On Writing: A Preference for Characters

To figure out what you should be writing, it helps to know what you like to read. Or in some cases, watch. Because writing takes skill, always – but in order to muster the energy to do it you also need passion. Emotional involvement. You need to care about what you’re writing. So it helps to pin down what, exactly, you care about.

In that vein, I’ve been trying to put a finger on why I’ve had an easier time finding something I enjoy watching from k-dramas and c-dramas on YouTube than from Hollywood lately. It’s not that I like every historical fantasy drama from Korea and China out there, any more than I like all manga and anime. It’s just that I seem to have an easier time finding things I do like to watch than in the whole slew of movies and TV shows out of California.

This Tumblr post by elidyce, I think, helps narrow it down. What I seem to be after is emotional continuity, along with 1) characters I like and can respect, and 2) character-driven plot instead of event-driven.

And part of that is, I’m fed up to the back teeth with save-the-world plots, or Chosen One plots, or anything where the main character goes from pitiful Zero to Ultimate Hero. I don’t want to watch – or read about – a suffering martyr of a savior character fixing everything while the rest of the world either can’t do anything, won’t do anything, or is actively trying to stop them.

It puts too much weight on the hero. It makes the rest of the world flat characters, instead of real people. And even if you have great cosmic powers and explosions in every scene, it makes the story boring.

…At least for me. Other people have other tastes. But I prefer stories where everyone – everyone! – has their own motives and responsibility for their own actions.

(Unless they’re the Bad Guy’s Brainwashed and Crazy Minions. But at least in that case the Bad Guy chose to make people Minions.)

I want stories where the heroes are more like… regular people, emotionally speaking. Not martyrs. Chef Hua, working her way up from cooking for her family to running a major restaurant. Ning Yi, starting by saving a silk business and ending up saving a kingdom. Kim Sung-yeol, patiently hunting for 120 years to find a way to kill an evil vampire, free his kingdom, and keep as many people alive as he can. People just trying to do the decent thing, fight evil if they have to, and save their part of the world. To quote Clegghorn of The Mighty Ducks, “Nobody takes over the world from my precinct!

I can’t feel saving the world. The world’s too big. Saving a family, a business, a kingdom – those, I can feel. Characters trying to do that, and be honest, decent people; that’s the kind of story I can care about.

Explosions and special effects are window dressing. A plot of increasingly frantic events… may be an entertaining thrill ride, once, but it won’t get me coming back again and again. Give me the Ghostbusters, the Mummy, Log Horizon, My Heroic Husband, the Scholar Who Walks the Night. Give me people who think they’re ordinary, caught in extraordinary events. Give me a story I can feel.

Give me characters. Let them drive the plot. Then, you’ll have a story.


37 thoughts on “On Writing: A Preference for Characters

  1. This. Sooo much this.

    Though in my own writing, I’ve found that the difference ultimately lies in the focus. A fix it fic I’m working on is technically a save the world story, since that’s what the source material (that desperately needs fixing) is, but IMHO the way it unfolds the save the world part is kind of an unintended consequence. The characters are focused on saving -their- families, -their- friends, and while the heroic leader does have more of the world in mind it’s very solidly grounded in his upbringing and experiences, and at the end of the day he cares first and foremost about his team. Sure they save people, but their aim is to help people help themselves. As you said, character driven instead of plot driven.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Exactly! AKA why the worst (but sane) Villain would save the world. “Everything I care about is here!” Not because of the world itself.

      People who care about ideals without caring about specific people, places, and things are scary and actively dangerous. They’re the ones most likely to jump off the slippery slope “for the greater good”. No thanks.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. This fic is fun partially because the villain has pretty much that mindset, he just doesn’t really have any moral qualms, so the conflict becomes less “good vs. muahahaha so eevul” and more “ends justifies the means vs. there are lines you don’t cross.”

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Sometimes feels like Save The World is used as a “get out of character trait free” card.

    They’re a coward?
    Well, they better get gutsy because the world is on the line.

