Tag Archives: characters

Evolution of a character or not all princes are jerks.

Paiting a new world, what's more exciting then that?
Paiting a new world, what’s more exciting then that?

Last week I talked about the importance of listening to your characters and letting them evolve. Today I thought that I would give you an example of that, since I had to let the characters take the reins in my current WIP – Shadow Hunters.

 

When I was outlining and plotting Shadow Hunters, I knew that my protagonist would be a prince. Not only that, but that he would also be a jerk. After all, this kingdom lives under absolute monarchy, which means the king and the royal family have a heck of a lot of power. On top of that, there is a rather rigid caste system with the royal family on the very top of the food chain.

 

So it made sense that a guy who was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and had servants cater to his every whim would grow up to be a self-absorbed and entitled jerk. So his initial character journey was to meet a girl from a very different environment, fall in love and slowly become a decent human being through a series of more and more staggering trials and obstacles.

 

With that plan in hand, I started writing my first draft and my protagonist immediately rebelled against me. He absolutely didn’t want to be a jerk. After fighting with him for the first three scenes of the first chapter, I threw the towel and let him drive the narrative. And I discovered some very interesting facts about my prince.

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Yes, Akemi’s family is all powerful and his father rules the kingdom with a firm hand, but Akemi himself is the youngest of five children. As such, he is so far down the inheritance line that nobody even considers him a contender. His eldest brother is the Heir in waiting destined to succeed to their father and has been trained as such. His sister is the perfect lady destined to be married off to form an alliance with one of the neighboring kingdoms. He could go into the military, but his second brother already beat him to it and he is, by all accounts, an exceptional warrior. And even the scientific field is covered with his last brother the genius inventor.

 

Akemi couldn’t even enter the clergy because there is no clergy per se in this world. And it’s not like he has a particular talent for anything. So in the eyes of his family, he is useless. He grew up seeing indifference in his parent’s eyes and annoyance from his eldest siblings.

 

On top of that, he learned at a very young age that no friendship is free. All the kids that wanted to be his friends in the past and even now that he is studying at the Royal College want something in exchange for that friendship. It’s either status, influence, money, or a way to get closer to his more influential siblings, and once they get what they want, they will jump ship in a heartbeat.

 

So Akemi learned to wear a mask of indifference and condescending aloofness and not let anyone close enough to see his real face. Heck, he doesn’t bother to learn the names and faces of most of his followers because they change from week to week. He remembers 3-4 that stayed longer than most and even gets attached to them more than he should, despite knowing that it’s a bad idea that would only lead to heartbreak.

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So instead of a self-absorbed jerk, I discovered a decent and even rather kind guy who is just so lost and disillusioned about his place in this world that he hides behind a mask. His family thinks he is useless, so he ends up believing the same, and just kinda floats with the current, not making much effort to find a road to follow in life.

 

So his journey through the book transformed as well. Instead of being just a plain love story where guy meets girl and she makes a human being out of him, he embarks on a journey of self-discovery. Throughout the events of this story, Akemi discovers where his allegiances lies, what his dreams are, and how far he is willing to go to protect those he loves.

 

I don’t know about you, but I find that kind of story a lot more interesting than the one I had planed to write in the beginning.

 

Let your characters grow and evolve.

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For me, the two key ingredients of a good book is an interesting plot and engaging characters that I want to follow through the highs and lows and growing pains until the end of the book.

I must admit that characters come before plot for me. I am willing to follow well-made characters through even the most boring plot if I like them enough, because they become like friends to me to the point when I’m sad to say goodbye when the book ends. I think that’s part of the appeal of fanfiction – we readers love the characters so much that they loathe to let them go after the official story ended and invent new stories for them. Or explore side characters that the author didn’t have time or book space to delve into.

But I’m getting side-tracked here. I read a lot. A lot lot. And I’ve noticed that there is one thing that will make me drop a book like a hot potato EVERY SINGLE TIME – when I can’t find a single character, even a side character, to like.

