Thoughts on Character Design

Character design has always been a favorite topic of mine, since engaging characters that I can identify with serve to engross me in a work of fiction more than anything else. (well, okay, maybe in a video game I’d put gameplay ahead of that, but that’s a different story)

There’s one thing that always bothers me about a story, whether it be a film, novel, video game, etc.  That one thing is when you have a narrative where your antagonist is more interesting than your protagonist.  It’s a problem that is prevalent in most works of fiction these days.  If you find that your audience is more interested in your villain than your hero, you’ve fucked up.

But why is it that people often find villains to be more interesting than heroes?  It’s simple.  Most heroes of today are dull uninteresting, blank slates.  They usually lack any real attitude and often have nothing driving them or their actions.  Compare that to a villain, who by their very design are individuals that are extremely driven for one reason or another.

Let’s compare Metal Gear Rising: Reavengance’s Raiden and Jetstream Sam.  Raiden, who still can’t shake the ire of fans from Metal Gear Solid 2, is not a very interesting or engaging hero.  He has nothing really driving him at the start of MGR except for his job and his own personal beliefs, which seem a little shaky.  Then, you compare him to Sam, magnificent motherfucker that he is.

sam

Not only is Sam charismatic where Raiden is not, he also acts on his beliefs instead of just idly going with the flow.  I can guarantee you that, after the beginning prologue of Revengeance, 99% of players wished they could have played as Sam instead of Raiden.  Poor Raiden, he just can’t catch a break, can he?

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.  How many times have you started a game where you wished you could have been playing the villain instead of the hero the game gives you simply because the villain seemed more interesting and fun?  Heroes these days are usually relegated to cheesy one-liners which do not carry the gravitas of Schwarzenegger or Eastwood one-liners, while villains always get the enthralling monologues about how they’re going to burn the world or whatever crazy shit they have planned.

A much more recent example of this would be The Evil Within’s protagonist Sebastian Castellanos compared to antagonist, Ruvik.  Now, this isn’t as clear cut as is the case with MGR.  Sebastian does have the perk of being a detective, which is pretty high up there on the list of badass professions for your protagonist.  The problem is, he’s practically a blank slate.  There’s really nothing driving him at all other than to survive and stop what’s causing all the death and madness.

Compare him to the enigmatic villain, Ruvik.  You don’t even really know what Ruvik is at first, which automatically makes him far more interesting than our hero.  Then as you go through the game, you learn more about Ruvik, even hearing his own recorded thoughts from left behind tape recorders.  Ruvik is a truly driven individual: he is motivated by a myriad of thoughts and feelings that become very obvious fairly early on in the game.  Not only that, but he’s also a menacing presence in the game itself, usually requiring the player to simply run from him whenever he appears.The_evil_within_sebastian_and_ruvik_thumbnail_by_itzgamingtime-d814lxd

I think some people may not even see this as a problem, which kind of bothers me.  Sometimes a writer may simply be aiming for their villain to be the the most interesting character over the protagonist.  If that’s the case, then why not simply make them the protagonist to begin with?  I think it makes for a stronger narrative for your most interesting and charismatic character to be your protagonist.  If your audience ends up rooting more for your antagonist over your protagonist, you’ve made a critical error from the start.

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One Response to “Thoughts on Character Design”

  1. I concur; too many protagonists are dull and uninteresting. I feel that you left out two important discussion points in your analysis, however.

    First, you provide no modern examples of protagonists which objectively succeed in making the audience cheer for them over the villain. That brings up a rather unfortunate question: do such protagonists currently exist within this decade?

    Secondly, you forgot to touch on one of the qualities of a good character which is, quite possibly, most important in determining an audience’s love for watching that character: a character’s flaws.

    As an extreme example of flawed characterizations, there is a reason that Greek tragedies are so timeless: the protagonists were so deeply flawed that not only do they fail to succeed in their endeavors, but they are powerless to combat their deeply flawed personalities even when they desperately try.

    In the case of villains, their flaws prove their undoing in a satisfying manner. Though the audience might sympathize with the villains, the course of the story demonstrated that they deserved to lose and the protagonists deserved to win.

    That’s actually another problem: do protagonists truly earn their victories in today’s media? Not only are they typically bereft of real flaws (“trusting people too much” is not a particularly deep flaw) to the point of being mary sues, the protagonists are typically so overpowered that the audience wants the villains to win just because the villains happen to be underdogs.

    It’s a multifaceted problem, but I believe all these points stem from your initial observation that these characters are bereft of interesting personalities.

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