The three Cs of character, YouTube video

HareBrain

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I'm not particularly great on the how-to's of writing. I've read and watched a lot of stuff that didn't stick. This did.


Over the past weeks I've watched *cough* Netflix's series She Ra and the Princesses of Power. Like the presenter of the video, I found myself getting caught up in it despite being way outside its target audience. A lot of elements are mediocre at best, hardly surprising given that it's an updating of a kids' cartoon designed to sell toys in the 80s, but I agree with him that the main character work is superb (both writing and acting), and I like his breakdown of how that drives audience engagement. In the days since I watched it, it's given me an insight into what I can do better with my own characters. His points might seem obvious to a lot of people, but I'm summarising them here in case anyone else benefits from them. (It's possible the video might still be interesting if you haven't watched the show, I'm not sure.)

He groups his comments under three "C" headings.

Circumstance. You get the most from your characters when you put them in situations that reveal and test their character traits, and change things up when those situations have been exhausted in terms of character exploration. That might sound "well, duh", but how many of us build a plot around doing just that?

Cognition. Reader engagement with character is highest when they know why the character is doing what they're doing. This might seem even more obvious, but often characters, especially villains, are deliberately presented as mysteries in terms of their motivation. The YouTuber contrasts She-Ra's main villain Catra (the best written character in the show) with Danaerys at the end of Game of Thrones, whose motivation for her actions in S8E5 are kept obscure. With Catra, we know exactly where she's coming from all the way through, and her drives are very human and relatable. With Dany, we're left in the end with unsatisfying speculation, and almost forced to come to the conclusion that she'd been written into a pre-designated plot "arc".

If a villain or character has a mystery element to what drives them, that can be intriguing, but there is always a trade-off with relatability. Often I think it pays to sacrifice the intrigue and let the reader in on what's going on in the character's head: you reduce the promise of future satisfaction, but increase current satisfaction because the reader understands the drama better. (You also avoid the possibility that the reveal will be disappointing.)

The YouTuber's third C is comedy. He makes good points about this, but I think it's the most narrowly applicable to fiction in general. Nevertheless, comedy that comes from character (rather than the world) will almost always enhance reader engagement where it makes sense for that character to do or say that funny thing in that circumstance. It's probably the hardest thing to do deliberately, however, and most likely to backfire if forced.

I'll briefly go back to Game of Thrones for a related point about character arcs. I wonder if too much emphasis is put on these compared with having characters act out their traits and make decisions based on those. Though I would struggle to assemble evidence for this, my feeling is that the first seasons of GoT (and the books) did not worry about arcs much, they just got on with having the characters do what they would in the various complex situations they were presented with. I think this is possibly far more satisfying for a reader than sacrificing accuracy of character depiction in favour of being able to map out a coherent arc for them. If a character is relatable and interesting, and always acts as they would genuinely do in that situation (without the author nudging them towards some predesignated future) that is its own arc.
 
While at first this video does seem like a ridiculously over-thought analysis, I bet the writers thought something very similar and very consciously. Besides, seemingly disposable entertainment is hugely strengthened by good characterisation: one of the reasons that I liked Aliens: Fireteam Elite was the characterisation of entirely stock figures in an ultimately banal computer game.

There are characters you don't want to look inside or humanise, usually villains who are just straight-up a-holes and need to be that for the plot. And other characters work better without a huge backstory, only hints of it (Boba Fett, say). I wonder if a lot of stories naturally gravitate towards a supportive "super team" or duo, consisting not just of useful skills but also weaknesses and amusing quirks that can be better exploited by the writer when they're in a group. It certainly helps for comedy, where characters can bicker and riff off one another in a characterful way.

I find the idea of moving characters around to get the best out of them very interesting. Sometimes the plot is best expressed through certain people and, when it's done, those people need to be retired or moved out of the spotlight. This is the advantage with an ensemble cast.

I think it's very hard to say much about GoT, because it's not got an obvious plot structure, and it's unfinished. But I'd agree with this:

If a character is relatable and interesting, and always acts as they would genuinely do in that situation (without the author nudging them towards some predesignated future) that is its own arc
 
I find the idea of moving characters around to get the best out of them very interesting.
Sometimes this is much easier said than done, though. She-Ra makes this easy for itself by having a very low level of realism in terms of how characters get from A to B, get through enemy lines etc. The writers can almost do what they want with them.

Using GoT again as the counter-example, this started off with characters taking (realistically) many episodes to get from one end of Westeros to the other. By the end characters were virtually teleporting so they would be where the writers (no longer GRRM) wanted them for the plot to happen, and this was picked up as ridiculous by many commentators.

To use it in a work of serious fiction would need a lot of forethought, but it is something that didn't occur to me before, and it could prevent staleness or the need to keep continually upping similar stakes.
 
True. I'm not just thinking about literally moving characters from place to place, but pushing different people to the foreground in order to make best use of different plot ideas. I suppose ensemble shows like TNG do this a lot, especially where one actor is more available than others and the writers can focus on him for a particular story.

Moving characters around in traditional fantasy is difficult, though. Personally, I fudged it and had magical pathways, but that in itself raises new plot opportunities, especially if only certain people can access the pathways.
 
