Classifying characters

I have a strong fascination with systems for classifying characters, like my born great/achieve greatness/have greatness thrust upon them post from some years back. I don’t really use them that much when I’m writing, but they still interest me. So here are a few.

The original DC Comics RPG from about 30 years ago broke down heroic motivations into five categories.  They uphold good (Superman). They fight evil (Batman and Spectre). They’re burdened with unwanted power (Cyborg. The Doom Patrol. The X-Men). A sense of duty (Green Lantern). The thrill of adventure (Green Arrow. Warlord)

My friend Gray Rinehart posted a list on his blog (I don’t have the exact link) of how characters respond to outer and inner expectations:

  • Upholders struggle to live up to what other people expect of them, and their own standards.
  • Obligers meet other people’s expectations, but resist setting internal, personal standards.
  • Questioners follow their own code, but resist outer expectations.
  • Rebels push against other people’s rules, and against their own standards.

John Rogers discusses levels of corruption on his blog Kung Fu Monkey in relation to his TV show Leverage but I think it’s also useful as an assessment of how bad a character (or a real person) is.

1)You discover your business has done something bad and harmful (your new product has harmful side effects say). You put a stop to it, make restitution and acknowledge the error. Or on a personal level, you do something — cheat on your spouse, say — but you stop, confess, don’t do it again and don’t dig yourself in deeper defending yourself. Overall, you’re a good person (subject to just how bad your actions were); you sinned, but instead of excusing it, you’ve done your best to atone and resume walking the walk. For example, William Powell in Manhattan Melodrama who resigns his post when he fails to live up to his own standards.

2)You did something wrong but you don’t admit to it. However you also don’t repeat your error. So (again depending what you did) you’re still a decent human being.

3)You don’t admit it, and you also don’t try to control it. For example, you know if your old lover shows up, you’re going to sleep with them, but you don’t take any steps to avoid being alone with them.

4)You actively doing stuff — selling tainted products, sleeping with strangers on trips out of town, cutting corners on regulations — while holding yourself as a respectable person. The higher the risk of harm, the worse you are: if you hide a 10 percent risk your nuclear plant will cause cancer in the neigbhorhood, that’s bad but it’s not as bad as if there’s a 60 percent risk.

Rogers does a much more entertaining breakdown, so check it out.

Foz Meadows and I use a similar classification scheme for Bad Boys (hers) and Bad Girls (mine). The ones who makes a good romantic lead, “the rebel – is defiant, confident, anarchic; a counteragent to the conformity, he breaks rules, laws and established social mores alike, both on principle and for the joy of it.” They push the protagonist to rebel too, against everything that’s strangling them in their lives. Next come the ones who see the protagonist mostly as a possession or a source of sexual satisfaction, but don’t care about them much beyond that (see either of the original posts for examples). And then the ones who are abusive, manipulative, treat you like shit or talk you into murdering or stealing for them. And that goes even if they’re charming and/or beautiful and/or the sex is incredible; that may explain why the protagonist can’t quit them but it disqualifies the for the happy ending.

#SFWApro. Cover by Curt Swan, all rights remain with current holder.

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