Discussion: What Makes a Compelling Character

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Since there have been so many discussions on character development (male, female, or otherwise) I wanted to start a discussion (just a discussion here, no promises implied) about what it is that you find the most compelling or interesting about a character? What is it that makes a strong female character strong, or a male character the right kind of vulnerable? What is "enough" for the development of a character?

Everyone has their different perspectives and rather than an argument about what people don't like, I thought it would be productive to find out a bit more about what it is you like.

(Examples are always welcome as well.)

*As always, please keep it clean and refrain from any personal attacks or inappropriate discussion. Please avoid flame bait points of discussion. ie. If you know it usually ends badly, please try to be aware of that.
Heyo, Neth taking over the story forums.

There are many levels on which a character can be identified as compelling. Likewise, there are many people who have different views on what makes a character compelling.

For me, a compelling character is someone that on some level, you can identify with. A compelling character doesn't always have to do the right thing (or isn't even capable of doing so), is seen to have flaws, and mistakes are learned from, not forgotten.

Compelling characters come in wide ranges and spectrums, and are as numerous for heroes as there are villains.

A good example of a compelling character (in my opinion) would be pre cataclysm Varian Wrynn, before he got beat over the head with his demi-god champion status (which as far as I can tell, isn't being excercised).

At this time, Varian Wrynn was shown to be a very passionate leader as he marched the Alliance into Northrend to battle the Lich King. After Bolvar's death at the Wrathgate, Varian Wrynn could no longer tolerate the horde's prescence, and staged an assault on the Undercity, the once great kingdom of Lordaeron, his second home, in hopes of reclaiming it in the name of the alliance and for its rightful owners, the still living citizens of Lordaeron residing within Stormwind and pocketed throughout the region. His retribution was justified and swift when he dove into the Undercity, taking out Putress - A forsaken apothecary responsible for Bolvar's death. From there, he realized that Thrall - leader of the horde - was also in the city walls, and decided it was time to take action. A lot of blood would have been shed, and Thrall and Varian may have well maimed each other to a point of crippling status, but Jaina stopped the fight, and whisked everyone away.

Once the Alliance assaulted Icecrown, it was Varian who appeared and vouched for Varok Saurfang to allow him to collect his son. This was a Varian who dispised the horde, but based on some of the things he had heard regarding the wrathgate, he could give Saurfang this much - a real burial for his son, a true warrior - something Saurfang hopefully won't have forgotten.

This Varian Wrynn was Compelling. As soon as Wolfheart came in, it changed quickly. It turns out that Varian Wrynn's anger stemmed from his Lo'gosh personality brought on by the defusion of his body at the hands of Onyxia. With the assistance of the Worgen, Varian Wrynn not only channeled his anger that increased his power by <insert power up joke here>, and afterwards, he assembled the Worgen, and tore through ashenvale to help the night elves against Garrosh's ambush.

The Varian Wrynn that we have now is not so much compelling. He has little in the way of personality now, and much like Thrall did in Cataclysm, is slowly starting to kick other lore characters in the face while they are already down (Tyrande went from Badass Priestess of Elune to Malfurion arm candy to Varian's inept night elf commander). I liked the Varian Wrynn when his development didn't kill off everyone elses development.

A bad example of a Compelling Character is of course the Mary Sue. There have been a great number of Mary Sue's in Wow's history, and I'm not going to mention the easiest targets, but instead, I'm going to focus on one of the lesser looked at Sues.

Lucan Foxblood is an example of a Mary Sue. He is practically a plot device in order to move the story forward for Stormrage and of course to reach the end of the story, it wouldn't have been possible without him. A human who had no seeming connection to druidism, nature, or otherwise and then unassumingly he is the only person that can do what needs to be done.

I digress.

