Powerful But Not Strong

I’ve been getting caught up on the Wheel of Time book series.  This came about due to going to the library for something far more important that I couldn’t find.

As always, there are things I enjoy immensely in the series, but it’s a terrible series.  Fortunately, for those of us who still read (parts of) it, Brandon Sanderson taking over writing the series has improved it immensely.  One can say he has a different style (yeah!).  One can see his characterizations aren’t perfect imitations.  But, at least, stuff happens.  And, while it may have been Robert Jordan’s plan all along to make us hate characters only to have them redeemed and BS is just using his notes, some of the characters are much improved under BS.

I say parts because it got so bad with the posturing and irrelevant subplots and irrelevant minor characters that I couldn’t actually read every chapter.  I would skip pretty much everything that involved the numerous obnoxious female characters that RJ foisted upon us.

Before getting closer to the point or how any of this has to do with gaming, I want to emphasize the word “posturing”.  I quite like how well it describes the central problem of books 7 to 11.  It’s just endless posturing, mostly by individuals but also by factions.

What’s funny is that anyone can think that Robert Jordan created strong female characters.  Powerful?  Sure.  Having magical abilities in a world where most don’t helps.  Having the ability to heal is sweet.  Erasing people from existence back through time has applications.  But strong?

Most of his female characters are adults who act like children, whether they have lived for centuries or not, whether they rule the world or not, whether they are supposed to be major antagonists or not.  But, not all.

Ignoring the ones who become more palatable over time, such as Moiraine, there are three major female characters I can think of off the top of my head that function as adults.

Min, who has a special ability that is important and emphasizes the fantasy nature of a series that too often gets mired in personal and national politics, is actually like a normal person.  Normal is not a great word considering we are talking about epic fantasy that in many ways qualifies as high fantasy.  Believable may be better.  No, I got it – real.  And, of course, mature.

Berelain is a temptress, overtly slutty to where the idea of this being a strong female character is deliciously ironic.  Amusingly enough, in telling someone about the two books I got from the library, I don’t recall her actually successfully seducing anyone.  She makes a play for two of the male leads, but they rebuff her.  If all she did was make other, far more annoying female characters jealous, then, sure, she would be kind of a useless tramp.  Instead, whenever she isn’t written in for such things, she is portrayed and perceived by other characters as a skilled politician, capable administrator, efficient organizer.

Birgitte combines both power, being a legendary hero across the ages, with maturity, a rare feat in the series.  She doesn’t incessantly whine, pout, worry about her attire, dwell on being punished or punishing others, try to manipulate people who know what they are doing, etc.  She’s a play hard, work hard soldier with far more perception, insight, wisdom, and … sense … than those who keep claiming they possess it.

Interestingly, a number of minor or minor minor characters also fare well, such as Aludra.

But, anyway, this isn’t just a diatribe about how much RJ hates women (or has some convoluted way to show that he doesn’t with the few characters who you don’t want to strangle).  Whether female or male, there’s something to creating and developing strong characters in one’s role-playing endeavors.

It’s easier for PCs to develop as they see more and more play, so I’m not so concerned with them.  I’m more interested in the crafting of NPCs.  I tend to have one or more of these failings when it comes to NPCs:  designing someone who amuses me rather than someone who helps the story; being too subtle in design; being overpowered in design even if the intent is not to show up the PCs; not playing the character fully enough even when the design is appropriate.

I try to play against stereotypes.  But, I realize how fake it can seem if it’s obvious that a character is just astereotypical.  I think I run into less problems with male characters for obvious reasons.  So, the greatest challenge should be a female character who is relevant to the story, who is clearly about something and clearly either likable or hatable, who isn’t useless or overpowered, and who gets played as a real person, well, at least, as a realized character.

What can I draw from Min, Berelain, and Birgitte as examples that can be applied to this ideal?  Then, stepping back from the greater challenge, there are still the lesser challenges.