I’ve also identified several reasons for that. I think that keeping them in mind while writing my books will make me a better writer, and reading about them might make you guys think about it as well.

 

  1. Characters never evolve past static cardboard cutouts.

We’ve all picked up a book where the characters have no personality, no life. They are just a bag of walking clichés, or they were created to fulfill predetermined roles – the brooding hero, his love interest who is sometimes a damsel in distress and sometimes a badass girl who nevertheless needs rescuing, the super bad who is bad because of reasons, etc. Or sometimes they are just bland and blah. When I read a book and can’t even picture what the protagonist looks like in my head and how he / she behaves, I’m not going to stick with the story.

Original by nord_modular on Flickr
Original by nord_modular on Flickr
  1. Characters are well-developed but they don’t evolve.

This one leave a bitter taste in my mouth every time because the stories begin with great characters that I usually get invested into, but by the time I reach about halfway into the book, I suddenly realize that they hadn’t grown up at all. That despite all the adventures, the difficulties, and the heartbreak they go through during the story, they stay exactly the same. There is no emotional growth. Worst case would be when they never learn from their own mistakes and continue doing dumb things over and over again.

By the time you realize that there is no forward momentum in the character’s evolution, you’ve already invested several hours into the book, so sometimes you feel compelled to power through to the end, often wishing you could get those hour back and spend them on something more productive.

 

  1. Characters that behave out of character because the author tries to fit them into a story they’ve outgrown.

When we set off to write a book, we usually have at least a vague idea of where this story is supposed to go and how we would like it to end. Problems arise when our characters take a life of their own and start telling their own story that sometimes clashes with what we had initially in mind.

What I’m about to say is my personal opinion only, but I think it would be a mistake to try and herd them back into the fold and bend them backwards in order to fit the story we had created. It’s like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. Even if you hammer it in there, it still won’t feel right.

That’s when otherwise very logical and well-written characters start behaving in such a manner that makes you scratch your head and wonder what they or the author was smoking. When a heroine how was known to use her head and analyze everything carefully and formulate a plan suddenly rushes into the enemy lair without even a weapon. Or when a cold-hearted jerk suddenly turns into a puddle of goo and declares his never dying love for the heroine WITHOUT any buildup to that change of feelings.

This is what makes me throw a book away in frustration or want to strangle the characters for suddenly becoming mere shadows of themselves. That’s where I feel most betrayed because I loved them how they were and all of a sudden I feel like they had been replaced by a doppelganger.

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I think that characters have to come before the story. If they are fleshed out enough, they will tell their own  story that will probably be even more interesting than what you initially set off to write. So let your characters speak. Let them grow and evolve. And when they suddenly decide to step off the road you had outlined before them, let them do that and follow them down that rabbit hole.  That’s where the most interesting conflicts lie.

Characters should grow and evolve with the story.

Creating new worlds.
Creating new worlds.

Humanity loves good stories. If we didn’t, there wouldn’t be so many books published, movies filmed and TV series renewed long past the date they stopped being relevant. We love forgetting about our everyday life and losing ourselves in the problems of fictional characters for a few hours. Sometimes we just need a distraction, but sometimes seeing these characters grow and overcome their troubles helps us face ours. That’s why stories are so important.

 

I receive a lot of review requests from self-published authors, so I have been reading a lot of new books lately. And I have noticed a worrying tendency – a lot of books tell a story, yes, but forget that a story is first and foremost about character growth. In the past 2 weeks alone I had started and dropped about 7 books because there was no character progression. They were well written and well-edited. Things were happening, the story was moving, but the main characters remained absolutely the same. It felt like nothing affected them at all. Unfortunately, that is the best way to lose my interest and make me put the book down.

 

I don’t know about you, but to me, all stories are primary about character growth, no matter the genre in which they are written. Even in mystery novels, the detective investigating a story is irrevocably changed by what he finds at the end of the book. The hero who sets off to rescue the princess / save his kingdom / just go on an adventure comes back older and (hopefully) wiser than he was at the beginning of the book.

