So far we’ve built a world with challenges for our characters, and we’ve given our characters some descriptive elements and attributes. Today we’re going to start diving into the meat of characters. Today’s component usually comes later in the series, but I’ve moved it ahead because it’s a nice springboard into the more detail material.
Component 3 of Character 101 is Abilities, and can be expressed like this:
Ability or abilities that differ from audience experience, such that an audience will desire to be like (or against) the hero.
Put more simply, this means distinguishing themselves from “the crowd” by doing different things than “the crowd”.
For superheroes, the answer is obvious – they can fly around and lift buildings. For detectives, they solve crimes. Every character, has some trait marking them as unique…even if that uniqueness is unto themselves. Generally, if you’re going to name a character, they’ve got something worth knowing about. Maybe not on that first page we see them, maybe not even in this plot, but somewhere, you had a thought that a particular character had something to offer.
Gamers, this is where mechanics can tie in – those things characters do, those things that make them unique – there should be mechanics to support them. Even if the mechanics are story telling opportunities or narrative concepts, there should be SOME kind of mechanics making it possible for the players to do it too (because, if you’ve not figured this out, the players want THEIR characters to be in the spotlight the way a novel’s characters are)
When we write these abilities, since we’re writing characters that are going to do something, and likely that’s something other people won’t have a chance to do (otherwise you wouldn’t be singling out this character for this story, would you?) the audience has to have a little envy – it adds to appeal.
We read about wizards because we are not wizards. We read about the genius billionaire crime fighter because we don’t have a cave and a secret identity. While these characters are like us, they aren’t exactly us – their deviance from our norm is what makes them memorable and attractive.
The same can said for villains. The reason we dislike the evil criminal is because he acts in a way we don’t and more specifically a way that evokes a reaction from us.
You want to create abilities that evoke reaction from the audience. Ideally, you’ve also expressed HOW those abilities operate and given good context to express any “rules” for them. (Does flying require sprouting wings? Does the detective use technology to solve his crime? Does the wizard have to shout in a foreign language when obliterating his opponents?).
Sometimes the plot and character will do something and elicit from the audience a strong response. Sometimes it’s celebratory (Yay, he blew up the Death Star) sometimes though it’s shock (What do you mean he killed himself to save his friends?). When you’re able to create a character that evokes that type of response, you know the character is strong in the minds of the reader/audience.
We don’t always want to root for the hero. We want the hero to win, we want to be along for the ride, but we need not agree with them every step of the way – and I would go so far as to say we shouldn’t always agree.
Just like in television and movies when you yell at the screen, “Of course he’s not the father, Maury!” or “Don’t go out into the barn to have sex you anonymous attractive teenagers, the killer is out there!” the act of disagreeing with the actions of the hero (on more than a this-is-just-crappy-writing level) shows that the audience is invested.
Gamers, you create investment by offering options. This is not to say you need to offer then a bazillion options, or even the same options as your more successful competitor, but you do need to make the player aware that they can do….stuff. And it’s not always the amount of stuff that’s important, but more the impact of those options. Anyone can roll a die or move a miniature, but the player who feels that what they do and can do matters to the world they participate in, is invested. That’s your goal.
So when crafting the experiences of your readers, players and consumers, look at what the characters do that empowers them to be different and distinguishing. And put the spotlight on it. Everyone will thank you for it.
Later in the week we dive into the much deeper waters of character philosophy (and I’ll even talk about alignment for my gaming friends).