    They have some horrible trauma in their past?
    They’ll get over it… just in time to save the world.

    I think the problem with the Save The World plot is that it applies plot armor to success in general, rather than the characters.
    A character can die to save the world, but there is always a way to succeed, no matter what setbacks.

    A character driven plot can actually fail.
    It’s still uncommon, but there are stories where they might lose that big competition, but they deal with it and keep going because they love what they’re doing.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. I admit I’ve mostly dumped the MCU movies from my ‘I want to watch that’ list. I tried for a while, I honestly did, but between the way the writers seem to think character continuity is interesting but not necessarily needed and the plot holes you could drive a semi through (CA:WS, I have so many issues with you) I’ve pretty much given up on them.

        It wouldn’t be so bad if they were standalone (CA:WS would make so much more sense if they didn’t have a (presumed) direct line to Tony Stark himself) but they’re all supposed to be part of a continuity and they lost me a long time ago.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. I love how when I’m watching My Hero Academia, I have no idea if Deku is going to win. He could actually lose at every single point, and then the story would be how he deals with that.
      Heck, his first big victory turned out to be a BAD thing, for heaven’s sake!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I am way behind in reading/watching My Hero Academia, why was Deku’s first big victory a bad thing? And which fight are you talking about? 😅 I have read until the point where Deku starts unlocking other parts of One For All…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. We just restarted the show, I’ve been borderline taking notes for ramping up without launching off into space– it’s one of the training races.


        The one where he uses the land mines to win…and that makes his headband an instant win for challenge #2.

        Once I started looking, I noticed that they didn’t do the “smack you in the face for thinking he’d win” thing, but it really was uncertain if Deku *would* win, at any point. And there were always costs and consequences, and other people could come out of left field in a lovely “third option” way.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. I have noticed this too! I feel like k dramas and c dramas just write better, more relatable characters, even when they have some annoying plot holes in the story. And this is also the same problem I have discovered with a lot of recently published books lately. Too many of the same plot, same characters, same freaking world or very similar. Most of them definitely fall into the whole save the world category too. Ugh. I agree with your point, it is really hard to feel the save the world thing, but saving those you love? Friends, family or etc? That makes more sense, along with the point that it really isn’t fair for it all to be put on the hero. This reminded me of your Thrower of the Dart Artemis Fowl fanfiction. Most bad guys don’t want to see the world burn, but they also only really care about those close to them. And that isn’t selfish, that is Human! I was rereading one of my older stories and discovered that I had actually done the whole save the world ploy but it has better potential and even a little unintentional foreshadowing to be a more save my loved ones, the world was an unintended side effect. All that, and Hollywood has definitely fallen in a rut of redoing the SAME things, with very few exceptions.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. ATM trying to strike a balance between “there is nothing I can do about the Problem”– basically, it’s politics, and even his friends have to be careful of the Problems from the politics– boiling down to there being nothing he can do, or the Problem not mattering. They’re in the borderlands, and the secondary protagonist is there because even just being there is Doing Something, even if it is a single starfish type situation… but I want to do that.

    Make it really matter in your gut, where the risks of getting caught and the thrill of pulling one over– of maybe tugging a few threads loose in one of the nets– can feel like a VICTORY.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I have a DnD character who is a LE blue dragonborn druid and is questing to find out who is greening the desert that is her people’s ancestral home (wiping out the native environment and endangering their way of life). Thus an evil character that is trying to save her home because it is her home. If I ever got to play her I would need to home brew her druid order because most druids are forest based.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Oh, that would be a *blast*!
      I’ve got a weakness for Lawful Evil druids in the first place — it fits the idea of a person embodying nature as a whole better, IMHO — and deserts may not be full of plants and animals on a square-foot basis, but they’ve got a LOT of really awesome stuff.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. :is envisioning a fast-growth spell called something like After The Rain, from having seen things spawn in the like two days that a puddle hangs around, and watched plants grow and start to flower after a morning rain:

        Liked by 3 people

  6. I think a lot of it is due to the medium. Movies have to have *very* fast paces due to the 1.5 hr runtime. A TV Show, a video game, a book, long-form comics… those all have the luxury of much longer “run times” to get the needed characterization and conflicts across. And that means that “Save the World” plots can have a lot more space to be unpacked in those kinds of mediums than in a movie that still feels like it works.

