Guest Post: An Intro To The Topic of Character Development!

Greetings Readers,

Once again, my name is Mark Allen and once again, I find myself filling in for Chris today!

As some of you are no doubt aware, tomorrow Chris celebrates his 36th Birthday but what many of you are (hopefully) not aware is that he is currently spending in a specialized temporary witness protection program offered by Monoc Securities in a recent settlement between certain paranormally active splinter groups of the mafia and the White Court brokered by the White Council via their reluctant representative Harry Dresden to protect a few people (Chris included) who accidentally ended up getting married in Las Vegas.

Now normally, of course, this would be easily resolved by a visit to city hall the next day, filling out the 19-d annulment forms, paying the filing fees and then it would forever expunged under the blanket rule of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Sadly, circumstances have forced an exception to said blanket rule when a few days ago it was found that a group of supposedly harmless Mummies exhibited at a special showing as a promotion for the Luxor actually proved to be an ancient group of White Court vampires who planned to use an ancient marriage ceremony regarding the souls of their collected fiances with a White Court aura fueled Las Vegas party to end all parties (literally) to create a god.

So in the meantime while Chris finds himself staying in hiding with a noted member of the White Council in Chicago, not able to use any of his electronics to feed the blog, it again falls to me to fill the void!

Fortunately, I was already in the process of drafting a few entries regarding the subject of character design for aspiring authors when a few days ago I found myself composing a response to the RPG Challenge for MyIGN, however I soon realized that I would probably need to create my own post due to the excessive verbosity levels imposed by my boundless enthusiasm for the subject so I’ve decided to see if I can combine the two to offer an intro to a few of the posts I’m still in the process of working on finishing up!

One of the biggest fallacies in writing advice is the idea that you should “write what you know.” Which is great, except one of my favorite authors (who is also one of the best publishing resources you’ll ever find) is a gentlemen by the name of Bob Mayer who addressed this point by saying something to the effect of, “that is a really great piece of advice because I’m a science fiction author and I have scenes of Mars so I can just go their for a research trip since the weather is lovely this time of year.”

Now while his point is well taken regarding the fact that the easy way to compensate when looking at potential settings for the external conflicts in your stories is easily solvable by simply taking a trip to your local library or just spending some time on your favorite research sites.

But what happens when we’re talking about talking about internal conflicts though?

Normally, this is easy enough to resolve in similar ways (with the key addition of interviewing real people that you feel may have faced similar conflicts to whatever it is your characters will face), but I think one of the biggest challenges I see in character development as a reader is the ability of an author to be able to write characters of the opposite sex convincingly.

I have read A LOT of various authors over the years (both published and aspiring), and for many years now I’ve found that I don’t generally even have to look at the name or the dust jacket picture to determine the sex of the person writing and I have to confess one of the main reasons I am able to make that distinction so easily is simply by noticing the differences in how the author writes male and female protagonists throughout their story.

Don’t get me wrong here, I fully admit that speaking as a male author myself, I can certainly sympathize with this difficulty in regards to writing women, particularly strong women characters!

However when thinking about this a bit more, it’s interesting to me because despite what a lot of media (even certain trade media that should really know better) may try to tell you, many of the best written and best portrayed strong woman protagonists I’ve seen are actually present in video games (particularly Role Playing Games) more than any other medium.

So here are my top 10 picks for some of the best portrayed female characters of all time as shown in Role Playing Games:

1. Lucca – While Chrono Trigger remains one of my favorite games of all time, one area that I’ve always felt that FF maintained superiority is in the design and evolution of the characters in the series, but Lucca is actually one of the few exceptions to that rule.

She’s smart and funny but without coming across as one dimensional (which is especially impressive given that she’s shown as a 2D rendered sprite) in the way that most of the really heavily anime influenced JRPG female characters are often portrayed and in that sense she helps add that element of human ingenuity that sadly is greatly overlooked throughout the series.

The human and divine united!

2. Elly – Xenogears remains one of my favorite JRPGs of all time, but for as much as Fey’s journey to discover truths not only about the lies that have overcome the world, but the lies brought on the psychological trauma that he has endured is central to the plot development, the epic nature of his story can only be surpassed by Elly’s journey to question everything she was taught to believe about the Lambs by the insular society of her birthplace.

Yes, Fey may be the epic hero who’s struggle both defines and drives the game, but Elly is the poignant reminder of the element of humanity present but often lost in the epic nature of legends.

3. Aerith – In many ways, Final Fantasy VII remains probably my favorite JRPG of all time and there’s a reason that Aerith’s sacrifice is typically listed as one of the greatest moments in videogaming history.

Even when we first finally interact with her, she mixes the best elements of teenagerdom with a otherworldly wisdom present in best of the clergy, wonderfully foreshadowing the details of both her origin and her fate.

The first footage we see in FFVII is of her, and the ending shows that the planet will be healed, not just because of the epic battle between Cloud and Sepiroth but rather largly because of her willingness to sacrifice herself to save it.

