Creating Capable Characters

Have you ever noticed how amazing some main characters can seem at first glance?  From the moment you see them, they strike you as likable, capable, and well worth the attention.  The most obvious example of this, of course, is in heists, where the main characters seem perfect and the story still works.  For instance, Ocean’s Eleven.  Danny Ocean walks onscreen wearing his tux, cracking jokes, slipping parole, and planning the heist of the century.  Of course, he also just got out of jail, probably for trying to pull a different heist of the century.

Dom Cobb, from Inception, also walks onscreen rather capably.  He’s in the middle of an operation, smoothly infiltrating minds without alerting them to his presence.  The operation goes wrong, but he handles it smoothly, ditching the project and disappearing.  Of course, he was doing that job for a big corporation who now wants his head since it went sour.

Every episode of NCIS or NCIS: LA begins with the main characters engaging in light banter as they arrive at work.  They mess around for a little, tell a few jokes, create some fun promises that don’t really have to be fulfilled but would be nice.  They don’t seem to have a care in the world, and by the clips during their theme song, we know they’re very capable.  Of course, someone just died a few minutes ago, which they will undoubtedly have to investigate.

What do these things have in common?  It might be obvious to you: the caveat.

As I explained each one of those opening sequences, I had to add an “of course”.  The characters are funny, yes; they’re capable, yes; but they always have a shadow of doom over them.  Danny Ocean has already landed himself in jail– he could easily do it again, if his operation goes bad, or even if someone finds out he’s broken parole.  Cobb is being hunted by someone faceless and nameless, but undoubtedly much bigger than he is.  If he fails this job, he’s as good as dead, and what about his family?  The NCIS guys are capable, yes, but someone just died.  They aren’t capable enough to keep that death from happening– only capable enough to pick up the pieces.

These writers are walking a fine line.  On one hand, they might overstate the doom and gloom and make the characters unlikable through depression or something– or the characters might seem casual about all the bad things that have happened, as if they don’t care.  That too will make them unlikable.  On the other hand, the writers face the possibility of making their characters too perfect, in which case they also won’t be likable.  And if the character is unlikable, there can be no suspense.

It’s a difficult concept to master, but it’s key to creating capable and interesting characters without making them seem perfect.  But how does it work, exactly?  You can’t just stick a perfect character into a bad situation– they try that with Superman every couple years, it seems.

The first step, I think, is to make sure the problem exists, and can come back to bite them if they aren’t careful.  For instance, in NCIS there is never a murder without a second murder about to happen– their task is to stop that second murder.  With Ocean’s Eleven, you can feel the threat of jail hanging over the team.  It’s never absent.  But if the big threat is something silly that can be easily avoided, or accepted without fear, it would be a lot less effective.

That’s close to the second step– never make fun of the threat.  As I have previously posted, humor can destroy suspense.  I messed this up a little in my latest novel, Stakes.  One of the threats hanging over the main character is the possibility of being imprisoned, much like Ocean’s Eleven.  However, instead of treating it like a terrible thing, I had my main character be imprisoned early on, which was a one-night thing that I quickly skimmed over, and all the later threats of being arrested I laughed at.  I made a joke out of my big threat.  It would have been great to have my character feel as awesome and capable as Danny Ocean, but I botched the suspense.

Here’s another thing that I find difficult to explain, but might help: try to have the character be capable within the bounds of the big problem.  This is kind of obvious with the hero’s journey plot archetype: the hero is on one level, the villain is on another.  The hero can’t simply charge in and behead the villain– he has to work his way up through a series of smaller actions, all within the frame of this big threat.  Ignoring the threat will cost him, so he has to keep it small.  But this is also true for instances when the character is to blame for the threat hanging over his head.  For instance, Han Solo didn’t pay his debt.  That was his fault.  But he isn’t able to fix that problem immediately; instead he has to take one step at a time to figure that out.  His ultimate goal is to undo his mistake.  His individual steps, however, and where we see him be the most capable, are smaller.