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Harry Potter starts book 1 as a naive twelve years old boy who is ignorant about the wizarding world and the role he played and still has to play in it. By the end of book 7, he is a radically different person: he has grown, not only physically, but also mentally. He has suffered great losses and found love and friendship along the way. He has matured and discovered what his priorities are and what he is willing to sacrifice for the people he loves. That’s why his choice to go to Voldemort and basically let him kill him to destroy the last horcrux is so significant. It shows that character growth.

 

The story doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that though. I have finished watching an excellent Korean drama called Queen of Reversals, and it’s all about everyday life. There are no life or death situations, no care chases or serial killers, but the story still pulls you in and keeps you wanting more, making you watch episode after episode. Why? Because it’s all about character growth. The story itself is simple and easy to relate to. A successful woman falls in love and marries after a whirlwind courtship. She gets pregnant and becomes stay at home mom while her husband struggles to earn a living. Unfortunately, he is nowhere as smart and successful as his wife has been, which puts a strain on their marriage, so she is forced to go back to work after 5 years, starting basically at the bottom of the ladder again. The whole story is about her struggle to go back to the top of that ladder again and to regain her self-confidence. A lot of things happen along the way, like her marriage failing and ending in a messy divorce coupled with problems at work that she has to overcome. Nothing earth-shattering. Just everyday stuff that all of us face in our lives as well.

It’s basically  a story about someone who loses everything and sees her life crumble in front of her eyes and has the strength to pull herself back up and fight for her success and happiness. Someone who gets betrayed by the person she loved, but still finds the courage to love and trust again. That’s why we can relate so well, that’s why we root for the heroine and cry and laugh with her until the end of the series.

 

That’s the point of the story, to make the characters change and evolve. If they don’t, then “Houston, we have a problem.” And I have noticed that a lot of first-time writers tend to overlook that character growth for some reason. They throw everything into the story. They add mystery after mystery, twist after twist. They up the stakes, throw dragons, armies and the next apocalypse at their protagonist, but forget that everything that happens MUST change that protagonist somehow, even if it’s in small ways.

hourglass_parchment_quill_cover

If the heroine never learns from her mistakes and is just as loud, obnoxious and clueless at the end of the book as she was at the beginning – I’m sorry, she is not someone I can be bothered with. I want to read about fleshed out people, not  cheap video game characters who never evolve, but just level up and get better gear.

 

A good story is about characters. It’s about their journey and their trials. About how they grow and learn. About how they become a better person in the end… or turn into a monster. Doesn’t matter which way they go, as long as they evolve. Give me a good character arc with a satisfying ending, and I will be happy. But no amount of car chases and explosions will keep my interest if your world is populated with cardboard cutouts frozen in space and time.

 

That’s why when I start working on a story, I don’t think “what’s this story about?” I think “What do I want my characters to learn with this story? How do I want them to evolve?” I find it that the story just sort of comes to you once you determine your character’s arc.

What Korean dramas can teach us about storytelling.

I went on a Korean drama bilge watching spree lately and I have learned a few interesting and surprising things along the way that will, hopefully, make me a better writer.

I admit that I approached Korean dramas with a bit of a preconception at first – the few that I had seen in previous years had been cheesy, clichéd and badly acted. I had to be talked into watching the first one by several of my internet friends and I started it after much grumbling and dragging my feet. It was City Hunter and it blew my mind and you can see in this post and gifted me with a wonderful story idea that I’m developing now.

I have since watched several more series and two more grabbed my attention – The Master’s Sun  and I Hear your Voice.

I also finally managed to put my finger on why these shows resonate with me so much while some of the American and European series leave me indifferent, despite the fact that they have a bigger budget and better-known actors. It’s because all three series are have much more depth than first meets the eye.

City Hunter

On the surface, City Hunter  is a story of revenge, pure and simple. 28 years ago, a man watched helplessly as his brothers in arms died at the hands of their own soldiers and vowed to kill the five men who knew of the mission and gave the order to shoot. If the show had been just that, I doubt that it would have grabbed my heart and dragged it over hot coals for 24 episodes.