Tifa proves female characters can hold their own!

4. Tifa – It’s sadly ironic to me that Tifa is often held up as an example of the misogynistic nature of JRPGs because she actually remains one of the most kick-ass characters of all time (literally ;)).

Yet despite her martial arts training, she remains Cloud’s best friend over the course of the series, and in many ways is the one who keeps him going by continually challenging him to carry on after Aerith’s “death.”

It’s a testament to just how strong her character is that when Cloud goes missing, Tifa is the only person who is surprised at her subsequent appointment as the interim leader of the team.

Yet she also displays vulnerability as well and it’s some of these moments that remain my favorite and have stayed with me the most over the years, my favorite example of this was the funny yet awkward nature of the conversation between her and Aerith regarding Cloud after meeting each other for the first time.

Indeed, it’s those little touches in the dialogue throughout the course of the game that I feel really makes the love triangle between her, Aerith and Cloud one of the best written I’ve ever seen and help make her not just a kick-ass rpg character, but one of the greatest female protagonists of all time.

5. Samus – I know this is probably going to raise a certain amount of controversy here, but I have yet to understand how anyone could not play Metroid: Prime and not consider it an action/JRPG in the spirit of Diablo and Zelda.

While in many ways, Samus remains an enigma I think the fascinating about her is how the game worlds she inhabits even in the most kick-ass moments in many ways evoke the isolation that is the nature of her existence.

She is the most deadly hunter amidst entire worlds full of ruthless predators, but the fascinating thing to me is how the Metroid games subtly show how she retains enough of her humanity to feel the loneliness of her existence and the sorrow that she sometimes feels because of it when looking at the ruins of the civilizations still lingering on in the worlds of the universe she hunts to protect.

Ash; who Honor Harrington would be if she was a Marine!

6. Ash – While I loved Mass Effect 2, it could never really surpass it’s predecessor for me for several reasons, primarily among them being the absence of Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, simply because like Tifa in FFVII, if there was one person who you would expect to take over in the efforts of holding the universe together for Shepard in his absence, it would be Ash.

While in many ways Bioware continues to break ground in the concept and development of relationships in their games for me nothing really surpassed Baldur’s Gate 2 in that regard until Mass Effect came along.

From the moment the first trailer came out, it became clear to me that Mass Effect was going to be not just a game but an immersive cinematic experience that you control, not just in combat, but one of the very few games where the decisions you make as a player could literally effect and outright change the outcome of that entire epic experience and from the moment I first encountered Ash on Eden, I knew this would also include the relationship aspects that are so much a staple of Bioware’s high standard of game design.

It’s a great testament to the voice acting talent of Kimberly Brooks that she manages such a nuanced voice portrayal of the character that she brings to life by blending sarcasm, flirtatious  mischievousness, insecurity and sadness into one of the most well developed and all around kick-ass female characters I’ve ever seen.

While she starts out stoic, sad, and understandably slightly bitter, in her defensiveness over the loss of her unit you also get the sense at times that she is always much more confident in her combat abilities then in her interactions with superiors and subordinates during the course of her duties.

However, in the greatest traditions of naval storytelling, over the course of the game she begins to not only regain but grow her confidence not just in herself, but in her abilities as a member of the Systems Alliance Marines, which hopefully serves as a foreshadowing of her expanded future role as a officer in SA Navy and Council Specter in the forthcoming events of Mass Effect 3!

7. Jaheira – While the Baldur’s Gate series is filled with quirky and memorable characters and pretty much everybody who has played it has their own list, Jaheira will always makes mine as very few games can boast having a character who combines the toughness of somebody who eventually is able to transform themselves into large dangerous creatures and cause wide scale spell damage due to their obtaining epic level Druid status with what is at times IMO almost equal amounts of downright skewering levels of caustic sarcasm without coming off as excessively bitchy!

Yet, in Baldur’s Gate 2, we begin to see just how much of her nature was built upon the rock of her relationship with her husband Khalid, which turned what could have been a very easy excuse for her to be able to be in a relationship with the main character manages to turn into a moving story of emotional loss, which is only further compounded by her decision to place her faith in the main characters rather than the cause of the Harper’s that she dedicated her life to upholding.

While relationships in games all too often boils down to simple dialogue option interaction, one of the things that I love about BG2 and ToB is how integrated the quests are to the story and Jaheira’s relationship is no different in that regard as many of the events that drive the narrative involve quests that don’t just feel abstractly tacked on, but rather serve to flesh the emerging narrative of Jaheira’s story and how it then plays into the larger events that are unfolding throughout the Realms.

Alas, for poor Nalia, we hardly knew ye!

8. Nalia – When she is first introduced one could certainly be tempted to dismiss Nalia as merely a substitute for Imoen to provide a Thief/Mage to the party and I have to confess I shared this view until I was 20+ hours into BG2 at which time it become clear to me that I found Nalia to be a much more intriguing character with far more depth to her than Imoen ever showed.