    The other major trade-off is “action” vs “characterization”. Most “Save the World” plots are solved with “action”. The problem being that putting in characterization into action is really hard to do. It’s much easier to get characterization across in conversations than when people are physically doing things very quickly. Which also gets back to medium!

    Something like a video game can more or less split the action and characterization into two different sections. The “action” is where the combat system comes in and is where the player interacts with the game systems the most. The “characterization” is in cutscenes more. But when many “action” games have 40-60 hr run times, this lets the creators fit in a lot of *both* characterization and action in a way that a movie just can’t do. The same thing more or less follows suit for other mediums.

    This also plays into overall pacing and story structure. If a story has multiple entries in it (books, seasons, etc.), then it can more naturally build up to a “Save the World” plot. Instead of throwing everyone together to save the world, it can start out by throwing everyone together to save the village first… and then ramp it up to save the province, then the country, then the world (or something similar). All the while adding in more characters with various skill-sets the main group of characters will need later. This means that once the conflict gets to “Save the World” scale, a large portion of the world can be involved in saving the world and not just the main group. It’ll be the main group and their very large support staff. Thing is, that kind of longer drawn out pacing needs… more run-time than a movie.

    TLDR: The movie format is probably the *worst* format to tell a “Save the World” plot in if you want strong characterization. Just about *anything* else works better than it.

    I’d also argue that most of the shows you have recommended *are* really “Save the World” stories. The characters are saving *their* world as they know it just like in a “Save the World” plot. They’re just saving it via means *other* than straight-up action. Instead of it mainly being about physical conflicts, it’s about non-action conflicts instead. And I think that is what makes those stories ring true in a way something like the Avengers doesn’t.

    Most of us aren’t going to “Save Our World” via physically fighting something. We’re going to “Save Our World” by talking to people, navigating government bureaucracies, remembering the people we’re talking to are *people*, dealing with people who *don’t* see us as people worthy of respecting, etc. And Hollywood has a *very* hard time making any of that seem *interesting* to watch, or worth getting emotionally invested in. Which is the real problem. Hollywood has forgotten how *normal* people talk to each other, and what they have to deal with IRL. And so they often cover that up in action a lot of the time. A lot of Eastern media hasn’t forgotten that yet and so it features heavily in their “Save Our World” plots.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’ve been raving about a related thing, elsewhere.

    How should one sort problems, and judge appropriate emotional attachment to them? It probably goes without saying that I have a strongly held philosophical opinion, and am not always good at expressing it simply and concisely. Also, that it is a very particular philosophical opinion, that may not generalize to what other people need to deal with.

    ‘Save the world’ plotting seems to fit into a category of stuff that may be a bad emotional priority to navigate life choices around. Bad, as in often leading to disappoint, nor not being very compatible with sanity.

    JRPGs often end with the antagonist physically transforming into a form that would maybe not be /that/ compatible with whatever political goal they may have. JRPG antagonist motivations are maybe not that healthy, or likely to result in sanity.

    Issue, when your PC motivations are picked for the greater ‘thematic’ ‘strength’ of strongly opposing the antagonist through the early and mid game, they are not necessarily any more oriented to sanity.

    “I’m risking my life going on a trip to an impossible location, in a one off vehicle, with my buddies, to fight some dude” is definitely not an ordinary conventional form of sanity. There are in fact ways to make that reasonable.

    But, when your media creators are used to coasting on genre convention, it is easy for them to make characters that don’t follow their established motivations in any sort of sane way.

    And when you get really tired of being manipulated by folks who are, objectively speaking, completely and utterly out of their ever lovin’ minds, escapism can mean fiction driven by characters with actual sane person motivations. Courses of action that you could invest in carrying out, without having to be nuts first, and without driving yourself nuts in the process.

