Discussion: What Makes a Compelling Character

Story Forum
Prev 1 2 3 18 Next
I ll edit my response when I get time
You know what makes a compelling character? Not being a panda. Non-pandas are compelling.

Screw that, I LOVE Taran Zhu.

To me, Taran is a compelling character. He had a flaw (His growing hatred for the Horde - Alliance war), it had dire consequences, and rather than roll over on it like a lot of WoW characters do, he went and he solved the problem himself.
A little background. Here's the kinds of shows I watch (should give you an indication of what kinds of characters I like):

- Battlestar Galactica
- Game of Thrones
- The Walking Dead
- Breaking Bad
- Being Human (not as good as the above, but in the same category)

I absolutely love characters who struggle with the conflict between who they are/their values, and the situation the world puts them in. I love that some of them are forced to change (often in ways that makes them and the viewer uncomfortable), some of them overcome, and some of them fall. And sometimes it isn't as clean as all that even.

Let's take two villains for comparison in WoW (the game): Arthas and Deathwing.

Arthas is the tragic hero who succumbed to the weight of defending his people. His story was told very well in Wrath (ignoring anything that isn't WoW the game right now) through the CoS heroic 5 man. You could feel his pain. The quests introduced you to this fallen hero turned enemy. The ICC 5 mans (HoR specifically) introduced the antagonists to him (Jaina and Sylvanas) and their tortured relationship to him (as well as developing their own story). It was perhaps the best villian character development in a video game . . . ever. Everyone wanted to raid ICC to see him fall (and as such, we all felt a sense of foreboding the first time setting foot in that place).

Deathwing was a one dimension character because he had no struggle. He was the "muwhahahaha Me the Bad Guy" melodramatic villian that bores the heck out of everyone. Why? Because there was little balance to him. There was no backstory provided, no struggle portrayed with him vs. the corruption of the Old Gods. The little hints of that struggle were crushed out of the story (his conflict with Alexstrasza in the Twilight Highlands, for instance, is so poorly written for his character it made me want to cry). I mean, here was a grand opportunity to show us another fallen protector of Azeroth and the struggle he underwent (and eventually lost) in becoming Deathwing. But we didn't get any of that, so he just turned into a paper villian and it frankly had a terrible effect on the entire expansion.

I could do one on heroes as well (and I promise not to use Sylvanas who, while one of the best written characters ever, is too much of a lightning rod to use in these discussions). But I'll leave that for later in the discussion.
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!

I have to agree. Moira is a character I have intrigued in as well. She's a loving mother trying to make sure her child grows up in a world where he can lead two of the Dwarven Kingdoms into prosperity. Her also being a Dwarf makes it so she doesn't look like Alexstrasza.

Going to say this while I mentioned her. I was really disappointed in Blizzard's choice of clothing for Alexstrasza and Ysera. They were Dragon Aspects, some of the most powerful beings in Azeroth, yet they dress like they're going to go work the corner.
For me, it's all about being relatable. It's very easy to accidentally alienate plot characters from the players, regardless of how objectively strong or weak said character is. We players have downed villains, Old Gods, more dragons than I can remember. We're powerful things, yet there's an odd suspension of disbelief when it comes to the story. To simply put it, written characters placed "above" us in power come across as offensive (power without authority), while those "beneath" us in power are held in contempt (authority without power).

The best way to avoid this wall, I think, is to let the characters shine at the players' level. Get them in the trenches, put them in situations that feel familiar to us, and let us fight alongside them whenever possible. Show us their personality traits in ways a player might find meaningful. If a character is meant to be very brave and battle hardened, have him or her clear trash/mobs with us (even better, give 'em combat abilities that players might find useful, like interrupts or roots or taunts). If a character is more "thinky" than that, give us a lot of quests with them. Let their faults make them flawed, but not in ways that feel like an inconvenience to players. For example, I love Lor'themar's bench flip at the end of the 5.1 line. You could see his frustration at the whole situation, of not wanting the burden of this leadership but stoically taking up the mantle anyways. It was really unexpected and really cool, because you were right there with him. You felt that bench flip moment coming. The "wrong" way to do that would've been to make us do all the effort, then force us through a lot of dialogue well before or after the event that inspired it.

