When a story endeavors to be straight entertainment, there are a lot of small things that need to be done in order to keep a reader’s attention. The character must be someone we can relate to. We might not be brain surgeon rock stars but Buckaroo Banzai still has a dad that he cares about and friends that rely on him. Those relationships help us to see that despite him being a cheesy super hero, we still have something in common.
Relating to a character can be as simple as showing that he has some frailty or as deep as expressing some major event in his past that conveys real world problems. Maybe the character experienced mental abuse in school, survived his parent’s divorce or broke his leg in ‘the big game’. Any event that we can say ‘yeah, that happened to me once’ or ‘I knew someone that happened to’ will bring the character home. Suddenly, we’ll be able to use our own experience to appreciate his trials better.
In Assassin’s Creed 2, you experience your character’s birth. He comes out of the womb and you have to hit buttons to make his tiny arms and legs move. Later, you see an event in his youth with his brother. You meet his father, mother and sister. Considering that none of us lived during the renaissance, this is all important because now that he has a family, we can see that he is a sympathetic, living character. While we might not be able to relate to a familial conflict with another merchant family, we can feel his pain when something happens to his family or enjoy his repose while he’s drinking brandy with his dad.
Living characters have pasts. Even if we don’t dive into them very deeply, just knowing that they didn’t pop into existence to tell us a story gives them depth. In Dry Spells & Divinity, I use Twitter posts to give Abigail some extra personality. These are insights into her psyche and what she thinks about on a daily basis. A little frivolity makes her like us. Who hasn’t sent a mindless Twitter post about something they saw at the grocery store?
Along those lines, I do the same thing with those around her. Give them hobbies that they may or may not pursue on camera. Let them experience joys that they’d be crushed to lose. Show them as occasionally petty and sometimes great. Real people are not perfect and they don’t always make the right choices, don’t always say the right thing. They use slang, they shorten sentences, they put their foot in their mouth and somehow, we always come out okay. Sure, there are exceptions and we can paint ourselves in corners but so should our characters.
Perfect people lose an audience’s interest quickly. They don’t even make sense. When everything a character tries works out, when everything they say is stunningly brilliant, when no one can call them on the floor for their foolishness, they are simply too good to be true. Nothing will have a book, movie or game put away faster than a character without flaws.
The cop drama video game LA Noire was recently released. This highly anticipated title boasted technology that was used in Avatar to capture the faces of the actors so that their mouths moved correctly when speaking and you could gauge facial expressions when performing interrogations. LA of 1947 was faithfully recreated for you to drive around in and explore. Because of the people who made it and the fact that it was a noir drama, it was simply expected that the story would be fantastic.
However, LA Noire suffers from what I just spoke about. Your main character is not as interesting as the people around him. He’s too good, too pure, too saintly and too shallow. We never see his personal life until it practically blows up and at that point, we have to ask the question ‘he had a family?’ The authors could have used four extra minutes of cut scenes through the entire experience to rectify the situation but as it stands, when the big blow comes, we’re not sad for the character, we’re just shocked that anyone might care.
Meanwhile, the same company made Red Dead Redemption, a western. The lead character in that game was so endearing and so earnest that by half way through the game, even if you didn’t enjoy the mechanics, you just wanted to know what happened to him. He was flawed with real hopes and ambitions. His past was shady but he was doing his best to drag himself out of it. At the end of this game, people cried. The authors did their job.
There will be few tears at the end of LA Noire.
Novels really should stand well above these other mediums because they practically pioneered it. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham is an excellent example. Kitty is a bratty, spoiled girl who only left home with a man she didn’t love to escape her mother. Walter was a naïve young man who hoped that Kitty might grow to love him. When their marriage falls apart, we see how petty both of them can be and when they reconcile, the loss that Maugham introduces is all the more sorrowful.
Harry Potter’s characters have grabbed the attention of millions. There’s a kid for everyone to relate to regardless of what you were like in school. Even Potter himself who was a celebrity despite himself was someone that we could relate to because we could put ourselves in that position and feel that discomfort. The story arguably may have gone in an insane direction but through it all, the vehicles we were experiencing it kept us going.
There are thousands of examples and as you read books, watch movies, enjoy a television series or play games, think about the characters and what the authors have done to bring them to life. Analyze this information and think about what you would have done differently or how you’d make it better. Maybe there are techniques you’ll discover that you should adopt and maybe you’ll be able to smile and know that in your hands, that story would’ve had some real depth.
Caring about characters ultimately begins with the writer. If the author couldn’t give a damn about that element, everyone will see it. They’ll know before they get through the third page, ten minutes, or through the first boss battle. You’ll never experience a swifter mutiny than an audience jumping ship for bad characters.
Don’t get caught up in that uproar. Give your characters the attention they deserve or, if you’re not an author, don’t hesitate to give us a good swift kick to the pants. We probably deserve it!