I want to be able to write capable characters, but I don’t want them to be perfect.  Character flaws and limitations come into this discussion at some point, I know, but you can remain flawed and limited when there’s no consequence to it.  Suspense requires a threat.  Create it.

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58 thoughts on “Creating Capable Characters

  1. I agree. But don’t you think certain characters need to come off as incapable and then develop slowly? For instance, a character is useless and can’t face the threat. Then, over the course of the story he morphs into someone who can deal with the problem. Of course, we still need to make him likable. Somehow, the writer has to make his uselessness endearing. Like Naruto. He begins the series as a total loser who can’t fight and ends it like some sort of demigod.

    …Of course, the writers of Naruto forgot that you shouldn’t make a MC too powerful lest he get boring…

    1. Yes, of course– that’s the basis of the hero’s journey archetype. But although that is a viable option, you still need the threat to be present if you want any suspense. Even the least competent character is good at something– it might be as easy as breathing, or it might be some special skill they were trained at– but they will be competent at something, and that will have to be offset by a threat. But you’re right. I was mostly speaking of those characters whom you want to seem capable from the beginning.

      1. I’ve got a mix of both capable characters and one not-so-capable character. I see what you mean by them needing to come off as human and not perfect. While I believe my characters are human enough, I fear that sometimes, what I see as a flaw isn’t actually a flaw at all. As in, the reader won’t see it as a flaw.

        Threats, however, are another matter. I’m very good at creating such monumental problems, such powerful villains that I myself can’t figure out how to defeat them. And you can’t have the bad guy make a mistake, can you? Perfect villains are the best. Can you imagine: “I’M GOING TO BOMB THIS PLACE UNTIL IT’S DUST–Oops, wait, I forgot the bomb at home.” -_-

      2. Define what you mean by flaw. There are three types– character flaws, which make for character arcs; physical limitations, which are just setbacks like broken legs or something; or mental limitations, which are just mental setbacks like a fear of spiders. Flaws must be overcome– limitations must only be worked around. For instance, Indiana Jones never overcomes his mentally limiting fear of snakes, but he works around it to succeed, just as Superman never overcomes his physically limiting weakness near Kryptonite.

      3. One of my characters is predominantly antsy. Not in an annoying way, but in a rebellious kind of way. I mean, she’s got a sad past and she has the tendency to torture herself with it. I see that as a flaw. If I met someone who actually had the tendency to torture themselves with bad memories, I’d send them to a counselor, pronto. She’s got a character arc going where she becomes less masochistic towards the end of the trilogy.

        However, not everyone sees this as a flaw. I’ve had people tell me that it’s actually very interesting and they like that about her. And yes, I see their point. I find angst fun to read and write, in limited amounts.

        That’s what I mean by flaws and how sometimes, readers don’t perceive them as that.

      4. Yes… Well, mental limitations and character flaws are very close together. This is a difficult question, because you could easily develop that quality out of your character, or you could leave her as she is. I think the real question to ask is whether this limitation stands directly in the way of her success. If it keeps her from doing what she needs to do, then you need to develop it like you were saying. But if it’s just a slight roadblock that she can get around without getting rid of, treat it as a mental limitation. It’s definitely a fine line to walk, but knowing which qualities to develop and which to leave is important.

      5. Hmm. I see your point. It makes her a bit hesitant of making huge decisions, and it also makes her very reckless about herself. She’d run into a fire if she had to, but be overprotective of everybody else around her.

        God, now I’m just confused. Never mind.

      6. Not your fault. While I love these discussions, I also tend to overthink stuff and then I get royally confused, even though in reality I know what I’m doing. (Sometimes, anyway).
        I have stopped thinking about this for now. I’m far to preoccupied stressing over a query letter D:

      7. Better, because at least something productive can come out of stressing over a query letter. I’m going to send it tonight! (That’s my reward for finishing a chapter of economics.)