From Min, I suppose what can be drawn is that more realistic characters have more realistic views, actions, and reactions.  She is frequently worried but doesn’t overreact or make absurd assumptions.  She takes actions but not absurd ones.  She reacts without, again, overreacting.

From Berelain, it’s encouraging that a temptress can be written as something other than the author’s wish fulfillment or the embodiment of lust as an obstacle or even as comedy.  There are women (and men) who use their attractiveness to manipulate others, well, arguably there are almost no people who don’t use their attractiveness with at least someone to manipulate that someone.  Berelain’s backstory makes her character make sense.  Berelain’s role as seductress is, as stated, rather underplayed, but the perceptions of others makes her more interesting.  After all, everyone is perceived differently by various people.  Romance, lust, and sex are not things I see easily played.  However, the lack of any does remove a sense of believability to a world.

From Birgitte, we get a heroic figure [sic] who is not a Mary Sue.  Actually, I think the WoT series would have been so much better without the coming of age characters and, instead, focusing on the worldly adults – Tam, Thom, Birgitte, Lan, Elyas, Verin, and, yes, Berelain (for all that she’s about 20).  Even having knowledge from various lifetimes, she isn’t a know-it-all.  She makes mistakes but not ones I recall being as silly as other characters’.  She occasionally even gets to show her stuff, if far less than is preferred.  She’s a contrast with Berelain.  She’s the hottie who can be one of the boys, who isn’t any sort of meaningful temptation (as unrealistic as that might be), but, then, it’s not like there aren’t tons of hot women (and quite a few studs) in the series.  I think her legendary quality gets written well, to where she seems special enough to not think of in a “you are really good with that bow, want to see my sword?” way without so outclassing the more major characters around her.  Though, as much as I like her with Mat, she and Rand/Lews could have had some great scenes.  And, if Faile wasn’t around … if only.  Poor, pathetic Perrin still hasn’t recovered in my eyes.

And, they are all different.  That’s key.  Don’t go to the well too often, but also don’t appear to be different just for the sake of being different.  They have different backstories, different goals, different ways of interacting with others.  Interestingly enough, each one has been mostly tied to a different major major character … I never said RJ couldn’t write.  But, one thing they have in common is that they are all respected by a decent number of other characters, including ones that I have more respect for.

I’m still not clear on how to improve my NPC building efforts, but it should help to think about these things and put them down on electronically stored packets of data.


2 Responses to Powerful But Not Strong

  1. I always start with a list of key motivations, key objectives and resources. Then build the personality from that. Once I have a good idea of the personality, then I am closer to having a strong character.
    Just as a quick draft of an NPC.
    Key Motivations
    Arrogantly Proud: Born to a lesser noble whose father was obsessed with restoring his family’s station (this is a false story passed on for pride)
    Displays of Wealth: She insists on appearing far richer than she is. Insists on rank, fine clothes, fine food and lives far beyond her means
    Ends justify the Means: As long as she reaches her goals, there is no real problem with the methods.
    Driven: She will achieve her goals or destroy herself trying.
    Key Objectives
    Acquire wealth and power: Become one of the leading and rich families in the empire
    Humiliate family rivals: Humiliate those families who have traditionally mocked her family. Preferably forcing them into servitude to her family.
    Key Resources
    Black Market Contacts: She has been supporting, and harbouring, a group of smugglers and criminal fences. This has been her major source of ‘secondary’ income. However, she has been paying her tithes to the King so as to avoid suspicion about her wealth.
    ((Add in physical details later))

    All of her motivations provide points of strength and weakness.

    This is a standard thing I do for my Pantheons as well. Once you know what drives the person, then when you place them into the world you should be able to determine how they will respond to the PCs.

  2. brad nozik says:

    I got into the series back in the 90’s. I used to love them. Couldn’t wait for them to come out. But, around the 4th or 5th book, they became terrible. Just awful.

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