Obviously, Character Development 101 pointers like giving them flaws in the first place make them relatable too, but I don't see much need in going into that.

To use some classic examples...

Players generally loved Thrall when he was one-shot orc punching a guard in the Caverns of Time. They liked him a lot less when he was just yelling about saving the world while hiding in the back with the Dragon Aspects.

Tirion was awesome back in the old Plaguelands, and you felt for him when he lost his only son. I was pretty indifferent towards him once he started just yelling from the sidelines and sitting in an ice block for 10+ minutes.

Thrall went on a quest of self-discovery to become the super shaman, most of which we weren't there for. Meh. Wrathion is literally questing us through his own rise to fame. Hell yeah.

All in all, I think it's an easy trap to sometimes think too much like a developer or a writer when dolling out stories and characters for WoW. Especially when the devs are usually months ahead of the players in where the story is. I think it'd be very helpful to kinda bring oneself down to our level. Say "If this were an ordinary quest NPC, how would we be portraying them?"

If nothing else, remember the Plinkett Test:

"Describe the character in as many ways as possible without mentioning their appearance, title, or role within the story. Describe them as if you're talking to a person who 'ain't never seen Warcraft before.' The more descriptive words you can list, the stronger the character."
I agree with the others who have said flaws, the ability to grow, etc. This is what enables stories about a stormwind candlemaker to be very interesting depending on what happens. The candlemaker has no access to an unlimited font of power, but maybe they're coping with a child who passed away and the potential loss of their business.

To put it into more specific WoW terms - the reason a lot of people don't like Med'an is because the kid became a total all powerful great and mighty with no real flaws or issues he needed to resolve except for becoming more powerful and discovering he was the key to saving the world or whatever. I would rather read about the desolate candlemaker than Med'an, because Med'an is (to borrow a quote) practically perfect in every way.

This logic of the all powerful can-do-no-wrong is also why people starting disliking Thrall during cataclysm. It's okay to have strong characters, but you have to make them compelling. Having a character who can literally hold up the entire world pillar by themselves is like, why? This is why the ancient Greeks gave Achilles' his weak spot. Without that kind of weak spot, you get a gary stu.

And this doesn't just apply to power, it applies to attitude too. So you have these extremely godlike and patient characters like Velen and how do they come off? Boring. He doesn't get angry, he's just all knowing and patient. Ask yourself why more people like Riko the Hozen than Velen, a high prophet?

In terms of male vs. female characters in this game I will say there is a dearth of good female characters - especially now that Aegwynn was killed off. I love Jaina, I like Sylvanas as a character, Shandris, Tyrande, etc. they're all awesome. I had hoped that Thrall's first child would be a girl so that there would be potential for a female warchief someday. Thrall's attitude towards women kind of stinks anyway. His advice to Jaina during the Theramore book was that she should settle down and have a kid to calm herself down. And then in the new sound files he tells someone to watch over Aggra for him. The same Aggra that taught him almost everything he knows.

And allianceside Tiffin's sole purpose was to exist so she could die and add more depth to Varian's and Anduin's characters.

These are minor nitpicks and I know that some people get uncomfortable when gender in WoW is brought up but it would be nice to see more ladies at the forefront kicking some butt. Admiral Taylor was awesome. And I don't think having more positive female characterization in this game would negatively impact the male characters, either.

Overall though, I do enjoy the storyline and characters in WoW. Otherwise I wouldn't do my best to keep up with it.
I find characters that have a non-human sense of morality interesting. How is an orc different from a green skinned vengeful human. If an orc was transformed into a human and tried to live in a human town, would it be difficult. Would she blend in, or would people start questioning her sanity?

