Saturday, 21 March 2015

Well-written Characters (Part Two)

(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?

View Part One here.

So let's see who will fare in VIDEO GAMES!


Lightning (Final Fantasy XIII)




Personality: 4.5

Lightning Farron is an aloof, practical and driven character. Her parents died relatively young, leaving her to take on the caring role for her younger sister Serah and instilling her desire to become 'strong' in order to achieve this. However this seems to come at the cost of her feelings, as she can be pretty cold, even to her sister. She reads every situation with a detached and objective mindset, which lends her natural leadership abilities, and she's an excellent fighter as well. While her character doesn't get explored that deeply in FF 13, the sequels, particularly Lightning Returns, do give us a good impression of how she's become the person she is.

Flaws/ Roundedness: 5/5

Lightning's main flaws come from cold-heartedness. She is pretty detached from her feelings, not really able to express them, and even suppressing them when they threaten to break through. She doesn't believe in relying on others or sharing her problems, and feels she can deal with everything herself. She even goes as far as to create excuses to justify why she has to act like this, which may represent her subconscious awareness that her sense of self is built on quite a shaky foundation. This lends itself to her development well, and it's refreshing to see this kind of character depth in a female lead for a change!

Relatability: 4/5

Personally, I find Lightning very relatable as I too am not a particularly emotional person and tend to view things from a practical standpoint. She's very down-to-earth and logical, and doesn't let her emotions get the better of her. Conversely, a lot of people find these traits make her cold and actually quite unrelatable! Still, I can definitely empathize with her struggle to save her sister, and also her guilt at what happens over the course of the two sequel games. The balance between her physical prowess and emotional needs weaves together well, and she does come off as pretty rounded.

Consistency: 5/5

Lightning is pretty consistently written. The only moments where her cool facade breaks down are when she's faced with what happens to her sister, and after much prodding from Lumina in the 2nd sequel where she's forced to confront painful truths about herself. She's dedicated to her values and freedom, and while they're constantly challenged she never wavers from them.

Development: 4/5

As I've said, Lightning's development stems from her emotional detachment and how this impacts on her relationship with her sister and her friends. Her belief that strength and self-reliance are the most important is slowly broken through each and every challenge the games throw at her, but she learns to accept the parts of herself she believed to be weak, as well as the aid of her friends. The end result is a Lightning who's much more at peace with herself, and she look forward to a new life of her own choosing. And the best thing? All of this comes from her own power, and not because of some love interest!

Total: 22/25 (88%)

A clear pass for Lightning!


Milla (Tales of Xillia)





Personality: 4/5

Milla is a mysterious woman with the power to command the Four Great Spirits. She has an unwavering determination that nothing can overpower, a willingness to learn and improve herself, and a solid physical and magic fighter. Her mission is to prevent humans making spirit weapons that have the potential to upset the balance between spirits and humans, and is something she's become pretty talented at. Of course, her detachment from people makes her view human interaction with a spirited curiousity, and she does come out with odd remarks on occasion! She's certainly memorable.

Flaws/ Roundedness: 4/5

Milla's flaws are a bit harder to pin down. Her iron determination can make her lose perspective at times (and this can lead to terrible consequences, such as when she can no longer walk after a horrific battle wound). She's also pretty willing to sacrifice anything and everything for her mission, at least at first, until she develops stronger bonds with her travelling companions. Her rather limited view of people, too, makes her see things as very black and white, and she can make rash decisions because of this.

Relatability: 3/5

Milla can be a strange one to relate to, given her detachment from people and how she comments on her friends' behaviour as being 'so human'. Nonetheless, we can certainly empathise with her desire to stop humans toying with technology they don't fully understand (her toddler with a knife analogy was a good way of showing this). And, as the story progresses and she gets closer with her friends, she does gradually shake off her aloofness and becomes one of the team, again improving how we relate to her.

Consistency: 4/5

Milla is again pretty consistent (which is more than I can say for the plot at times, but still...). Her determination never wavers, and in the rare moments it does she's able to bring it straight back. I can only recall one moment where she was a little out of character and that was perfectly understandable as she was under considerable stress and filled with uncertainty.

Development: 4/5

Milla's development isn't as drastic as some of the other characters, but it is plain to see. She learns to value the relationships with her friends (something she avoided beforehand as she didn't want others to be able to use them against her), she's less black and white in her thinking, particularly that spirit technology will only lead to harm, and she's more open to other points of view. She also learns to tone back her relentlessness and take care of herself, to a degree.

Total: 19/25 (76%)

Well done, Milla Maxwell passes the test!


Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)




Personality: 4/5

Squall is in many ways similar to Lighting, but taken to a more extreme level. He's very cold and aloof, a real lone wolf (lion?), and wants nothing to do with anyone else, no matter how they try to convince him otherwise. He uses logical reasoning for his actions and what he perceives are flaws in others, and is a stout believer that the only one who he can truly rely on is himself. He's also very cynical and jaded at times. However, he does hold a strong sense responsibility, and people do look to him as a natural leader.

Flaws/ Roundedness: 3/5

Squall's flaws come from his lack of emotions. His harsh losses in childhood have made him fearful of losing those he cares about, and so he continues to people at arm's length, not really seeing the value of such relationships (until Rinoa grows on him and makes him question if his logic is as unshakeable as he believed). He's also pretty blunt, and this can get him on the wrong side of people pretty quickly. He can come off as rude sometimes, too, but it's never out of malice and more a reflection of how he's learnt to deal with others.

Relatability: 4/5

I think anyone can relate to fear of loss, which is something that forms the backbone of Squall's philosophy (before he's forced to confront that it might not be as robust as he thinks). Squall is also very introverted and doesn't like the hassel of social interaction, which again is something we've all experienced at one time or another. Squall also has an enormous amount of pressure heaped on him when becomes Commander of Balamb Garden; again something that a lot of people can identify with.

Consistency: 4/5

Squall's only out of character moments come when he's under great stress (like when the missiles are about to hit Balamb Garden, or when he's faced with the prospect of never seeing Rinoa again). While his general outlook on life slowly changes through the course of the game, he does retain his logic and pragmatism, and when he becomes reckless it's through letting emotional strain get the better of him.

Development: 3/5

Thanks to his emotional flaws, Squall does have a satisfying arc where he learns to value his relationships, to become a bit more laid back and relaxed, and not to reduce his fear of loss as so inevitable he might as well not even try. He grows into his leader role, and accepts that asking help from others isn't a weakness and doesn't mean he's making himself vulnerable.

Total: 18/25 (72%)


So Squall also passes!

Hence, once again, it looks like all three choices were clear winners. In the third part, I'm turning to anime/ TV animation. Let's see if those three can keep this winning streak going!

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

Don't forget to check Part One: Books!

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