No, it manages to raise some very deep questions, like how far is going too far and at which point the good guys become so warped up in their revenge that they end up even worse than the bad guys? Can revenge justify stealing your best friend’s infant son and bringing him up as a killing machine, sacrificing his childhood and any hopes for a normal future to fuel the fire of your obsession?

It’s also about love in all its different manifestations: romantic love between a man and a woman, fatherly love and acceptance, the love of a mother for her lost child that she never gave up on, grudging respect that morphs into friendship between two strong men… It’s also about sacrifice and the hard decisions one has to make in order to keep the people he loves safe, even if that decision is to walk away from them.

Masters sun

The Master’s Sun masquerades at your typical romantic comedy: girl can see ghosts and is terrified by them, because they haunt her endlessly, not letting her live a normal life or even get a good night’s sleep. She meets a guy who can make those ghosts go poof the moment she touches him. Of course she would stick to him no matter what. Add to that that the guys is a total jerk and you would expect lots of laughs and shenanigans…

Well, this show gives you most of that, but also so much more. All the ghosts stories are touching and serve to teach the characters and the viewer something about themselves along the way. The romantic line is not as clear-cut and one-sided as it seems either.

But most importantly, this show is about healing. The healing of physical and psychological wounds that we all carry. All the characters have to go through a lot of trials but emerge stronger at the end, beginning to accept themselves as they are instead of being ashamed of it. And Gong Sil has the biggest character growth of them all: she goes from being terrified out of her mind and unable to take a step outside of her tiny apartment to firmly standing on her own two feet and not needing anyone else to make her ghosts disappear.

I Hear your voice

I Hear Your Voice looks like a procedural drama paired with a hopeless crush a young man has on a much older woman, but in reality is the most complex of the three shows. It’s about personal growth: a boy becomes a man. A rather jaded and selfish woman learns compassion and empathy. A naïve and earnest defense lawyer learns to stand up for his clients and his decisions…

But it’s also about people, and their stories, and all the big and small reasons that make them do the things they do. It’s about the difference having even one person who listens to you when you are in your darkest most desperate moment can make for the rest of your life. It is rather scary to see how close Pak Soo-ha comes to following in the footsteps of Min Joon-gook, the man who had murdered his father. Soo-ha wants to protect the woman he loves, even if it means becoming a murderer himself. It’s rather heartbreaking to learn that Min Joon-gook was faced with the same choice all those years ago and fell off that ledge of no return. Soo-ha is saved from this decision by the presence of Jang Hye-sung in his life and her conviction that if he goes through with his plan, he just becomes a murderer and all their reasons and justifications for hating Min Joon-gook would become moot… I must admit that this idea that having even one person by your side no matter what can become the light that guides you out of the darkness resonated very deeply with me.

And also, as cheesy as that sounds, about how love can be all-encompassing and unwavering and make both you and the person you love better. It’s shown the most with Soo-ha, who starts with this one-sided crush on a girl who testified against his father’s murderer 10 years ago and that he vowed to protect no matter what. Needless to say that this crush doesn’t stand a chance and shatters into pieces when he meets a grown up Hye-sung and discovers that she is nothing like the woman of his dreams… and progressively learns to love and accept her just as she is and never gives up. But all the other characters also undergo their own transformations and learn to love in their own ways. Hye-sung finally admits that she loves Soo-ha despite the age difference and her fear that he will come to his senses and leave her, and decides to embrace the relationship and be happy.

All of those shows bring to the viewer a lot more than promised and, more importantly, make us think about some very important topics. I love the fact that it’s also done with subtlety and tact, with a lot of things just hinted and left to interpretation. I also love how all the characters turn out to be complex and “real” so much so that you end up rooting for most of them, even some of the episodic characters. Heck, by the end of I Hear your Voice I almost felt sorry for Min Joon-gook, even after everything he’d done to our main characters.

