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How to Write a Compelling Main Character

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When I was reviewing my script to gut the weak subplot out of it, I made a bigger realization. Kōtiro, the protagonist and main character, is weak. She’s a “strong woman” but she’s weak in the sense that she isn’t memorable.

What makes a memorable character?

Part of making a memorable character is giving them a critical flaw. Some demon that haunts them and threatens to derail the story goal completely.

When a character is always good and brave and smart and kind, he’s boring, and the situations he’s in are also boring. That bland nobility is what Kōtiro was suffering from.

Upping the Ante

There is a little known trick that may be the key to turning an alright character into one that is classic.

The trick is to make a character’s critical flaw also their greatest strength—to make the characteristic that almost dooms them the very same one that makes them the only person that could achieve the story goal.

Examples of Classic Characters

Frodo

I’ll pull a character straight from geek cannon: Frodo Baggins. He’s actually a little bland for my taste, but he illustrates this principle perfectly. Frodo is the main character in Lord of the Rings, and he is tasked with bringing the “one ring” to Mt. Doom to destroy it.

The reason he’s classic is that his primary characteristic is that he’s innocent. He’s small, and fat, and sweet, and kind, and good-hearted, and innocent. All the things you definitely don’t want to be if you’re fighting Sauron and his vast armies of orcs and trolls. Frodo’s ignorance of battle very nearly dooms his quest to failure.

However! No one else is capable of delivering the ring to Mt. Doom, precisely because Frodo is innocent enough to carry the evil ring without becoming immediately corrupted by it.

This tension between how necessary Frodo’s innocence is and how damning it is, is a perfect example of a classic character flaw.

Kratos

Another, more recent, example of a character with a classic critical flaw is Kratos, protagonist of the God of War series. I knew there was something special about this series when I first played it, but to be frank, the storyline is pretty much paper thin. Still, Kratos is such a compelling character, he’s became an instant classic.

Kratos is essentially a sociopathic Spartan warrior who kills everything in his path. His skill in battle is only matched by his brutality and callous disregard for life.

Without a single-minded focus on bloodshed, Kratos could not possibly succeed at the story goal of exacting revenge first on Ares, the titular god of war, then on the entire pantheon of supernatural beings from gods to titans.

The irony is that Ares had used Kratos’ brutality and disregard for life to trick him into killing his own wife and daughter, which launched him into his revenge quest to begin with.

So Kratos’ critical flaw of being almost inhumanly cruel is both his downfall and the characteristic that makes his story possible. Classic character.

Kōtiro’s Critical Flaw

My original concept was that Kōtiro’s power comes from her love for Aroha, but that she believes in love too much to actually go through with the story goal of preventing Rangi and Papa from being together.

It’s not believable enough. No matter how much you love someone, you’re going to favor saving the universe over spending time with your loved one. If the universe is destroyed that’s going to cramp your quality time anyway.

Even if you incorporate my thought from the previous post about Aroha persuading Kōtiro to stay in the underworld while the universe burned, Kōtiro is just too damn heroic to sit idly by while Tāwhiri kills her family and the world she came from.

The other issue is that love doesn’t really uniquely qualify Kōtiro to achieve the story goal. Lots of entities more powerful than Kōtiro have a stake in the universe not ending. Why Kōtiro?

I just wasn’t buying that Kōtiro being a little sappy would put a serious road block in her way to saving the world. She was a weak character because she had a weak critical flaw.

My new idea

Love is still an important theme in the game. Love is how Kōtiro ends up with the moko that grant her the magic that she uses to eventually win. But the twist is that the magic is a drug.

When she first is filled with that essence of magic, she feels incredible, powerful, and euphoric. It gives her the confidence and power to fight back against the enemies that threaten her family and world.

As time plods forward, the magic erodes her ability to function normally. She must get her magic “fix” just to operate at the level she once did naturally. She becomes distant and irritable, even toward Aroha. Still, she must continue absorbing magic in order to fight.

The more powerful her magic use becomes, the harder the come down is when she runs out, and the more desperate she is to get more.

As she struggles to stay sane despite failing health, she will eventually alienate her family, friends, and even Aroha.

At the end of the long journey to victory, she will happily return to Aroha by throwing herself onto the jagged rocks at the bottom of a sea cliff.

I that’s a pretty delicious and believable flaw. Kōtiro is noble at heart, but a girl scout she is not.


More Storyline Updates

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I’ve made pretty massive progress. The story is all but complete, but I’m having trouble connecting some parts in the middle, which is a traditionally difficult area of scripts.

I realized that the problem I’m having is mainly with the subplot, and that the reason there’s a problem is that my subplot really sucks.

Weak Subplot

(Spoilers Follow.)

Since the game is about love, the subplot explores love. In its current form the subplot is this: Kōtiro is betrothed to a man she doesn’t like. She has a lover that she wants to be with. The tension is between Kōtiro’s duty to her people to honor the betrothal versus her commitment to love and her lover. The idea is that her struggle with this personal problem will inform her quest to achieve the story goal.

