Characterization Inspiration


Let’s talk characterization, shall we? When I was taking a class for editing fiction, one of my instructor’s told us something that opened my eyes. It was a small thing, something that is actually quite obvious. Nonetheless, it forced me to think about characters of all shapes and sizes in a new light.

What he said went something like this: Our personal experiences have a definite influence on how we view characters. We must be very careful when figuring out what is working for a character in a story and what is not. Is that character designed to make you despise them, or do you just have an irritating aunt that resembles that character? Do you dislike the character because the writing makes them that way, or do you dislike them because they go against your personal views?

This couldn’t make more sense to me, and though it has not changed how I despise characters, it has made me understand why they irk me.

I’m going to go through two characters here from Dragon Age 2. I know, it’s not a book, but it is still so relevant. If you haven’t played and want to, be warned.

In that game, we have two elves that can become companions to your MC, Hawke: Merrill and Fenris. The elven history in the DA games is mostly negative, since some elves are treated as slaves, others are basically quarantined in certain areas in the cities, and the rest live outside of society.

Merrill is a Dalish mage, who showed up briefly in the first game if you played through as an elf. The Dalish are wood elves and wanderers. They live outside of society and keep to their clans. You get Merrill by completing a few quests and then she becomes part of your party. She was second to the “Keeper”, the leader of her clan.

Fenris is an ex-Tevinter slave and warrior. When you meet him, he has semi-recently escaped his master and is set on revenge. His childhood was spent as a slave and he has a penchant for revenge. He becomes part of your party after completing a few quests related to him. He is alone and, as a fugitive, has no family or friends.

Now that you know a bit about their backgrounds, let’s look at their personalities:

Merrill is shy, unsure of herself, and desperate to help her people in any way that she can. She is naive and inexperienced. She is not opposed to blood-magic (generally frowned upon by most) and sympathizes with demons and people who become possessed by them. She is nice enough, with a sort of quirky personality that just makes you want to help her.

Fenris is broody, dark, and quite dry. He has learned to despise magic because, long story short, that’s what caused him to be raised in slavery. He is smart, very useful in battle, and is confident in his beliefs. He does not support blood magic or demons. At first, it is his desire for revenge that drives him to become one of your companions. He has little emotional attachment to anything.

Which character did I prefer? Fenris. Broody, dark, depressing Fenris. Why? Because Merrill struck me as an irritating, unreasonable character who has no logic or sense in her. She might have heart, but, in comparison to my character, her goals were counter-productive.

It was easy for me to understand why Fenris was so morose—he grew up as a slave. It was easy to understand why he didn’t like magic too—that’s what enslaved him. He smart, quiet, and knows himself. Merrill is constantly seeking approval and assistance in things that my MC wouldn’t want to get involved in. Blood magic and demons usually means bad things.

Fenris is useful, and I know where his loyalties are. He is straightforward and you never need to guess about what his response will be.

On the other hand, Merrill has become a favourite with many DA2 players. I was just involved in a conversation where it was argued that she was cute, friendly, and just so “charming”. Those aren’t the words I would use to describe her.

This goes to show that your own personality and life experiences does change the way that you view characters when reading a book or playing a game. I am more like Fenris, and his goals are akin to mine as a player. Merrill, to me, was quite different from what I look for in a friend or companion in real life.

If you’ve played the game, which elf did you prefer? Why? Are there any other examples, in books or games, that really spoke to you?


8 thoughts on “Characterization Inspiration

  1. Never played the game before but I agree that our experiences color our perceptions and sometimes makes us drawn to a certain type of character more. From a fictional standpoint, it seems Fenris is a far more interesting character although if Merrill is drawn well, I can see why so many people like her.

    • I can see why so many people like her, but I did not. I tried to write this post with Merrill’s info being presented without any bias, but I’m sure it came through anyway.

      If you end up wanting to play the games, I’d start with the first one and then try the second. The second is much less meaty, and far less entertaining. It was still an ok play though.