 

After I watched these dramas, I realized that THAT’S what I want my stories to be like. I want them complex and layered. I want not only to entertain my readers but also make them think. I want to make all my characters “real” and if not lovable, at least relatable, even the antagonists. I don’t want simple stories. I want complex tales that challenge me and make me think and feel something. So thank you, Korean dramas, for making me want to become a better writer!

Favorite Protagonists – Yuna from Final Fantasy X.

It’s been a while, but I’ve decided to continue the series of posts about my favorite protagonists. You can read my post about Severus Snape, The Doctor, Sephiroth and Raymond Reddington.

Today, I want to talk about another protagonist I love dearly – Yuna from Final Fantasy X. And no, I will not mention Final Fantasy X-2, even  though I played it. For me, the story was finished with the ending of Final Fantasy X, and that’s how it will stay.

Yuna from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)
Yuna from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)

Now, those of you who played this game might object and say that Tidus is the real protagonist of FFX, not Yuna. I beg to differ. Yes, it’s very much Tidus’s story and we discover the world of Spira through his eyes. But it’s also Yuna’s story, because everything Tidus does revolves around her quest to defeat Sin and bring the much needed Calm to Spira. Everywhere she goes, he follows. She calls the shots in this journey.

I must admit that Yuna is one of my favorite characters, because she is so unlike what is usually considered a kickass heroine. She is not a fighter, for one. She specializes on healing and support magic, letting her stronger companions do the attacking. And if they need additional fire power, she can ask one of her Summons for help. She is not a bubbly happy silly girl like Rikku either. In fact, she is the most subdued and level-headed from all the women in the party.

In fact, she comes across as kind of bland and boring at the beginning of the game. When I saw her during my first playthrough, I thought, “Oh great, another damsel in distress that Tidus will have to constantly save throughout the game.” Oh boy was I wrong.

Under that shy and non-conflictual exterior hides a will of steel, an endless well of courage and an unwavering moral compass.  Yuna is the glue that keeps the group of ragtag adventurers together. And she doesn’t need saving, even when Tidus thinks otherwise, like during that famous wedding scene, when they rush to her rescue all guns blazing only to discover that she already had a backup plan. I laughed so hard at Tidus’s face when she told him, “Don’t worry, I have wings.” and just jumped off the tower.

I also loved her whole backstory and her motivation. She is a Summoner. Summoners are respected and worshiped in Spira, and for good reason. During the Calm, their duty is to perform the ritual sending of souls to the Farplane. It’s an important duty, because without that souls will linger on Spira and eventually come to resent the living and turn into monsters.

Sin from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)
Sin from Final Fantasy X (property of Square Enix)

But this is not why the Summoners are so revered. When the Calm ends and Sin comes to terrorize Spira again, they are the only ones who can defeat him and bring another Calm. A Summoner wishing to challenge Sin has to undertake a pilgrimage through all the temples of Spira to gain the support of all the Aeons. Once they accomplish that, their journey lays into the ruined city of Zanarkand to obtain the Final Aeon and be able to defeat Sin and gain the title of Grand Summoner.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Just a sight-seeing journey through the beautiful land of Spira with an epic battle at the end. That’s what Tidus thinks at first too… Only there is a reason why the title of Grand Summoner can only be awarded posthumously. Only the Final Aeon can defeat Sin, but it kills the Summoner in the process as well.

This little revelation shines a whole new light on Yuna’s character. She knows that her journey is one way only. She is well aware that death awaits her at the end. But she chooses to step on this path and see it through no matter what. Not for glory, not for fame, not for respect, but for the people of Spira. Yuna chooses to sacrifice her own life to grant her world another 10-20 years of Calm. Even when she is declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Temples, when she loses the support of the people she wants to save, she still presses on…

I fight for Spira. The people long for the Calm. I can give it to them. It’s all I can give. Defeating Sin, ending pain… this I can do.  

Yuna from Final Fantasy X.

And she never feels sorry for herself or cries about her life. In fact, she goes out of her way to help others and cheer her companions up when they feel down, even though for her this journey is one big farewell to the world she loves so much.

