It’s all about the characters

October 15, 2013

If you’re looking for the one element that makes a story great, it’s the characters. Everything comes down to the characters in the end.

I think many authors spend too much time worrying about their premise. Not that they shouldn’t consider it, and try to craft a great one – it’s a story’s principal selling point, if nothing else – but once the premise is established I feel like too many authors wing the characters. Which is a shame because they’re who we identify with, experience the story through, and at the end of it all, truly remember.

We remember what happened in The Matrix, but it’s through Neo’s eyes.

We can picture The Lord of the Rings, but it’s Frodo and the others that sell it.

We know the premise of Breaking Bad, but it’s Walter White that sucks us in and never lets us go.

I realized this while writing my novel, though only intuitively at first. I love the premise of my story, and I think it’s a strong one, but in the process of writing it I came up with other stories whose premises may be even stronger. Yet I couldn’t put this one aside and pursue those, because I love my current characters too much. These are characters I can picture vividly, ones I understand, ones I can talk to – as crazy as that sounds – and I know I’ll be able to write them better than any other characters I can currently imagine. Those other stories may be stronger, but their characters are not, and until I create ones that can rival the ones I have now, those other stories will remain unwritten.

Of course, there are exceptions – in the anime world Shingeki no Kyojin excelled almost entirely on its plot and premise, as its characters are fairly weak. But if you look at nearly every other story that has ever touched you, I bet it’s because of its characters.

It all comes down to the characters in the end.

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By Stephen W. Gee

Author of Wage Slave Rebellion, Freelance Heroics, and about two good blog posts out of a hundred.


  1. Reply


    I agree with what you’re saying — I love characters pretty much exclusively, and the plot is a distant second, if that. (Actually, I would say tone and execution come next after characters, in importance.)

    But I have to disagree about Shingeki no Kyojin. If anything, the story is pretty weak. It tries to be very grim, but the drama is often forced and much of the setting feels contrived, even if there are “explanations” for that.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen people write entire essays about the characters, their development and their mental state. Admittedly, that was for the manga and involved some extrapolation.

    For an example of a strong character (performance) carrying a show, I would say Iron Man. The plot’s not impressive, and while the action is good, what really sets the movies apart is Robert Downey’s performance as Tony Stark.

    1. Reply


      Shingeki is far more about the premise than the plot; the characters could be utterly generic (and I would argue that most of them are, at least up until the point the anime has shown), but it’s the almost elemental struggle against the titans that makes it all work.

      Of course, where a character works for some people they can feel extremely weak to others, and vice versa. All this is subjective, even my central point. I think that’s far harder to argue against, though.

      1. Reply


        Then let’s split the difference and agree that the defining point of Shigeki are the uniforms and the 3D Maneuver Gear.

        1. Stilts

          Alas, I cannot do that. The 3D maneuver gear is neat, but it’s the titans themselves that make the show. They tap into something primal about humanity that makes them resonate far more than anything else does.

          But that, alas, is a conversation for another time and place : )

  2. Reply


    Totally agree with you there.If anything,I usually care too much about the characters above everything else(which is why even I was surprised that I liked Shingeki as much as I did).If I become atached to the characters,l’ll enjoy even some of their more mundane activities.

    Also,while I’m someone who’s really not into Mary Sue characters and like it when there’s enough room for a character to receive some development,I believe it’s believe it’s better for a character,no matter how flawed,to have at least one likeable trait early on.If there’s nothing to like in a character from the get-go then I feel that the writer is putting himself through a lot more work to get me to like that character through future development whereas let’s say,a single likeable trait would make that an easier process than he’d expect.

    For instance(I’m just gonna assume you’re watching this),despite Nagi no Asukara being my 3rd or 4th favorite fall anime so far,I just know I’m gonna a hard time coming to like Hikari,even with the signs of improvement he showed in the 3rd episode – although I still appreciate his character development starting so early.

    The other example would be White Album 2(and I may be a bit biased here since so far since this is one of my two top animes of the season),where I feel the characters strike a great balance of positives & negatives,making them feel not just realistic(because annoying little brats are realistic too at Hikari’s age) but realistic in a likeable way.Just because an annoying fictional character does a really good job at representing an annoying person in real life doesn’t mean I’m gonna like him or her.

    1. Reply


      I had to skim part of this because I’ve only watched one episode of Nagi no Asukara, but I don’t necessarily agree with wanting all characters to have likable traits. Just as it’s better for a leader to be respected than loved, I prefer my characters to be interesting rather than strictly likable. One can follow from the other, but there are many characters I can think of that were not particularly likable, but because they were interesting or understandable or had style or whatever, I enjoyed reading about them even so.

      If you’re going for likable though, yes, it’s usually better to give a reason for us to like said character from the get-go. Otherwise the writer is just assuming it, and that’s not a good way to write.

  3. Reply

    Goodwill Wright

    Okay, I will admit that generally, it is the characters that get me hooked.

    Most notable anime examples I can think of are Kyoukaisenjou and Soukyuu No Fafner. Other slightly minor examples are Dog Days, Oda Nobuna, Bokurano, I could go on. Sure, whether they were good (or well written characters) can be debatable, but they are the reasons I stuck to, and enjoyed an anime.

    Exceptions to this that I can think of, and most recent, non-anime example would be Pacific Rim. Because we all went to see that for big, stompy robots. Plus no offense to anyone, but the characters in my opinion came off as very flat and generalized. But it is the quickest way to develop a character that barely has screen time as you can use the audiences assumed knowledge of stereotypes.

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