Are all mogu evil? Could you say that different Mogu have different personalities? Dare we the players shed a tear for any members of this race?

Sometimes I feel like that want to add a trait to a character, you simply add it, and then add a bunch of story justifying why that are like that. You don't surprise us with the way events change a character, it just simply is, oh look he's doing evil things, we all know where this will go.

Also, ease off on the laser guided karma. There are too many cases of the bad guys getting what they deserve
Flaws. Flaws make the character. This isn't something that translates well from real-life, but it's what I find the most compelling in fiction. The more heroic a character, the larger their flaws usually need to be.

One of my favourite fictional characters is Samuel Vimes, from the Discworld. He started out as a drunk, washed up (pretty literally, in a gutter) copper. He eventually rose to become Duke of Ankh (though he hates that title), a dedicated father, and one of the most noble, not nobility but noble, men you have in the Discworld.

And yet? He still has flaws. The alcoholism hasn't vanished -- he still can't touch a drink (well, not a real drink). He has some pretty serious rage issues when something really unjust happens. He's damn near crossed the line from being a good copper to being a vicious killer multiple times. And, in many ways an even bigger flaw (for in-character -- it's a boon for relating to him), he's still just an ordinary guy -- he's not a duke, not a noble, not someone to deal with politics even though he has to. He's just Sam Vimes, Commander of the City Watch (the only title he's ever really liked).

Characters who are heroic need to have visible flaws, and they need to struggle with them. Not necessarily in big ways constantly (that leads to melodrama), but they need to stay with them. In many ways, what makes a hero a hero is having flaws, knowing they're there, and having to deal with them being there. Well, that and doing something heroic.

This is hard in an MMO, though there are some better and worse examples of how it's done. Thrall is absolutely flawless. He's perfect. Way too perfect. His only flaws are the sort that you write insincerely on a job application ("I'm too willing to sacrifice myself for others.", "I work too hard to save the world.", etc.). He got everything he ever wanted, and never had to struggle with anything beyond "...I really want to have kids someday." in that Elemental Bonds questline. He had things handed to him on a silver platter -- sometimes by us heroes, sometimes by the Dragon Aspects, and sometimes just by coincidence. He never really had to work hard, or to overcome his flaws, not even in any small way.

Garrosh in Cataclysm was an example of doing character development well (too bad he's getting ditched so far over the villain line now). He was definitely flawed. Very flawed. Early on he had to overcome his father's legacy, something which seemed to still haunt him during Wrath and Cataclysm. He had some serious anger issues, with the Alliance, and with anyone who broke his trust. But he actually developed into a competent war leader with a solid, if very harsh, set of morals. If he'd kept evolving, such as having to deal with the non-orc prejudices, he could have easily become the Horde's mirror for Varian (in a good way -- not the same character, but playing the same role in a different, Horde-appropriate way).

Varian in Mists is also a good example of this, though essentially an inversion of Garrosh. He started with a set of very harsh morals, and a number of prejudices. He also knew almost nothing of leadership. He's been slowly overcoming the prejudices, trusting his allies more, and learning how to lead with a solid set of principles -- which is a lot more complex than hitting something with a sword. The one warning I do have about the way he's trending is that he seems to overcome his flaws once -- and then they're gone. Those flaws need to still be there, even if reduced -- it's okay currently, but in the next expansion and beyond he should still have the occasional struggle of being an inexperienced leader, or of anger and prejudice against others.

As far as what a character needs to have character development in an MMO... They need to be present, they need screen time. This is the biggest thing to make a character feel like they're evolving, even if there's not much change. They need to be there. This is something that Mists has handled quite well (and Cataclysm wasn't terrible at, aside from Thrall), for the characters its been working with. They've been there regularly, almost every step of the way in some capacity. It feels a lot like how Arthas was handled in Wrath questlines, except for the heroes instead of the villains -- and that's a high compliment.