This is an acceptable subplot for a lot of stories, but it makes no sense in the context of the world ending. The overall story goal is to stop the universe from being crushed, so a question about betrothal is utterly moot. Questions about the way things are done, which is kind of what the subplot is for, have one answer: stop the world from ending at all costs.

So the subplot is unacceptably weak.

A better Subplot

The changes I’m considering now bring in a plausible alternative point of view.

Ingo, the man Kōtiro is betrothed to, functioned as the the skeptic and contagonist, which means it was his job to deflect Kōtiro from the story goal. In this iteration, Ingo deflects Kōtiro by being a whiny pain in the ass. He just flapped his jaws a bit, and Kōtiro ignored him every time. It’s weak because he never takes any action and his point of view isn’t believable. There is no plausible alternative to saving the world, jaw flapping or not.

Meanwhile, Aroha is Kōtiro’s lover, and she functioned as the reason and love interest, but she was too weak also. She could never really be plausibly present with Kōtiro to influence her, and it didn’t make sense for her to be the “reason” archetype.

The answer is to flip things around.

  • Ingo is still the skeptic, but he’s also reason now, and he’s no longer betrothed to Kōtiro. He might be her brother or other relative. He will support Kōtiro but express disbelief at her plans (think of Han Solo in Star Wars).
  • The contagonist is Aroha, who now represents the emotion archetype, and remains the love interest. Remember, the contagonist isn’t opposed to the story goal per se, like the antagonist is. The contagonist is a source of temptation, luring the protagonist away from the story goal for their own reasons. In this case, Aroha has an opportunity to present the only plausible alternative viewpoint.
  1. I’ll emphasize a thread that I’ve had all along, which is that Kōtiro is an outcast among her people. Tolerated, but not liked by most.
  2. I will make Aroha an extremely likable and well-drawn character, the type you root for in the movie.
  3. I will then kill her brutally and senselessly, and with Kōtiro present for all its wretched pathos.
  4. Some time later Kōtiro will find herself in the underworld, and she will find Aroha there. The world ending will kill all life, but will leave the underworld basically untouched.

    There Aroha will beg for Kōtiro to stay with her. Why does she fight for all these people who don’t even like her? Why doesn’t she just stay with Aroha, for ever and ever, in the underworld, and let come what may in the upper world? Why make it her problem, when she can just ignore what’s going on above and live in peace and happiness down below?

  5. That is a plausible temptation for Kōtiro. She really could make that choice, even with the world ending. So that’s what I’ll weave.

    Site Improvements

    I needed a couple new tools for writing that I built into the site.

    Intensity Meter

    If you look on the main storyline page, you’ll notice red bars under each scene. That bar represents the intensity of the scene (in my case, the intensity of the gameplay action, not necessarily the emotional intensity). When the scenes are complete and fleshed out, and each has an intensity assigned, I’ll make the data into a pretty graph. This way I’ll be able to tell if it follows an appropriate pattern of cycling through intense/less intense scenes and escalating until the end.

    All in One Story Page

    It’s extremely useful to have each scene on its own page so that I can focus on it and rearrange it when I need to, and keep track of meta data about it. However, when you’re trying to read the story all the way through, and really understand the context of the scene, it would be nice to have a view of the script that’s complete from top to bottom.

    That’s why I built this page: All in One Story Page. That page has the latest script from top to bottom, so you can read it all the way through.

    Moving Forward

    Here’s the plan moving forward:

    1. Complete the first draft. I don’t know how long it’ll take. It depends on how well the new subplot meshes, but I suspect it’ll go well.
    2. Duplicate the draft pages. I want to leave the first draft as it is. In fact, I already don’t like how much history has been erased in terms of the evolution of the characters and script. I think it’s hugely valuable not only for the creative process but also for students who come later and want to see how something like this is created. So I’ll duplicate the pages in the first draft, to create a second draft that I can work on without disturbing what used to be there.
    3. Write second draft. Everything in a first draft is a structural element. It’s like building the frame of a house. The put the beams and brick in place, but don’t worry about finishing the floors or anything, because that’s what the second draft is for. You get to hang the drywall, and put in light fixtures. You make the house livable. I’ll be adorning the script with the appropriate depth and detail that’ll be hung on the structure of the first draft.
    4. Tweak the scene graph. After the second draft, all the scenes of the game will be pretty much fleshed out, and that’s when I’ll look at the intensity graph to make sure the pacing is going to be about right. I’ll make whatever tweaks are necessary to fit the plot into a nice rhythm. It’s worth mentioning that most of this careful planning will go right out the window when I’m faced with the reality of the working game. It’s worth at least understanding what I’m shooting for, even if it’s not where I end up.
    5. Storyboard. Each scene will be completely fleshed out by this point, so I can begin the process of storyboarding all the shots and interesting gameplay moments. This will help me later when I need to build the art assets and animations. It’ll also help bring the script to life in a serious way, and maybe earn some attention, which is one of my goals for this project.
    6. At that point I’ll have a complete storyline to build from. I don’t expect to do all of that before moving on to other elements of the game though. The story doesn’t have to be completely done to build many of the assets I know I need, including character art and environmental pieces. Still, it helps to have a direction and know how all the moving parts work together, which is why all this work and planning are worth it!