      8. Thanks 🙂 Of course, there is still a lot of work to do, edits and the like. I just hope the agent likes it. ^_^

  2. Wow. I had never noticed that before about NCIS. Those writers are walking a fine line there…
    I see what you mean about that part in Stakes. There really isn’t that threat anymore after that scene.

    1. But notice how they never have the characters joke about the people they’re investigating. They might joke with each other– well, they do all the time– but they won’t speak ill of the dead.

      I know. I’ll have to fix that.

  3. Are you a mind-reader or something? Seriously, about nine-tenths of your posts seem to come exactly when I need to read something like that.

    In other words, I agree completely with what you’ve said, and maybe it’s just because I’m so darn tired, but I have nothing to add.

    1. Awesome! I’ve been struggling with this particular problem for a very long time, so I’m glad I got a solution that seems viable in more than just my own eyes. Great to hear it’s come at a good time, too.

  4. You know, I think you really nailed it with this post. This is one thing that I have consistently struggled with: creating capable characters whose profile does not fall into the “Mary Sue” category.

    It’s one thing I’ve always admired about Brandon Sanderson. Every single (main) character of his (at least, that I can think of) has something that they are extremely good — and, often, are the very best — at, yet they don’t come across as Mary Sues. Taking Mistborn as an example, Breeze is the very best Soother, Vin becomes the only Allomancer who can penetrate someone’s coppercloud, and Kelsier is a genius with steel and iron (not to mention his brilliant schemes, charismatic personality, and altruistic self-sacrifice). Actually, if someone were to make a character profile of Kelsier, he’d come across as one of the most ridiculously “perfect” characters ever written — yet, somehow, it is completely believable when you’re reading the book.

      1. I fixed it. Make sure you use the code to stop the italics when you want the italics to be stopped– it’s the same as the code to begin the italics, but with a / in between the < and the code itself.

    1. Yes! This post was originally inspired by The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson. I completely agree. He manages to do this almost constantly, creating capable characters without making them perfect. And you’re right– at first glance, Kelsier is perfect. The only thing that keeps us from putting down the book is that he’s the underdog, fighting the Final Empire. Eventually, we see his flaws and limitations, but at the beginning, all he has going against him is his enemy, which manages to be enough to keep us from hating him. Sanderson is a genius at this.

      1. You’re my most favorite person ever. I’ve been trying to crack Sanderson’s code for ages now. My biggest fear is Mary Sues (or, more appropriately, writing them unawares), and I’ve always been in awe of Sanderson’s mad skills. But it just clicked: whether it be Steelheart, Kaladin’s imprisonment, the Lord Ruler, or the Shaod, all of Sanderson’s characters face seemingly insurmountable odds. And since their problems are so enormous, so dauntingly enormous, the characters can be dangerously close to perfect without coming across as unrelatable.

      2. I like being a favorite person.

        You’re absolutely right– whatever the villain, it’s always seemingly undefeatable, which makes the best story. However, his characters are never nearly perfect– they all have flaws– they’re just really capable, and that’s awesome.

      3. Oh, that’s true! I did imply (*cough* outright state) that Sanderson’s characters are perfect. I meant more that they are all extremely capable, and could easily appear “perfect” before he gets into character development. The only character of Sanderson’s that is actually perfect is the man himself; if I wasn’t already religious, I think I’d worship Brandon Sanderson the Writing God.

        (P.S. I apologize for the late reply, my internet committed suicide simultaneously with two weeks of schoolwork insanity. I promise I’m not usually this inconsistent. Well, probably.)

      4. Indeed. I just read Elantris and marveled at the way he made me like Raoden without making him seem flawed… I’m still not sure about that.

        (No problem. Happens to everyone once in a while.)

      5. Raoden is a work of art, in my arrogant opinion. He has that same sort of (supposedly) insurmountable problem in the Shaod, and the way of life in Elantris. But he also uses that look-he’s-kind-to-children-he-must-be-wonderful method you’ve mentioned before — despite this huge problem, despite the mess the city is in, Raoden makes it better for the children and the underdogs. So even though he seems pretty flawless, we love him because he’s the ultimate good guy. (Though it’s possible to take the “good guy” route too far, as well… Huh.)