Oh, yeah. And stop putting major plot details solely in books or faction-specific quests/scenarios (that aren't playable by the faction the plot detail is important to). Major plot developments that do take place in books or opposing faction content should be exposited, even if just a brief line referring/alluding to it, in a voice-acted line. One line in quest text is easy to miss -- a voice acted line in a scripted event is much harder to miss, even if it's brief and somewhat indirect.

An example of this would have been having Jaina commenting, vocally, about angry she was at Rhonin's death, ideally during or at the end of the Theramore scenario. Or, if not then, at the very least a voiced line about how she really wished Rhonin were still there during the Purging of Dalaran quests in 5.1. I don't remember ever seeing this plot detail in-game on the Alliance side of things (at least not before having to dig it up by skimming a summary of the book it happened in).
An example of this would have been having Jaina commenting, vocally, about angry she was at Rhonin's death, ideally during or at the end of the Theramore scenario. Or, if not then, at the very least a voiced line about how she really wished Rhonin were still there during the Purging of Dalaran quests in 5.1. I don't remember ever seeing this plot detail in-game on the Alliance side of things (at least not before having to dig it up by skimming a summary of the book it happened in).
While not directly related to the thread topic, I felt that simply sprinkling around the bodies of certain important characters who died at Theramore - i.e. Marcus Jonathan, Tiras'alan, Pained, etc. - would have been a simple way to get a lot of this across.
Compelling characters to me are pretty much a niche to me. Characters that have good causes and have heroic elements to them and for obvious reasons be flawed in their own way which is up to the writer. I'm a big sucker for romance to so putting that in is always good. Depending on if the said *heroic* character falls from grace is up to the writer. I personally wouldn't do it unless that was the intention from the beginning. For example Arthas Menethil, I admired him greatly because his arc really pulled me in and while some the things he did I questioned.

I was along the ride with him in WCIII to the end of Wrath. I miss him but I still somewhat pity him and feel bad for him. I digress however. Now onto female characters. Look we all know romance eventually happens and sex sometimes comes up.

I'm ok with it as long as it's because she loves the male counterpart and all that. Now the female character can be heroic or be pretty calm and laid back(Jaina Proudmoore before Theramore). OR in my character's backstory(Aeluron Lightsong) I have a female who is well...she doesn't hang onto a man easily or is calm. She's independent and fierce and has a *anger* to her. Now while this isn't a character personally might get along with easily but it's a character I'm writing.

Essentially this template for a female would be a independent female character who while gets in a relationship with a male, she isn't dependant on him wholly. The depdendance is only because they love each other. That's it.


Villainous characters to me... well it's not hard to get me to be interested in what they do next. Kil'Jaeden,Sargeras,Dread Lords, Garrosh Hellscream, Old Gods. They all just seem to pull you in and to me feel threatening and while we all know we will win but still showing how powerful they are. It gives the feeling that we may not fail.

In short summary: Heroism is a ideal I like seeing with struggles and fall from grace or not. As for Villainous characters. Put your heart into the most evil and nasty things for them and I'll be along for the ride.

Neth on a short note. I adore you for keeping your presence here.
For a game like WoW, I think it's prudent to look at characters as storytelling tools. And with these tools, there has to be a purpose, and a method to use them.

A compelling character in Warcraft needs attainable goals. "Dismantling the Horde" or "Winning back Lordaeron" may be noble goals that players want to see, but we will never see that within the game world. And a character without a goal, one who's just a setpiece, may have flew in the earlier days of WoW but with increased technology to be used for storytelling, scenarios, phases et al, such a static character just gets on the players' nerves.

A good example of a character with attainable goals, one who's stuck with me and who I go out of my way to play his quests every time I'm running a new character, is Drakuru, the duplicitous frost troll of Grizzly Hills and Zul'drak. Neth, if you know whoever designed his quests, give him a kudos from me.
I think a compelling character has to be believable. They don't have to always follow the audience's moral code - the best villlans, in fact, are ones whose actions you might abhor, but at least you understand why they did what they did.

