Creating a believable, engaging dystopian world is one of Newspeak’s most important goals. A great theme makes a board game more interesting and memorable – and one way to achieve this is through character design. Characters make or break a story; everyone who has ever dreamed of meeting Han Solo or Hermione Granger knows just how powerful strong characters are. Equally, I’ve occasionally encountered characters so annoying, I nearly threw the book out of a window (Little Women, I’m looking at you). What is it that makes some characters so special, and a few so frustrating?
There is no single template for a great character. Arrogant geniuses (Sherlock, Artemis Fowl), witty, independent women (Elizabeth Bennet), rebellious underdogs (Hester from Mortal Engines), and simply normal, decent people (Bill and Josella, The Day of the Triffids) all take their places amongst my personal favourites. It’s difficult to draw conclusions from such wildly varying characters, so let’s look at a few of them individually.
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride & Prejudice) has to be one of the greatest literary heroines ever. Sharp-witted and clever, she never lets anyone intimidate her. She passionately argues with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and challenges Mr. Darcy in every conversation. Despite her wry and sometimes sharp conversation, she cares very much for her family, especially for her sister Jane. Her embarrassment at her misjudgement of Wickham and Darcy only makes the reader warm to her more. Elizabeth is someone we can see a little bit of ourselves reflected in, the kind of inspirational character we would like to be, happy ending included.
The characters of the original series of Star Trek are a huge part of the show’s appeal. Beyond fighting giant lizards and shutting down power-crazed computers, the heart of the series is the crew. Spock’s character is similar to that of Sherlock Holmes; on the surface purely rational and lacking typical emotions, but who actually care a great deal about those closest to them. Without a glint of humanity, Spock would not be as popular; we can imagine ourselves as one of the select few he considers his friends. Lieutenant Uhura never gets enough airtime on the original series, but whenever she does get dialogue beyond “Hailing frequencies open!”, we see a woman who is a excellent officer, susceptible to cute Tribbles and yet tough enough to take on Mirror Universe Sulu and teach him who’s boss.
Bill, Josella and Susan (of The Day of the Triffids) demonstrate that characters don’t always have to be exceptional to win our hearts. They’re not geniuses or supermodels; not the leaders of a cause, not even particularly sparkling in conversation. And yet, they’re memorable. They struggle through trying to make the right decisions about how to help survivors of the catastrophe and whether sometimes, you simply cannot save everyone. It’s a painful realisation that you see haunting them over and over again. Unlike Beadley, Coker and Miss Durrant, leaders of various survivor groups, Bill and Josella don’t believe themselves to have all the answers. Their power as characters is their hope and fundamental human decency in the face of catastrophe. Sometimes, we all need reminding that there are good people out there, amongst all the disasters and chaos in the world, and The Day of the Triffids does just that.
So what about the characters that are more annoying than inspiring? Why is Marion a great sidekick to Indiana Jones, and Willie a terrible one? Willie is vain, cowardly and narrow-minded, existing mostly as a prop for Indiana to rescue. In contrast, Marion is tough and independent. Willie doesn’t really have any clear good qualities, and she’s a cringingly stereotypical, almost Victorian depiction of a woman. Basically a case study in how *not* to write a character, it baffles me that one-dimensional Willie ever made it to the screen. On the other hand, characters who are too “perfect” can also be frustrating. Meg March (of Little Women) is saccharine-sweet. Her greatest sin turns out to be wearing a nice dress and drinking a little champagne (both of which she immediately repents). Meg is just so nice that she’s impossible to relate to – she might have been more interesting when the book was published, but in the present day her sweet femininity is positively irritating. There’s a careful balance between making your characters nice enough to be sympathetic, without making them so virtuous they seem dull or unrealistic. The other lesson here is that stereotypical characters don’t work, something that should be obvious – but looking at the proportion of action heroes who are white men, there’s clearly still room for improvement. That’s not to say that female characters can’t enjoy clothes or want to fall in love, but characters who stick too closely to race or gender tropes are just…boring.
Clearly, there are many great ways to write a character. Having diversity and difference between them is key to a story – three Spock-like protagonists would be pretty dull, because it’s the interaction between Spock and the emotional Kirk and McCoy that really shows the viewer their personalities. In real life, people make mistakes; they can be full of slightly contradictory views and behaviours, and characters must echo this to feel believable.