For me, Yuna is the perfect example of inner strength. She might not carry a kickass sword or unleash waves of fire upon enemies, but she never breaks, no matter how hard her life gets. She is also the perfect example of a female character who has agency. She doesn’t just let the current carry her through the story, she swims with it (and even against it in the end) instead. She makes her own decisions and chooses her own path.

The Sending Ritual.
The Sending Ritual.

I would really like to see more characters like Yuna in books and movies, but for some reason her type is extremely rare.

Write What You Love.

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Since the beginning of my writing adventure, I have often heard it said that you should write what you know. And I agree with this statement.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that you need to be a quantum physicist in order to describe a new form of space travel in your science fiction books, but you need to at least do your research and consult with one to make sure that your ideas are not too farfetched. It also means that when you are creating your own world and magic system, you need to think it through, put down the ground rules and stick to them throughout your book.

So this is sound advice, but lately I have come to the realization that there is another piece of advice that works even better for me – Write what you Love.

I know this might be self-explanatory and some of you will think that I’m reinventing the wheel here, but I felt like this was an important realization I wanted to share with my readers. So let me explain what I mean by that statement.

 

  1. Write in the genres you love reading.

What books do you enjoy reading? What TV shows, movies or video games you like the most? Chances are, that’s the genres you will find the easiest to write in because you know them inside out by now. Also, if you are excited about something, if you love your idea and your genre, your readers will feel that. Hence, your book will be better for it.

For example, I really love fantasy and science fiction, with a dash of paranormal, a good mystery, and a sprinkle of horror from time to time. Now if I look at the works I’ve finished so far, what do I see? Of Broken Things is a science fiction mystery. The Choices we make is definitely set in a fantasy world. Mists of the Crossworlds is also a kind of weird fantasy. And The Eye of the Norns cycle leans more towards dark fantasy and horror.

Those are all the genres I love reading, so I naturally gravitated towards them because that’s the kind of stories I love telling. Would I be able to write a non-fiction self-help book or a romance? Probably… If I REALLY put my mind to it. I would suffer every step of the way and the end result would probably not be worth reading though.

snoopy-writing

  1. What characters do you like? What characters do you feel the most involved with?

We all have our preferences, certain types of people that I would find absolutely fascinating, or could relate to, but would leave you unmoved and bored. And this is wonderful, because this means that no matter how strange, or damaged, or bookish your characters are, there will be someone out there that would love them. This also means that when we write about the characters we love, they tend to come out more “alive” because we are invested in them so much more…

I have a funny (and eye opening, at least for me) story about that.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my best friends and fateful beta readers the other day. We are both fans of the Dragon Age games and, girls being girls, we were talking about the different romance options. I told her that I found it weird that I found the romance with Cullen in DA: Inquisition so satisfying when I couldn’t stand romancing Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins. I always picked Zevran over him (and Fenris over Anders in Dragon Age II).

So I told her, “I guess I’m just a sucker for strong, if slightly damaged men.”

And she answered, “Duh, it’s kinda evident from your own work.”

I must admit that I had never thought about it before, but after she said that, I went back to analyze my own characters and I had to admit that she was 100% right. Aiden, GMS798, Sky, Brand, Gabriel, all of them are exactly what I told her – strong if slightly damaged men. So I think this example perfectly illustrates the truth of this statement.

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  1. Forget the genres, write what you love or genre hopping is permitted.

A lot of writing and publishing advice tells us to pick a genre and stick with it, because that’s what your audience would come to expect from you. I might be stating a controversial opinion here when I say bull&$#!

Write what you like. Does your story shape out to be a hybrid between fantasy and science fiction? Go for it. After all, Iain M Banks did exactly that with Inversions and it turned out to be an excellent book. You feel like adding a good murder mystery to your fantasy world? Why not? You don’t feel like writing science fiction stories your whole writing career and want to try your hand at horror? Go ahead.

My point is, write what you love. As long as you love the story you’re telling and the characters you are writing about, the readers will feel it. They will love or hate your characters, depending on their personal preferences, but they will stick around to find out what happens to them regardless.