The audience has to identify and care about that character. This is probably why the reaction of most Alliance players to Thrall in Cataclysm ranged from "Who?" to "Why are we helping the Horde faction leader again?" It didn't help that most of the build up was (as far as I can tell) done in the novels, not in game.

What makes a strong female character? That's easy, make a strong character, then make it female (that's why Battlestar's Starbuck worked so well, for instance). So many writers get this backwards.

I feel like Blizzard has been really dropping the ball on character development. The last really compelling character for me was Arthas (best patch so far was Fall of the Lich King in terms of lore, also had the best cinematic, and really tied in well with the opening cinematic). I cared about what he did, and what happened to him. It definitely wasn't because he appeared all the time in Wrath. I think it was more because I got to see the character develop in WCIII. Arthas was presented with interesting situations and decisions as well.

Sylvanas is another character that's pretty compelling. Where do her loyalties lie? Vol'jin has a lot of potential - his primary motivator is probably revenge, but he's lying low and biding his time.

Varian, Thrall, Garrosh and Jaina are pretty flat and one-dimensional. They are just filled with so much primary color emotion that they just aren't believable. Jaina had potential with the 5.1 events, but she just swapped from one flat character into another flat character in a way that just wasn't believable. Heck, Lorewalker Cho and Taran Zhu are both more interesting than Thrall, Varian, Garrosh and Jaina.

Anduin is getting there, but he's still pretty flat. Tyrande and Malfurion have been boring since WOW started (Fandral was actually going places). Haven't heard anything from the Dwarves in awhile; Brann was somewhat interesting, if slightly annoying.

I think some of the trouble is that an MMO just isn't the greatest medium for telling stories, mostly because we play our own characters instead of the story characters like you would in an RPG. The best MMO stories come around organically through questing, where the characters are slowly developed and given interesting situations to react to. Lilian Voss is a good example. The SI:7 troop is also a little interesting although they adhere pretty closely to tropes and stereotypes. A little more development there and we could really have something.
I want characters to actually get angry and deal with it. Not fall into corruption so many times. At least let us knock some sense into them.

From an Alliance pov, it feels like anytime someone gets mad at the horde, they turn crazy, or they're at risk of turning crazy unless they stop being angry. Turning away from anger is what "saved" Varian, and it's why so many people are afraid of how Rogers, Veressa, and Jaina will turn out.

From a Horde pov, it feels like no one can have a practical reason to be angry at the Alliance. Baine is overly peaceful even when the Alliance are attacking his people. Vol'Jin distrusts the Alliance despite the players helping him out during the Cataclysm. Lorthemar and Aethas have reason to be upset at Jaina, but the cause of the Purge occured because of the actions of the Horde player and blood elves loyal to Garrosh.

From a Horde pov, we're never told why Baine and Vol'jin object to the war. They have everything to gain along with Garrosh, but they don't want war because it's war? It doesn't make the rebellion sound compelling.
as well as what has been said about flaws, i like to see a character with motivations.

i always found illidan very interesting because of his relationship with tyrande, and how it seemed to drive him to do so much. i think hes many peoples favorite because of that- we all have known unrequited love.

i like moira as well after learning more about her. at first we thought she was your typical damsel is distress, but then it turned out she ran away from her father because he never respected her, and the dark iron prince did.

sylvanas i enjoy quite a bit, because of her tragedy and how she fought back and took control of her own destiny. well all the forsaken are compelling for similar reasons. abandoned by those they love, tortured for eternity... but still fighting.

for villains, magatha grimtotem has always had a special place in my heart. shes very clever and ruthless, and even killed her own husband to gain chieftainship! sometimes she might seem on your side, but you never know if she will stab you in the back.

i thought deathwing was supposed to be a similar sort of character but we never saw that side of him in cata.

arthas was one of the best villains in the whole franchise, with the way we saw his weaknesses slowly turn him into a monster.

wrathion is my favorite new character, because hes kind of an anti-hero. a "good guy", but not above ruthlessness and trickery. you may have noticed that i admire cunning characters, and he really takes the cake.
For a game like WoW, I think it's prudent to look at characters as storytelling tools. And with these tools, there has to be a purpose, and a method to use them.