        Here’s an idea that just occurred to me: Could having multiple capable characters, on opposite ends, help balance things out and create more likability? I’m not sure exactly how to explain what I’m thinking — but having strong, memorable characters like Hrathen and Sarene helps level the playing field a little. And it helps, too, that Raoden doesn’t solve everything by himself.

        Goodness, now look what you’ve done. Mentioning Brandon Sanderson around me is a dangerous activity, I’ll tell you.

      6. But Hrathen and Sarene don’t really help him with Elantris– he just does it on his own. Sarene is a partial antagonist at times, as is Hrathen, but Raoden is fairly independent. The thing that bugged me, I guess, was that he didn’t seem to have a character arc– he began as the perfect prince, ended as the perfect Elantrian prince, but somehow managed to intrigue us all the way.

      7. Hm, I see your point there. Raoden is lacking anything that really comes close to what I might call a character arc. I guess it just boils down to one essential fact, then: Sanderson is a good storyteller. He tells a story that compels us, engages us — and he must do it so well that mere character development flaws don’t throw us off the story.

      8. I think the several viewpoints helped, although Sanderson has a bit of a problem with viewpoints. He tends to make one (usually the first one he introduces) really awesome and likable, and then he tears you away from their story to someone else, who you don’t like as much. According to him, almost everyone who read Elantris disliked– or at least was disinterested toward– one of the viewpoint characters. The same thing happened for me in Way of Kings. Separate POVs are difficult.

    1. No, he did not– but he fully intended to, and that’s the only reason he took Ben and Luke in the first place. He didn’t pay his debt after all because he thought Luke needed help destroying the Death Star.

      1. Okay, yes, sorry. It’s been a while since I’ve watched it– I’ve forgotten the nuances. But it is my belief that he was walking out with his money to pay Jabba.

    1. I personally have never enjoyed a book where I didn’t like the protagonist. When there is a main character who isn’t supposed to be liked– Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock, for example– the protagonist is almost always a different person (John Watson is the protagonist, not Sherlock). I enjoy that protagonist, but the other one is tolerated, not necessarily liked. Personally, I don’t see a good way to make an unsympathetic protagonist work, so I can’t give advice. If you know how, though, your thoughts would be appreciated.

      1. What if you could substitute likability with complexity? I’m just thinking as I type here, but instead of focusing on making him likable, focus on making him interesting enough that the reader would still keep going?

      2. Well, that’s a part of likability. The potential for change is as instrumental as anything else, but puzzling out a complex character requires some dedication, which you won’t receive unless the reader is already in tune with the character.

      3. Yep. Always has been, even in the books. The early TV and stage adaptations took him out of the picture, but the best adaptations have him as the main character.

  5. Somehow, I am rather confused. So…capable but not perfect, and what’s this about in the bounds of the threat? The threat is supposed to keep them from going nuts, right?

    …I think I just need to read this post again tomorrow. I probably just missed something important.

    1. No, it’s my fault. I can never figure out how to explain that. What I mean by the bounds of the threat… Danny Ocean was in jail, and now he’s on parole. That’s his threat. He can’t just ignore that threat, or someone is going to drag him back to jail, but he can still break parole if he’s cautious. He can’t do anything enormous and sudden that will completely negate the threat, but he can do small things, one step at a time, to get out of his threat. It’s basically the idea that anything bad that happens is ten times as big as anything good that the character can do; the bad happens at the beginning of the novel, and then the rest of the novel shows what ten things the character does, one by one, to get out of that bad thing. I don’t know if that’s any better.

      1. That does make more sense. I’m still going to go ahead and read this again, and maybe I’ll leave a better comment, but that did make sense.

        So…we should show that threat at the beginning? That’s what it sounds like.

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