"All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George Box

I enjoy these types of simplified models of complex issues. I find that they are useful when trying to decide why something isn't working; I haven't developed the skill to do much forward planning. I'll add the 3 Cs to my list of analysis tools.
 
Thanks for sharing the video, it gave me a bunch to think about.
If a character is relatable and interesting, and always acts as they would genuinely do in that situation (without the author nudging them towards some predesignated future) that is its own arc.
This rings true to me.
But what about character growth? Do you think a character needs to show growth in order for it to be a satisfying arc? This is usually basic advice, give the character a false belief at the start and have them learn the error of their ways by the end. For example Dorothy wants to travel 'somewhere over the rainbow', then at the end she realizes 'there's no place like home'.
When I think of some of my favourite fiction characters, it occurs to me that some have these satisfying arcs where they show real internal change, but some don't and stay the same. So does character growth/change even matter?
 
But what about character growth? Do you think a character needs to show growth in order for it to be a satisfying arc? This is usually basic advice, give the character a false belief at the start and have them learn the error of their ways by the end. For example Dorothy wants to travel 'somewhere over the rainbow', then at the end she realizes 'there's no place like home'.
Good question. It is satisfying when a character grows in a way that ties in with the theme of the story (e.g. theme is friendship, and they learn something about its nature) but I don't think it's essential; there are many other kinds of satisfaction. And it is dissatisfying when that kind of resolution is only achieved by bending some of the other elements around it.

Some stories don't need character growth. In a series detective novel such as one of the Poirots, the MC mostly doesn't change and the reader doesn't want him to, because his character is a winning formula at the outset. Minor characters would probably grow, or at least change. Maybe all that's essential is that some characters change; but if you put them in situations that reveal and test their character (as outlined above) that's probably inevitable. (But one of the most interesting things to me about John Fowles's amazing novel The Magus is that the MC is subjected to what is meant to be a powerful teaching experience, and comes away with all his faults intact. Or at least that's how I interpreted it.)

What I think is most important is that a character pathway doesn't just fizzle out. Imagine if in LOTR we never saw Gollum again after Shelob. Rather than worry about what characters are learning, I find one of my main problems is working out how enough members of an ensemble can each have enough of significance to do later on in a series, especially when you keep adding characters.
 
@therapist , @HareBrain interesting discussion for me re: the need for character development.

Do characters need to change? Aren't interesting stories also ones where we find out the depths of a character? Say a character is introduced to us as callous, but by their reactions we discover that they have a soft side? I think what is interesting is how our perception of the character changes regardless of whether they themselves change, or if it is our understanding of them that has evolved.
 
Do characters need to change? Aren't interesting stories also ones where we find out the depths of a character? Say a character is introduced to us as callous, but by their reactions we discover that they have a soft side? I think what is interesting is how our perception of the character changes regardless of whether they themselves change, or if it is our understanding of them that has evolved.
Yes, this is a marshy area, genuine vs perceived change. A person probably can't acquire characteristics that were previously completely absent, so to some extent growth is inevitably just revealing what was already there, but to be satisfying this should probably be revealed -- and better understood by the character -- because of their experiences during the story. If it's something that was always there but just happened not to be shown earlier in the story, and then just suddenly is shown, I don't know how satisfying that would be, because the character's perception of themself hasn't changed -- it's just that information was previously hidden from the reader, and if a lot of emphasis is put on this appearances-only change, that might come across as a cheat.

Another kind of growth could be learning new skills or powers. That wouldn't necessarily need any moral epiphanies etc, though it's probably more satisfying if the two are tied together.
 
I feel that there are many examples of a character not undergoing change in successful stories. One can stretch the meaning of change (and I have been guilty of that in the past), but that, I feel, is trying to force a truth that does not exist. A character may very well start off competent and full of confidence giving the reader no expectation that the character will evolve. This is represented in many mystery stories. Jack Reacher is the same throughout 25+ novels. James Bond is the same character at the beginning and end of his stories. Sherlock Holmes doesn't evolve.

If a character, especially a primary character, starts out incompetent, insecure, or with some other negative quality, there is a promise to the reader that the character will grow and overcome it. It may add interest to have a growth arc for a character, but many successful novels to not have character growth.
 
Circumstance. You get the most from your characters when you put them in situations that reveal and test their character traits, and change things up when those situations have been exhausted in terms of character exploration. That might sound "well, duh", but how many of us build a plot around doing just that?

Incredibly true, both in terms of "yes, that makes great stories" and "how many of us think to do that".

I would add that this is somewhat baked into quest narratives and bildungsromans, two things fantasy love.

I'll briefly go back to Game of Thrones for a related point about character arcs. I wonder if too much emphasis is put on these compared with having characters act out their traits and make decisions based on those. Though I would struggle to assemble evidence for this, my feeling is that the first seasons of GoT (and the books) did not worry about arcs much, they just got on with having the characters do what they would in the various complex situations they were presented with. I think this is possibly far more satisfying for a reader than sacrificing accuracy of character depiction in favour of being able to map out a coherent arc for them. If a character is relatable and interesting, and always acts as they would genuinely do in that situation (without the author nudging them towards some predesignated future) that is its own arc.

I think the opening seasons of GoT were very conscious of arcs, just they didn't have to sacrifice anything in setting them up because a) the possibilities are wider at the start than the finish b) they were better written
 

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