A compelling character in Warcraft needs attainable goals. "Dismantling the Horde" or "Winning back Lordaeron" may be noble goals that players want to see, but we will never see that within the game world. And a character without a goal, one who's just a setpiece, may have flew in the earlier days of WoW but with increased technology to be used for storytelling, scenarios, phases et al, such a static character just gets on the players' nerves.

A good example of a character with attainable goals, one who's stuck with me and who I go out of my way to play his quests every time I'm running a new character, is Drakuru, the duplicitous frost troll of Grizzly Hills and Zul'drak. Neth, if you know whoever designed his quests, give him a kudos from me.

Could not agree more to this.
In addition,
One of the reasons players have such negative reactions to Garrosh, Varian and Sylvannas is because they don't want to wait years to see how that character develops.
How well the reader can relate (or at least understand), the character.

Plotline circumstances (how does the plot affect this guy? What is his motive?)

People's affinity to others personalities? One reason why Garrosh and Gallywix were disliked so adamantly? They're both apathetic jerks. Most people do not warm up to that kind of person quickly, if at all. Inversely, People loved characters like Cairne, Chen, Magni, and Thrall because they're all considered nice guys.

Popular archtypes. Tropes like "Cool old guy", "Jerk with a heart of Gold", and "Well Intended Extremist" can be really interesting if done well. This is even better if said arch-type gets a 'deconstruction' on the concept thru the character.

I think the biggest factor is how much - and/or how well - a character develops his or her self in the story as a person.
For me, characters have to make rational choices. If they are forced to act irrationally for the sake of the story, they no longer seem real and instead I can see their puppet strings leading back to the writers.

Sadly due to the nature of what it takes to keep a MMO going, many characters in WOW act in ways their character rationally shouldn't. This is especially true when it comes to keeping the faction war going in the face of multiple armies of evil gods trying out wipe out all life.
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.

In my mind, a compelling character is someone to which we can relate, no matter how heroic or villainous.

My canonical examples are Frodo and Samwise from "Lord of the Rings". In any given scene, you understand how they're feeling and can draw parallels to your own experiences. Their personalities are understandable. Their motives are logical.

Examples from Warcraft:
* Lorthemar's current incarnation is very compelling. Whoever has written his dialogue in MOP deserves a raise. I find it very easy to relate to a voice of reason who has to deal with reactive thugs.
* Marshall Windsor. Still one of the most compelling quest lines written, even if "Jailbreak!" meant "PUG death" 90% of the time.

A non-compelling character, then, is one to whom I can't relate, or whose motives simply defy human nature.

My example of how *not* to make a compelling character is Kvothe from "Name of the Wind". I find nothing compelling about "best at everything" characters who never have to struggle with any common concern. No matter how tragic their story turns, I don't care -- their experiences are as alien to me as psionic jellyfish and animated chunks of crystal.

Example from Warcraft:
* Sylvanas has no apparent motivation and is about as predictable as a cat on amphetamines.
* Garrosh Hellscream. As one-dimensional as Cobra Commander, and about as well explained. No motivation for his madness. No reason to care. Yep, he's angry and corrupt. So?
* Anduin Wrynn. Remember what I said about not finding "best at everything" characters interesting? He's not interesting. Garrosh needs to drop another bell on him, maybe give him a speech impediment or a lame leg or something.

The same is true for villains, by the way. One-dimensional villains who indulge in evil for evil's sake make me stop caring about a story very quickly. Usually I mutter a snide comment like "yeah, yeah, you rolled in a bed of fresh kittens this morning. We get it. Thank you, drive through".

Join the Conversation

Return to Forum