    Big, abstract things, are easier for someone to promise to you. Big abstract things can be applied to the motivations of a group with greater ease by a writer.

    But, people are rarely so strongly personally attached to big abstract things that it is a foundation for their personality, or that it carries them through difficult circumstances.

    Who are you in the dark of the night, when the world looks impossible? What keeps you working through frustration? What strongly shapes every action that you carry out? This things are often specific, and if ideas, ideas about a small thing, like a person. The earliest ideas that shaped us for the longest time, are very often simple, if only because without certain skills, it is much easier to house simple ideas in one’s head. ‘The world’, a nation, even ‘the corporation I created’ can be extremely complicated when you ask what exactly they really are. Corporate founder character did not understand what a corporation was as a baby. The path that realistically takes them to successfully founding a corporation is going to have started with simpler personality traits that they did probably have as a baby. These motivations would have a lot of trial and error for a writer to work out properly. The more correct process is the more difficult process.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Most large-scale “Save the World” plots that work involve the people saving the world to care about specific things (usually people) that require the world to stay around. If the cast manages to come out and say that in some way, then the “Save the World” plot usually works well enough for me.

      Or to quote one of the most famous JRPG protagonists of all time…

      What are we all fighting for? I want us all to understand that.
      Save the planet… for the future of the planet… Sure, that’s all fine.
      But really, is that really how it is?
      For me, this is a personal feud.
      I want to beat Sephiroth. And settle my past.
      Saving the planet just happens to be part of that.
      I’ve been thinking.
      I think we all are fighting for ourselves.
      For ourselves… and that someone… something… whatever it is, that’s important to us.
      That’s what we’re fighting for.
      That’s why we keep up this battle for the planet.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. I will observe that a villain, no matter how mundane, whose motives can not be penetrated, can be a very terrifying foe.

    (I have heard people giving advice that you have to reveal the villain’s motives even if the hero never learns them. And is the only point of view character.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The trouble with that is that it edges too close to a villain that might as well be a force of nature. It’s just an obstacle that is trying to destroy something the character cares about. Villains are a lot more memorable when both the players and the character understand *why* a villain is doing what they are doing. Motives are what makes them a *character* rather than just… a hurricane.

      The most terrifying villains I have encountered are those that the player, if not the character, can see themselves in. Because that opens the possibility that the player/characters could end up just like the villain had things gone differently. Which leads to a whole bunch of conflicting emotions and realizations for the characters (and the player) to deal with. Especially figuring out what makes them different than the villain. *Hopefully* the story has a good answer for that. If it doesn’t, that’s a problem.

      Not that stories about fighting the equivalent of a hurricane *can’t* be interesting. But the interesting part of those stories is never found in the hurricane, it’s always found in dynamics of the characters fighting the hurricane. The point of those stories isn’t “OMG! This hurricane was terrifying!”. It’s “we need to work on our team dynamics to survive the hurricane” or something in that vein.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Villains that might as well be forces of nature are wonderful. Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, King Haggard in the Last Unicorn….


      2. Sauron is the most boring villain in LotR. I really could care less what happens to him; It’s so obvious that he’s going to be defeated at the end that it’s almost a forgone conclusion. He doesn’t have any characterization and doesn’t really *do* anything except order all the *interesting* villains to do anything. Also, Sauron in LotR is *very* comprehensible. He wants to the rule the world by force. *Everyone* in the series knows what his goals are and how he’s going to go about doing them. To the point they can count on how he thinks to bait him out and cause a distraction so he can actually be destroyed. That’s the definition of comprehensible! It still doesn’t make him an interesting villain though.

        The most interesting villain in LotR are the ones with understandable motivations. Denathor, Saruman, and just about any character that gets tempted by the One Ring are all more interesting villains than Sauron is. Because it’s a lot easier to see ourselves in them. Denathor wants to hold onto the power that he has in Minas Tirith. Saruman keeps trying to impose his will on the people around him in petty ways. Everyone the One Ring tempts has to confront what their deepest desires are and reject the easy way to get them. And those are much more understandable reasons for being a villain than “want to rule the world” is.