Storyline Progress

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I’ve posted the first quarter of the plot in the Writing section. It’s definitely a rough draft screen play, some of it is more filled in than other parts. You should not read it if you want to play the game without spoilers—it isn’t a teaser, it’s the draft I’ll be using to produce the game.

A few notes:

I am going to storyboard pretty much everything. Right now there are descriptions that are fairly specific, but I have pictures in my mind of exactly how everything will look. I’ll be coming back through and creating something like a comic book of each scene.

Some parts are not fleshed out. There are vague portions in which I say what should be there, but don’t actually have the detail, especially bits of dialog. The dialog currently there is all placeholder. Dialog is tricky to get right, especially in epic fantasy.

I am going to color code sections. Right now it’s all black, but I’ll be color coding the text to mark cut scenes, playable areas, scripted sequences, and script direction.

There are time continuity problems in this draft. You’ll notice from one scene to the next, the sun and moon are in nonsensical positions. One reason is that the story has moved around a lot. Another is that I tend to write visually: I imagine the action taking place as though I’m watching it, and in doing so I tend to capture the mood by the lighting I see, which depends on the time of day. So if I think something is ominous, I’ll make it dark. If I need a triumph then someone gets back lit by the sun. When you put it together, it doesn’t make sense. I’ll work that out in the next draft.

Here’s the link to the first scene, and you can follow the links at the bottom to see all the scenes that are posted:

Kōtiro Script: The Normal


Tellmesomethingnice about Kōtiro’s Music

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Kōtiro is really a labor of love for me. When I’m not working on it, I want to be. I’m always synthesizing the world around me through the lens of: how can I apply this knowledge, this beauty, this wonder, to my game, Kōtiro?

So I really didn’t expect any help with the project because it’s not just a one off–it’s the project that I want to be tyrannical about. I want it to be pure, authentic, and inspirational… and how could I possibly find someone who feels that way about my pet project, other than myself?

Well, when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, the universe has a way of saying “Yes” to you.

Enter Ryan Cole

In this case the “yes” came in the form of one Ryan Cole, of tellmesomethingnice.com. Given all the artistic purity stuff I spouted above, I was concerned about an area of weakness I feared I could not overcome: Music.

Too ignorant about it to make it, barely competent to listen. Where would I ever find someone who could live up to my impossible expectations of not only talent but passion?

After I had the Kōtiro game title logo made (forthcoming), Ryan saw it and became interested in the project–he is a musician (among other things) who had been looking for a game project to get involved with.

I tried to scare him off. I said I was a beast and tyrant… that I was obsessively pouring over myth and history to create a magnum opus game that really captured the essence of the Māori culture. That I was feverishly ensuring all the visuals and story were true to the culture, and I saw it as something of a moral responsibility to present the material authentically. This is not a cute little project for the faint of heart.

Instead of shying away, Ryan said he thought that the project sounded amazing, and he seemed inspired by my dedication. After that he jumped into the material in a way that I thought no one but me would. He’s been researching Māori and Polynesian music ever since, building tracks, and even recruiting voice talent and scrounging studio time .

I’m lucky to have him.

He has a blog dedicated to the music of Kōtiro, which you can find here. There is also a feed in the sidebar to the right, which has all his posts. You should go there and read some of his ideas, and listen to the tracks he’s been building.

Thanks Ryan, you rock.


Updates Forthcoming

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I’ve been hard at work for a while on a couple really cool things. I like to post things once they are complete, and since I’m at a “sort of but not quite” complete stage on several things, there hasn’t been much activity here. Here are some of the updates coming up:

  • Writing – I’ve made huge progress on the storyline, and characters. I updated the character information a little today, but I want to flesh out the story a little more, then I’ll do a full update, including an awesome free tool I developed to help me keep track of everything.
  • Kō’s design – Kō is almost complete visually. I have some portraits that’ll make you swoon, she’s looking like a real person now. I’m having some trouble with her top though. Once I figure that out, I’ll post all the visual progress.
  • Other character designs – I’ve spent a lot of time fleshing out the other characters too, and I’ll be posting some visuals in a little bit. They should be interesting!

The Courage to be Immoral

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(Warning, there is tasteful nudity in this post).

After waxing poetic about sexualized heroines in games, and extolling the virtues of courage in storytelling, I find myself backed into a corner.

Whatever I do, I will be an asshole. Here’s the story:

I wanted to create a good female character. Someone who was respectable, strong, competent, yet feminine. I endowed my creation with a strong trunk, breasts of normal size and shape, strong legs, feminine hips.

Well, first it turns out that athletic women are pretty skinny, especially from the side, which happens to the primary angle of this game:
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Ethics of Beauty and Body Image in Video Games

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I’m in the concept phase of designing my game’s female main character, . Of course, when designing characters the goal is to make them distinctive and memorable, which means a distinctive silhouette among other things.

Let’s be perfectly clear here: most games solve this problem for women by giving them inflated boobs and tiny waists. It may have worked for Lara Croft, but in a field rife with bodacious tahtahs, exaggerated sexual anatomy doesn’t make a distinctive character anymore.
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