control over her power, nor is she combat trained. She's more a survivor, and has build up a hardness over the years as a result. However, once she escapes this torment and is introduced to her birthright, she starts to see the side of herself she'd had to hide for so long, and we get more of a feel for the kind of person she is.

She's eager to learn and quick to pick up things, shy, a little insecure in her new, safe environment, and it takes her time to open up and trust others. Compared to a lot of female protagonists she's certainly more nuanced than most.

Flaws/ Roundedness: 4/5

One of Maerad's main flaws is her fear of intimacy- not surprising given the 'treatment' she received as a slave. As the story progresses, she also starts to fear her own power, terrified the untamed wild side will bring more harm than good. This severely cripples her, and causes tensions in her relationship with her friends. It also leads her to make mistakes, which can have deep personal consequences, and she has to deal with them.

Relatability: 4/5

I find Maerad a very relatable character. We see how she struggles to survive in slavery, how she adapts to her new life as a Bard, and that the latter isn't always the easiest. The fact that others fear her differences (even those she considers friends) also puts a lot of pressure on her, and we can empathize how she feels she can't trust anyone. Her relationship with her brother too is very endearing, and we get a good feel of her reasoning for her choices, too.

Consistency: 5/5

Maerad is relatively consistent, and changes in her reflect the circumstances she's been through. She does have some of out-of-character moments, mostly in the second book, but part of this is driven by her rising fear of her power, and this is the source of much of the conflict between her and Cadvan (one of her friends).

Development: 4/5

Maerad has a very satisfying arc. Despite being yet another 'Chosen One', she really struggles to come to terms with this, and it takes her a long while to be comfortable with her power and the responsibilities everyone is throwing at her. Her fears and insecurities lead to mistakes and regrets, and it's wonderful to see her rise about all the tragedy and come out triumphant in the end. She learns something about herself at every wrong turn, so by the time her journey's complete she's not the same person who started out.

Total: 21/25 (84%)

Maerad of Pellinor passes!

3. Will (His Dark Materials)

Personality: 4/5

Will appears in the The Subtle Knife, the second book of Pullman's His Dark Materials series. Having to care for his mother who appears mentally unwell and with an absent father, he's thrust into Lyra's world, where he finds he has a big role to play. He's very much a loner, taking everything onto himself, pretty reserved and serious for his age, and is able to obtain a certain clarity of mind so he can use the titular knife. His cooler, calmer personality serves to complement Lyra's rather rebellious and fiery nature, but he's very much his own character and no mere foil.

Flaws/ Roundedness: 3/5

It's a bit tricky to pin down Will's flaws. He does carry around a lot of guilt, and this does impact a part of the plot (where he thinks about his mother while using the knife and this causes it to break). He can be pretty cold too, although I wouldn't go as far to say he's completely ruthless (especially compared to some of the other characters!). His tendency to put what he feels needs to be done in front of his own feelings and wants can lead him to neglect his own emotional needs, but this does get addressed.

Relatability: 3/5

Will offers a different kind of relatability compared to Lyra. As said before, he's much more reserved and serious, forced to mature quickly so he can care for his mother. He also worries for those close to him, and is very protective; all traits we can admire. While his aloofness perhaps makes him less endearing than Lyra, we can certainly see why he's the way he is, and he's by no means unlikable either.

Consistency: 5/5

Will is pretty consistent. He acts in keeping with his personality for the most part, and I don't remember any particular moment where he doesn't. The only times where he does seem to step out of his comfort zone would be when he breaks the knife, and when he realizes his feelings for Lyra, but both of these are driven by his development and I'd say are more showing how he's growing up, rather than behaving in an inconsistent fashion.

Development: 3/5

Will's development is not as clear-cut as some other characters, but definitely there. His growth from child to adult isn't as obvious as Lyra's, but that's because he already has a high level of maturity to begin with. Still, he learns to deal with his guilt and anger, becomes proficient at using the knife, and starts to open up more, especially to Lyra. While he doesn't quite get his happily ever after, he accepts what he's been dealt and makes the best of it.

Total: 18/25 (72%)

And so Will also passes!

So, it looks like all three choices were clear winners this time. Next time I'll delve into video games and see if my three challengers can pass the test!

What do you look for in a well-written character, and who do you consider well-written? Tell me!

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