Character creation (part four)

2 11 2009

The reason many adventure writers fail to create believable main characters is that they treat them the same as every other character

Why should they be different?

The obvious first question is, why would your main character be any different to any other?

Broadly speaking they wouldn’t be but it isn’t quite that simple. There are a number of reasons why your antagonist needs to be different to most of your other characters.

Character versus Plot

In the olden days, the Greeks used to create characters to fit the plot. The plot dictated a Hero with a specific flaw that was to be overcome. All of the characters were then written to support the plot.

This is still common – particularly if the plot comes first. If you have created an NPC first, you may need to shoehorn a plot that fits him.

Either way, there should be a good fit. The character needs the plot and the plot needs the character. This can cause a problem if your NPC is to fit into multiple adventures.

Firstly, the character is supposed to have developed, so the plot that worked for the first adventureshouldn’t work for the second.

The popular alternative is that the plot is similar and the flaw improved but not overcome. The downside is that the adventure becomes too similar to the first one.

The alternative is to give your character a new plot to deal with. The lack of a good fit may cause the adventure to fail – but then, this isn’t a novel were talking about and players are more tolerant than readers in this regard.

Having said that, if you want your character to have longevity, their back-story and psychological make-up must have room to encompass different plots.

I told you character creation shouldn’t be rushed.


It may be a stretch to say that your Heroes must be likeable, but it makes life a lot easier.

At very least the characters must be interesting and the players must be able to empathise with him.

I watched an Oscar nominated movie recently – that was part of my regular effort to read (or at least watch) outside my genre. The book received similar critical acclaim – but I can’t comment on how close to the original source the film was.

The bottom line was that at the end of the film I felt flat. I realised that I cared nothing for the protagonist. In fact, I wasn’t even sure who the protagonist was.

And that’s the way it is if you can’t get the player to really want to oppose the antagonist of your adventure.

More often than not, what keeps your players struggling on is that they desperately want to beat the bad guy.

Bad guys shouldn’t be all bad

Bad guys are rarely all bad. They are ordinary people, as a rule, that are simply opposed to the Heroes.

There is a rule that says antagonists should be written as if they don’t believe they’re the bad guys. The logic is that bad guys, in general, actually believe they are doing good – and it’s the rest of the world that has their values wrong.

I can see that argument up to a point. If we think of history’s evil tyrants, many were certainly of the opinion that their overall aim was for good. They were either mentally deranged or simply convinced themselves they were in the right – much in the same way that many smokers persuade themselves that smoking doesn’t do any harm to their bodies.

That’s all well and good but the vast majority of law-breakers know what they are doing is wrong.

Bank robbers don’t believe what they are doing is for the greater good – unless they are Robin Hood and the bank they are stealing from is corrupt.

The ultimate villain

I’ve already pointed out that one-dimensional characters are worst than useless. But have you considered what aspects of the Antagonist make them the most compelling?

The best antagonists are very close in being to the protagonists. In classic literature, the bad guy is a shadow of the Hero (if you want to you can read up on Jungian archetypes).

Throughout the adventure, the similarities between the two should be referenced – and the Heroes should know it and feel uncomfortable about it.

The Antagonist should ideally mention this fact to the Heroes and the player should appreciate the tension between them and realise how close the connection is.

Remember Belloq telling Indiana Jones how alike they were in Raiders of the Lost Ark? It touched a nerve.

The key is to find out what made the bad guy turn to the ‘dark side’ and what makes the good guys stay on the path of righteousness.

Next time I’ll discuss what media you can use to better create characters.




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