Compelling characters can have unique abilities and potentials, but it is more believeable if these special abilities they possess are within their actual family line. While cheesy, if Lucan Foxblood were to learn that his family line had a green dragon somewhere in it, I could have believed it.
For me it's hard to say. There are times when an intended relatable character is annoying, and then there are times when a character that represents an idealology is epic.
Self-reliant and rational. Not that they can't work together, but they shouldn't be a flailing, helpless magikarp without other people there to hold their hand every step of the way.
For me, characters need to feel real. Someone like Thrall just feels too "perfect" for me to like. Sky Admiral Rogers for example is someone that feels very real to me. She's doing her duty and serving the Alliance. Has she done some stuff some might consider...iffy? Sure. Does she have at least a bit of a desire for revenge? I'm willing to bet so. But that's human, it's normal. We're not perfect, we try to do good but end up doing bad things some time.
I like characters that people can relate too. They have their flaws that could be explained by previous events that happen in their lives. Thrall's upbringing would explain why he always expects the best in people for example. Varian is very protective and is prejudiced against orcs. I think some of these characters may have gone a bit over the top but I liked their personalities they had from their upbringings. It made them seem real.
Honestly in regards to this franchise, I can say what doesn't make a compelling character:

-Having a character written by way too many writers(Garrosh)

-Having a character be inconsistent(Garrosh)

-Not clearly showing character development(Illidan and Kael'thas from TFT to TBC)

-Making a character a function to the setting, rather than a real person. This is Blizzard's big problem. Garrosh for example is merely echoing the frustrations of the Orcs who want to be conquerors. Illidan and the Highborne were/are people who fill that necessary "Isn't magic our birthright?" stance in Night Elf society.

Thrall was compelling because he was a person first and then a Shaman second. We got to see how he was raised and really get under his skin before he even met Drek'thar. But in WCIII he was Warchief and Shaman, and he felt more like a function to the plot than a person. He was the personification of a set of principles that, while interesting on their own, did very little to tell us about his character.
I find a character compelling when they act in a way that's relatable or I could see as a logical progression of events.

Fandral & Leyara and Varian are my favourite example of this.

Children of Wrath went over why Fandral Staghelm has one of the best written stories in the World of Warcraft, but summarised:

Archdruid Staghelm is a good man brought low by the indifference of the forces we consider good.

Nobody can deny that Staghelm cared deeply for the Night Elves. He cared so much that his dedication cost him the single most precious thing in his life (and for a immortal being, thats saying something): his son, Valstann. Not only did he lose him, but in a horrific way. Valstann was literally torn in half before his very eyes.

But the most heartbreaking thing about the story to me is that it was entirely preventable. It was the indifference of the Dragons that caused the loss of his son. Only when they were personally affected (sound familiar, Dalaran?) did they deign the cause worthy and got involved. They even had the nerve to chastise him when he (rightfully) went off at them and shattered the Sceptre of the Shifting Sands.

Leyara's story is similar, and its why I still have SOME faith in the story team. I have no doubt that the parallel between the two was done on purpose: losing what's most important to you because of the indifference from the forces we consider 'good'.

For Fandral, it was the Dragons. For Leyara, it was Malfurion.

The difference is that Leyara is far, FAR more relatable. Why? Because she fell. She didn't heroically rise above the loss of her daughter, cast aside her hatred of the Horde, and lead the charge against the Firelord.

No, she fell to despair over losing Istaria. A loss that Malfurion could have prevented. But didn't. Who can't relate to losing a loved one? Who can't relate to falling into despair over something completely preventable?

When your world has been destroyed, why should you care if everybody else's burns?

Leyara was the only truly compelling story in all of Cataclysm for me.

Would I have preferred she and Fandral be Alliance? Hell yes. A pair of vengeance driven Druids, ripping the throats out of every Orc they see, defending the Night Elves when Malfurion wouldn't? Awesome.

But I'm glad she went out the way she did; it was honestly a fitting end to the progression of her character.

I'll get into why I love Varian (and why I love the faction war so much in general) later on.
03/29/2013 11:20 AMPosted by Katarn
For me, characters need to feel real. Someone like Thrall just feels too "perfect" for me to like.

I know what you mean, to an extent. I think they've done a good job establishing that Thrall isn't perfect, and not just in that he was internally conflicted about his destiny. Between Cataclysm, Mists, and Tides of War, Thrall has all but admitted that making Garrosh warchief was a poor choice, and the fact that that decision has caused irrevocable damage is something that is, at least partially, on him. The fact that the most powerful shaman on Azeroth can still make such a misjudgment keeps Thrall grounded despite his part-time Aspect status.