Her occasional condescending manner to what she viewed as those of a lower class left a bad taste in my mouth at times, but it wasn’t until we got to the de’Arnise castle that I felt that it was really driven home just how differently her upbringing makes her from the other characters.

That, coupled with a few quests along with bits and pieces of dialogue also helps drive home how much flak she takes from her fellow nobles about her dealings with the riff raff so however condescending she may come off at times, her determined motivation to help people IMO balances it out.

As much as I like Jaheira, honestly I would have preferred Nalia for a relationship option in BG2 and ToB, just because while she grows a great deal, even after ToB I can never help but get the feeling that there’s always a sense that she could have developed even more had she been given the chance to shine as a candidate for romantic relationship (not that I’m bitter or anything about the fact that even freaking Aerie was one ;)), and given the Modding communities willingness to develop a whole unofficial expansion to that effect, I take heart that I’m not alone in my opinion in that regard!

And if you think she LOOKS creepy…

9. SHODAN – Even at the risk of showing my age by putting her down here, I simply have to add SHODAN to the list as no best female game character list would be complete without her.

Yes, I know she’s an A.I. and as such is not technically female, but as anyone who played the System Shock series when it first came out will tell you that means nothing, for while she mainly manifested herself simply as a voice throughout the series, it wasn’t the fact that she was intrinsically evil that made her scary, it was rather the extent of the absolute bat s*#%t crazy levels of insanity that raised her from background creepy atmospheric effect to not just one of the greatest female characters of all time but one of the most memorable villains as well!

Yes, long before Elexis Sinclaire and GLaDOS, it was SHODAN who showed us that insane woman scientists could terrorize us in ways unmatched by their male counterparts!

Aya Brea; fighting alone in the cold winter…

10. Aya – Yeah, I know, I know, again with the whole action/RPG genre blending, but you have to admit, from the moment Aya first hip checks her pathetically nameless date out of the way, you know she’s going to kick ass!

For me, though, the eerily deserted winter landscape of New York which serves as the world for the first Parasite Eve game, much like the Metroid series, serves as a brilliant symbolic counterpart to the sense of isolation we get from our brilliant protagonist.

Like many of the best heroes, Aya’s tale is born from tragedy, haunted by her older sister Maya’s death yet somehow destined to rise from the ashes by being gifted with abilities that she never asked for that enable her to save the world from encroaching evil, and such is the extent of her powers that I view the almost post apocalyptic barren winter landscape serves as a means to subtly emphasize and drive home the price of her powers, namely the isolation that will forever be imposed on her from the rest of humanity.

Indeed, in many ways I think that it was the misunderstanding of what Parasite Eve was that contributed to it’s lack of critical acclaim, as in my opinion it did successfully do what it originally set out to, which was to merge the JRPG elements that were so successful in FFVII with the survival Horror of the mid to late 90s.

I think what a lot of critics didn’t get about the series was that it the horrific mutations that emerged were not meant to ape the Zombies of Resident Evil, but rather were more in the spirit of The Shining, in the sense that they serve as a means to symbolize the psychological demons of the protagonist!

Admit it; you owe Aya for your success!

In many ways I believe that Parasite Eve actually deserves a lot of credit in paving the way for the concept of a psychological thriller sub-genre of survival horror games, chief among them being the well known Silent Hill series.

Ultimately while all the other female characters on this list kill monsters, for me Aya remains unique as she is the only one amongst them who’s story doesn’t feel like it pretty ends immediately after the destruction of the final boss, but rather concludes with the emotional catharsis she achieves by finally overcoming the emotional tragedy stemmed from the death of her sister that has haunted her throughout the course of the game.

Well, that’s it for me for the moment Readers, I’ll see you back here in a few days to kick off the first first part of my excessively verbose ramblings- Er, rather that is to say, my valuable multi-part series on character development for those aspiring authors among us! 😉

For the moment though, it seems I’m stuck packing for a unexpected trip, as I just received a call for help from Chris, as relayed through a fey spirit that apparently spends most of his time hanging out in a skull reading romance novels.

I have no idea how this happened, but it seems the elder White Courts seem to have found out a few seconds ago that Chris was hidden in the basement of Harry Dresden’s residence, so just got finish packing a few of the usual essential items for travel before heading out to help fight the good fight!

Let’s see here, I should probably pack light, so I’ll just take a few changes of clothes, my toothbrush, toothpaste, toiletry bag full of macrobiotic supplements, a few bags of jerky, a few bags of trail mix, a few bottles of water, a few holy water ballons, my staff, my cross that was personally blessed by Saint Jude (don’t ask), sword, FAMAS G2 and H&K Mk 23 with several spare clips for each, my bat, my flamethrower…Right, time to head off to Chicago through the perilous paths of the Never Never and give these meddlesome Mummies what for!

Cya Starside!

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