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Character Balance

A while back, we were critiquing a story and the student’s character seemed a little too blessed for the story to be interesting. Everything she wanted, came true. She needed a place to stay, and someone immediately offered her one. She shared something from her culture with a person from another culture, and the person enthusiastically embraced it. (It was red bean paste. A quick survey of the room showed that about half the Korean students hate red bean paste as much as I do!)

Over and over, people urged the author to push her character into a corner. Which is fine, but for me, the problem was elsewhere. It was that the character was too perfect. For example, both her parents had recently died, but she seemed basically fine with it. As one student pointed out, she seemed not to have a source of income, but was spending money freely. There was talk of having her get a job or something. Of course, it turned out the author figured it was obvious the character was living off the parents’ life insurance.

My question was, “Fine, and what does that cost her?”

That is, for every advantage a character has, there needs to be a cost. Like, fine, she doesn’t need to worry about money. But she now has to contend with the pain and grief of someone who just lost her parents, and furthermore, every time she spends the insurance money, it should give her a little qualm. Am I wasting this? Am I disrespecting their memory? This needs to haunt her.

The best things in life may be free, but most free things have a hidden non-monetary cost. Stability costs a degree of freedom. Love costs a degree of independence. Health costs a certain amount of time and a certain constraint on diet, for most of us.

Then I gave my students an exercise which worked out to be a kind of cross between character creation in the original White Wolf (World of Darkness) games, where characters have a pool of points to use to create their character traits, and the six basic abilities of first edition AD&D (pre-Unearthed Arcana, because the comeliness score was a silly idea!). That is, I had the students write down two columns on a piece of paper:

Column 1: Physical Traits

Column 2: Mental Traits

(Those are basically just the character traits from AD&D 1st edition, reworded to be easier for EFL students to understand immediately — except for agility, which had to be explained.)

Then I told the students that they had 12 points altogether to distribute among these characteristics. (This is the bit taken from WoD games.) The first choice was whether the character should be more Physical, or more Mental. Whichever is dominant, that trait set gets 7 points to distribute. Whatever’s secondary gets 5 points. For each trait, a maximum of five points is possible. For a Physical-dominant character, the 7 points can be distributed however the student likes, but 5 points in Strength means only one point left over for health and agility. 2 points is average, 1 is below average, 3 is a bit above average. 4 and 5 are outstanding and amazing, respectively.

Most of us aren’t particularly outstanding or amazing in anything so broad as a major trait, but that’s beside the point of this exercise, which is to illustrate that balance in a character is a fundamental concern, something as basic as giving a character a weakness to complement each of his or her strengths.

Of course, we can sometimes meet someone who is both in peak physical health and quite strong, but also very intelligent, charismatic, and well-read. (Even in White Wolf this was possible, given the willingness to take on specific defects like a mental illness, a major enemy, or a major illness, for example in order to top up the points and give characters higher ability scores.)

This works fine in fictional characters too — extreme strengths can be interesting, as long as they comer at a price, like superpowers coming at the cost of having to lead a double-life, for example — as long as there  is a kind of balance — we expect characters will have weaknesses, since fiction is really at base concerned with problems and how imaginary people (emulations of people) solve those problems and “grow” as a result.

It makes me wonder how many people actually write up lists of balanced traits and weaknesses — or even character sheets — for their characters. I know I’m not the only author who was once a gamer, so I bet there are a few people out there who’ve experimented with it. Of course, with my students, going all the way to making up a character sheet might be too much. But the assignment of points is an interesting exercise that puts the question of decisions about balance at the forefront for a few minutes. It’s worth getting your students to try it out, say with the protagonist or antagonist in their current work-in-progress, just to get them thinking about this issue a little bit.

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