This is a great topic, Neth, and should make for some interesting discussion. I'll have to think on your original post and come back later :)
I picture a compelling male character to be similar to Commander Taylor in the show "Terra Nova". Older, wise, strong, independent and with a mysterious background. He is a leader who takes the opinions of his advisers into consideration before acting. The character shouldn't look like Adonis, he should look real. Average height and muscle, eyes that make you think, "Man, I should not mess with this guy" and maybe a subtle scar to show past battles. Part of the mysterious background should be the loss of a wife, before a child is born. Having lost his partner, he has sworn to avenge her by making sure the ones who killed her come to justice and no one will ever live in fear of being attacked.

A strong female character to me should have the some of the same attributes as a male. However, I personally like a female who is beautiful, sexy, and an overall badass. While also being wise and independent, she should have a tragic background instead. Having gone through such a tragedy she realizes how the world is dangerous and cruel, so she takes matters into her own hands to carve a safe future for her people. I'm not really a fan of female characters "evolving" into a relationship since it is done far too often. Instead, I believe the character should treat men how they treated her in the past. As an object used for sex. Of course, this can't really be shown in a game like Warcraft.

Essentially, I like my female characters like Sylvanas. She has the tragic background, she knows how cruel the world can be, and now she is trying to create a safe haven for her and her people. As far as we know though, she is treating Koltira like an object beneath the Undercity.

I realize I'm sounding a bit like a hypocrite when it comes to a wife/mother dying. However, in this scenario, the wife's past would be somewhat fleshed out and we'd know how she died, unlike many wives/mothers in the game where their names are only listed so we know who's mother she was.
Faults, and mistakes. You have to know that the person you're reading/looking at can reach a low point - and that way when they do well or exceed, it feels awesome to watch.
To me it's all about their story.

A compelling character is one who has shown weakness, strength and everything in between. A good character is one who is not good nor evil but rather teeters on that grey edge between the two. I love characters who make me think "what would I have done in that situation?".

Leyara is a wonderful example of this and I think Siast has done a great job explaining why she is so compelling.

Above all, I love characters who have the strength to stand on their own and who don't forget themselves should they chose to be part of a group.
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You need to write your story to fit your characters instead of your characters to fit your story. Malfurion hating Ragnaros for destroying Hyjal but being cool with the Horde destroying Ashenvale doesn't make any sense. Garrosh killing Krom'gar for bombing Stonetalon and then bombing Theramore himself doesn't make sense. Varian getting mad at the Orcs instead of the Forsaken in Battle of the Undercity doesn't make sense. Too often your writers come up with a plot development that doesn't really fit and have people act out of character to justify it, when instead they should be coming up with plot developments that work with the characters and setting.

Characters should be flawed but those flaws should not alienate them from the viewer. It's okay for Varian to hate the Horde, but when you just have him rant about it with no in-game explanation he comes off as an angry racist. And most people in this day and age don't sympathize with angry racists. Now, had you elaborated more on what the Forsaken did in battle of the Undercity -kidnapping and torturing Alliance citizens while the factions were supposed to be at peace- and how it affected him and the Alliance, I think a lot of people would have liked Varian from the beginning, even if you still presented him as being "wrong" for wanting war with the Horde.
I think one important thing is that unless you actually want players to see a character as being incompetant, avoid having situations where they are completely, objectively wrong. Not that they can't be mistaken from time to time of course, but when other characters say a character's idea is stupid from the beginning and there is zero vindication in the end, it's though not to see a character as being at least somewhat incompetent.

It's part of why A Little Patience went over as badly as it did. Tyrande wasn't simply shown as being a little too aggressive, she was shown to be objectively wrong. There were other factors in the scenario (such as the fact Varian's plan really shouldn't of worked, or at least not nearly as well as it did since it hinged on the Horde continually charging into a meat grinder) that caused a negative reaction, but I think that's the main one.