 

All good characters should have scars.

When you read the title of this post, you probably thought, “What is she talking about? Has she jumped off the deep end?” Nope, I’m doing well, thank you, and I promise that the title will make sense after you’ve finished reading the post.

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All the wonderful characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I have been playing Dragon Age Inquisition for the past two weeks or so, and yes, I know that I’m really late to the party and the game came out in October last year. I was in the middle of my first draft of Choices, so I didn’t want to have any distractions. Getting DA: I was my reward for finishing it.

Now I am a big fan of the Dragon Age series and I’ve played all the games and expansions since DA: Origins. Bioware managed to create a complex and compelling world worthy of some good epic fantasy novels. I enjoy roaming around the different zones and collecting books, letters and codex entries, but you know what keeps me coming back to those games? The characters.

I think I spend more time in camp or in Skyhold talking to all my companions and learning their stories then I do exploring different locations, doing quests and killing baddies. I’ve been knowns to stop dead in my tracks just to listen to the random party banter and switch the companions I run with around just to see how they interact with each other. To me, unlocking a new dialogue option for Zevran, Cassandra, Cullen or Fenris or any other companions is more exciting than defeating a new boss.

So to me the success of Dragon Age franchise has everything to do with the complexity of the characters, and you know what gives them this complexity? Scars.

Cullen battles his lyrium addiction every day.
Cullen struggles with his lyrium addiction every day.

And I’m not talking only about physical scars here, though some of the companions have plenty of those as well. And all those physical scars tell a story. Both Cassandra and Cullen are fighters and their faces and bodies are scarred by countless battles. Iron Bull lost his eye saving the life of one of his Chargers. Fenris in Dragon Age 2 has a different form or scars – the lyrium tattoos that his master branded into his body…

No, what makes all those characters interesting are the psychological scars all of them bear on top of those physical ones. They make them seem more human and fallible and also so much more endearing. We all have scars. They define us and determine how we interact with the rest of the world. They make us unique. They make us real.

The procedure of branding Fenris with lyrium was so painful that he forgot everything he was before that.
The procedure of branding Fenris with lyrium was so painful that he forgot everything he was before that.

That’s why nobody wants to read about perfect characters – they are not interesting. Perfection provokes detachment instead of empathy. Would I want to hang around someone who has a perfect life, always does the right thing just because, and never seems to struggle with anything? Hm… probably not. So why would I spend hours reading about them or interacting with them in a game?

Scars give the characters depth and purpose other than following your main character around. They hint at a life outside of the story you are reading / playing. Each one of Dragon Age companions could be the hero of their own story. In fact I WANT to read their stories or play through them.

And so Cullen fights the ghosts of his memories at night and the demons of his lyrium addiction during the day. Solas has a whole pantheon of ghosts and regrets to deal with every day. Varric jokes and hides behind words, but his devotion to Bianca hints on a heart that had been deeply wounded and is still bleeding. Cassandra might come across as harsh and unbending, though as nails, but she hides a much softer romantic side under all that armor. Dorian jokes and jests, but cares deeply about his home and what’s happening there. And Liliana has evolved from a young and somewhat idealistic bard from Orlais into this cold and uncompromising master spy, the Nightingale that everybody fears and respects…

There is nothing left of the young bard Leliana we saw in Dragon Age Origins in this master spy.
There is nothing left of the young bard Leliana we saw in Dragon Age Origins in this master spy.

 

That’s what makes Dragon Age such a great game and keeps you coming back to it even if you’ve already invested over a hundred hours into the game. You come back for the story, but you also come back for all those side stories and character interactions.

I think this is a lesson every writer should remember. If you want to keep your readers engaged and make them stick with you until the end, you need an interesting story, but I think (and some of you might disagree of course) that characters are much more important. Create a protagonist and secondary characters that the readers invest in and they will follow them even through the moments when the story slows down because they will want to spend time with them and get to know them better. Give your character scars.