        The “villains” of real life often aren’t those with grandiose reasons we can’t understand. They’re people just like us who have taken an understandable response way to far usually. And it’s good to see “real life” reflected in stories that way, it helps people care about *all* the characters rather than just the heroes.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. There are a lot of conflicting emotions in fighting someone whose deeds are unpredictable and immensely difficult to plan against.


      4. Not really. It’s an obstical to the hero; nothing more, nothing less. “Difficult to plan against” doesn’t have an emotional connection by itself, except being frustrating to fight against for no particular reason other than it’s incomprehensibility. It’s missing the emotional connection to the character/reader which is required for the reader to really *care* about what happens to the villian or not.

        I don’t care about villians whose motives I can’t understand. I instead just want the story to get over faster so they can stop bothering the heroes. And that’s… a really cruddy way to feel after reading a story. Not caring about what happens to a character that is.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Hmmm, I’m wondering, is Hollywood’s budget part of the problem? A lot of the things other people are listing here don’t have the option to go “Huh, the script is a bit weak, but instead of rebuilding the whole thing from the ground up, why not just add more explosions? They’ll come back next time, it’s Marvel for heaven’s sake!”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. All your comments about the MCU make me curious – have you tried Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Marvel’s Avengers: DISK Wars, or Marvel’s Future Avengers? These series all have good emotional continuity for the characters, and they receive development over the course of each series. That isn’t a surprise with the latter two series – they’re both anime – and EMH was made before Disney and Marvel purposely lost the art of storytelling. I highly recommend giving them a try, if you haven’t already.

    Re character-driven vs. plot-driven stories, I wonder if it’s a balance more than anything else? I was remembering *A Princess of Mars* today, wherein John Carter has to rescue Deja Thoris frequently. The plot is half action-oriented and half character-oriented, with some things occurring due to the hero and heroine’s choices while others occur because the other characters made choices. *blinks* Andre Norton’s books were good for this, too, now that I think about it.

    It strikes me the problem with Hollywood and modern writing in general is a loss of craft. A retreat to narrow definitions or category boxes that writers just check to finish the product and get paid (or patted on the back). They’re not treating it like a job, a craft, such as carpentry or any other profession that requires *good work* to be effective and have effective results. Every time I spot a downward trend in modern fiction, once I poke at it, I eventually find its root is “people forgot how to tell stories.” Or they never learned, or worse, they were taught to forget what they instinctively and intuitively knew about it. Reading elidyce’s and the others’ posts made me think, “Yeah, this is the result of people never learning or being taught to forget how storycraft works.”

    ….And now I really, really want a school that teaches storytelling, as compared to those creative writing courses that actually hurt more than they help. Storytelling is like any other vocation, after all. If they certify you to weld, why can’t we have courses that certify you to write? :facepalm:

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, DISK Wars is currently out of stock, though you can find some clips from it on YouTube (including the intro theme – very catchy!): https://www.amazon.com/MARVEL-DISK-WARS-AVENGERS-COMPLETE/dp/B01EUXBZD8/ref=sr_1_1?crid=13EK49L2T27Z2&keywords=marvel+disk+wars+the+avengers+dvd&qid=1653097084&sprefix=Marvel%27s+Avengers%3A+DISK+%2Caps%2C604&sr=8-1

        Hrrrgh, Amazon doesn’t have Marvel’s Future Avengers available, though again, you can find some of the scenes on YouTube. For full episodes, though, you might have to go…surfing, if you catch my drift.


    1. A big issue with comics is that they do unlimited series.

      In Busiek’s series *Astro City*, he never sticks to a character when he’s finished a story (though he may return for another tale), and there may be others, but most comics stick to one character.

      You can’t really mix character development and unlimited series competently, because arcs end. A superhero may have a number of tales of character development, from first learning his powers to his final retirement/death, but it’s definitely a finite number.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s