Things are looking up on the Trials of the High King front with what I've seen datamined about the Blood in the Snow scenario, but I don't think this point can be pressed enough.
Well I don't think about it in terms of "strong male character" or "strong female character" or whatever. I just think in terms of "strong protagonist" and "strong antagonist". Because a lot of the time, a well-written protagonist can be plugged in as male or female without affecting the plot too much. I think when you start shoehorning characters into gender stereotypes, that's when they become watered down.

I think this is especially true for female characters. I know a lot of real-life women don't like to be portrayed only as the "damsel-in-distress", the only emotional character, or the "team mom". Some like to do plenty of !@#-kicking, and I think writing a protagonist first can lead to a very believable strong female character.

But personally, and I hope you guys (primarily Chris Metzen) don't take this the wrong way, but it's getting kind of tiring hearing him voice 50% of the main characters. Varian Wrynn, Thrall, Algalon, Vaelstrasz, Rexxar, Nefarian, Vol'jin, etc.. Don't get me wrong, he's a good actor and I know Warcraft is his baby, but I'm instantly turned off from a character when he sounds like every other character I've ever met. There's actually a running gag in my circle of friends whenever we run across a Metzen-voiced character. "Oh, it's so-and-so, he sounds just like Thrall, who sounds just like Vael, who sounds just like Varian..." etc.
I like a character who has deep personal struggles as well as flaws. Genn Greymane would be an example of this and I liked how there were consequences to his decisions and how best he did to gain resolve from them.
I really like it when a character endeavors heavily in reaching their appointed goals whatever they may be. It's always great to see someone strive for what ideals they stand for and do the best they can to see them to fruition.

Whether male/female, that is something i always want to see realized because that's something most people both in Azeroth/Real life try to do. What's always strange to me is how so many people see independence as "single", i can't even mention how many truly wise independent /get-things-done people i know who are in healthy/happy relationships.


Faults, and mistakes. You have to know that the person you're reading/looking at can reach a low point - and that way when they do well or exceed, it feels awesome to watch.

That bit clinches it all together, because no-one is infallible to a tee. Failure, and learning from that failure shows growth.
As far as female characters go, I will say that I'm very intrigued by Moira and how she'll develop. There's a practicality and genuineness about her that really distinguishes her from some of the "mad with power" female villains in WoW - not to say that Moira is a villain, which is another thing that makes her interesting. She seems like she could go either way.

I also appreciate that she breaks the standard fantasy heroine body-type (you know the one.) Having read a lot of the fiction that she appears in, and listening to her lines in 5.3, there's definitely an appeal to her wit and strength that makes her attractively feminine on more than a skin-deep level. Keep that voice actress around!
They need to be reliable and consistent... not as a character trait, but in how they're written. They need to feel like a real person with goals who is working toward those goals, a person who may develop over time, but won't derail randomly. That's where I can start to identify with characters.

This is much harder in an IP like Warcraft's with lots of writers, of course, but it's important. I think this has been done both well and poorly in the world.

Tirion Fordring is my bad example. With the expansion of the Forsaken, he's broken his vow to his dying son never to let evil hide behind 'politics and pleasantries' by refusing to attack them because they're part of the Horde. This isn't just a H/A gripe, but something that goes against the core of a character I loved in Vanilla, from the In Dreams questline. The Tirion we'd come to know was an uncompromising man who put his word and his honor above everything, even in the face of good sense, repeatedly. How could he stand back (for two years, now, running) when he sees Andorhal, or hears about Hillsbrad? It's possible that he's willing to retire and rest on his laurels after defeating Arthas and reclaiming Mardenholde, which he'd been kept from for a good decade or more. If so, we need to see that change, have him questioned by some former Silver Hand paladins, etc, or it just looks like a derail.

On the other hand, we have Varok Saurfang. He started out as just a badass character with some cool quotes, but got gradually expanded to leading the Might of Kalimdor, and then really comes into his own as a character in Northrend. At every turn, we've seen Varok as an honorable old warrior who is willing to fight for a better future, but is deeply haunted by his past (his "I don't eat pork" speech to Garrosh is still amazing). Thrall's datamined voice files suggest that he will have a role coming up in 5.3 and 5.4, which is in keeping with his promise to kill Garrosh if he ever leads the Horde down a dark path. Consistency.

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