  2. Hmm…I haven’t played DA2 in a while. In my first playthrough, Fenris betrayed me at the end because I sided with the mages. I didn’t particularly feel strongly toward him…I sympathized with his back story, but I’m not typically a fan of moody, self serious characters designed to be ‘cool’. It wasn’t until my second (incomplete) play through and took the time to more adequately explore his dialogue options that I came to appreciate him more.

    Merril, I barely remember. I just remember she makes a really stupid decision involving blood magic. A lot of the qualities you describe, however, seem in line with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, which appeals to a large portion of the audience for these games.

    Me, I prefer an elf that appeared in the first game (and briefly in part two), Zevran. Rogue type characters appeal more to me, however (I also liked Isabella and Varric, initially played a rogue class in both games, and tend to gravitate toward things like the thieves guild in games like the Elder Scrolls).

    The kind of character I play in these games colors my perception, as well. After I play a rogue, I tend to play a ‘good’ character. In which case characters like Aveline, Alistair, and Wynne become my go to team mates, which can become a pain when certain characters abilities don’t work well with the players, but that’s more a game design issue than a characterization one.

    • I didn’t like Fenris in my first play through either. I went with the mages on that one and chose Anders as my go to. I ended up loathing Anders after a play through too. I appreciated Fenris for his character depth, and I found him to be easy to understand. Not at first, but definitely after I played it again. Since then, I always enjoy having him in my party.

      Zevran is/was pretty awesome. I really liked his character. Then Varric, of course. He is also a good one. They’re both amusing, loyal, and worth having around in terms of their classes and talents.

      I usually play rogue too. I want to be in the fight, but I don’t want to have to drag around a shield and two handed weapon. I always try to be the “bad” guy, but it never works. I can’t even do the Thieves Guild in Skyrim without feeling guilty, haha.

  3. Haven’t played DA2. Did love some of the characters in Baldur’s Gate 2, like Minsc for being an entertaining and loyal comrade on the adventure.

    I do agree how interesting it is what influences us on characters. It wasn’t that long ago when I realised that watching Transformers as a kid heavily influenced me on bad guy henchmen. I pretty much see them as clever but treacherous (Starscream) or ruthless and stoic (Soundwave).

    My favourite character types would have to be either rogues/rascals, simply because they are enjoyable to follow with a mixed moral code that makes them intriguing, or the honourable renegade/anti-hero type, who has a sense of honour and shows their mettle when the need arises. I think I like the latter because I grew up watching and reading bad guys who were cowardly idiots. When I watched WatershipDown as a kid and expected General Woundwort to run like the rest, only to see him leap at the dog, I loved it, and still do. Bad guys who join with the good guys but remain dubious are also very interesting. Avon from Blake’s 7 is a great example there. Spike in Buffy too. Again, the 80s were full of goody-goody good guys, so having someone on the right side who isn’t afraid to get dirty is highly appealing.

    I cannot for one second pretend I’m anything like any of them though. 😉

    • I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate yet, but I’d like to eventually. I just hope the graphics aren’t too hard on the eyes!

      I also like that type of character. I like them to have a little bit of “bad”, because, realistically, we all do. It makes them more meaty and relatable. The ones who switch sides (bad, then become good) only to still have a little bad are also intriguing. I find that I usually feel for them, and I generally feel sad when they show disloyalty, even if it should be expected.

      I don’t mean that I am like Fenris in that I am an ex-slave fugitive elf warrior. Only that I can relate to his character more. He’s quiet, sort of grumpy, and keeps to himself. I can be like that often. Merrill, on the other hand, would drive me nuts if I had to travel around with her. She talks a lot, and most of it is pointless chit-chat with a lack of substance. That’s ok sometimes, but not if it’s constant.

      • I really don’t like it when they show disloyalty either. Kind of as if they prove everything the others say about them that is bad when you don’t want to believe it.

        I can certainly understand that as well. Strong quiet type is a lot easier to put up with in real life.

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