Whenever I tell people our company makes characters — fictional people or animals in a story world — they always ask, “What makes a good character?”
Part of the motivation is curiosity. The other part is the elusive nature of character creation: which characters end up becoming popular and memorable, and which characters end up forgotten or obscure, seems unpredictable. When you draw or write a character, how do you know whether it’ll resonate or reach the widest possible audience? If you're a business that needs dependable results, are there ways to improve a character's chances in the market?
For the purposes of answering this question, we’ll say a character is good if it’s memorable: the readers or viewers that come into contact with it recall that character, and in their mind, the character stands for something. By this definition, a good character leaves a strong, lasting impression. For example, Hello Kitty leaves an impression, whereas a generic white cat on a Hallmark greeting card doesn’t; both of them are characters, but Hello Kitty leaves a more lasting impression.
There is no silver bullet or magic touch. Much of what makes a character memorable depends on context. For a book, it might be function in story or personality; for a game, its power and influence. I’ll focus on six factors here that transcend medium:
- Impactful - they play a role
- Relatable - we see ourselves in them
- Multi-dimensional - they aren’t cardboard cutouts
- Visually distinct - their looks suit or belie their personality
- Representative - they stand for something greater
- Ubiquitous - they show up again and again
They make things happen! Good characters play a distinct role in story that cements them in the reader’s mind. Main characters and protagonists often become figureheads for a story simply because they drive the story. But side characters can also stand out.
For example, Neville Longbottom is the one in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone who stands up to his friends, Harry and Hermione, when they break curfew to retrieve the philosopher’s stone from dark Voldemort’s forces. Though he fails, his courage earns their House the final points necessary to win the House Cup at the end of the school year. His actions and role in the story are pivotal, even though he isn’t one of the three main characters. For that, lots of readers can’t help but think of Neville when they think of small pudgy boys standing up to bullies.
People relate to a good character. When you understand how a character thinks or why it behaves the way it does, you see a common thread in yourself and your own behavior. Maybe you’ve felt the same loneliness that Harry Potter experiences as a neglected stepchild, so you share the same joy when he’s finally discovered for his magical powers. Or maybe you relate better to Winnie the Pooh, thoughtful and kind, but clumsy at times when trying to enjoy life in the forest.
Think back to your favorite characters. Do they share some key traits or human tendencies with you or your past self?
People in real life are multi-dimensional: They behave differently in different situations and project different faces toward different people. People in real life fluctuate in mood, behavior, and actions, and also change over time as they grow and mature. Good characters reflect that dimensionality. On a macro level, they change over the course of a story, in response to events or epiphanies, and that growth makes them seem real or memorable to readers. On a micro level, characters think different things and adapt to different situations:
- They have reasons for liking one character, or disliking another.
- They have strengths & weaknesses.
- They make mistakes and learn from them.
- They have both surface goals (public and external) and underlying motivations (private and internal) driving them to act a certain way.
Likewise, you can think of characters that battle in a video game, like Togekiss, one of the more prevalent characters in competitive online Pokémon. It knows enough support moves — Follow Me — with enough bulk to be a valid support ally. But it can also learn a broad spectrum of powerful attacks, like Dazzling Gleam and Air Slash, that make it a viable offensive threat. As a result, it’s unpredictable and often multi-purpose. Togekiss is regularly one of the most common and popular Pokémon in online competitive standings.
For visual media like film or video games, how a character looks influences how memorable that character is — especially in relation to personality.
Consider a control experiment: the hundreds of villagers in Animal Crossing. Every single animal villager falls into one of six well-defined personality categories:
- For male animals: lazy, active, smug, or creepy
- For female animals: kind, bossy, vain, or peppy
Every single character in each category behaves exactly like the others in the same category: they say the same things (plus or minus aizuchi at the end), react the same way, and enjoy the same types of gifts.
And yet, entire rankings have formed around popular characters!
If it were only personality, characters of the same category would cluster together, but the distribution is mostly even. The ones that bubble to the top have a certain look. They’re not all cute - though many are. They’re not all cool - though many are.
The ones that combine a distinct appearance with a matching personality have particularly high rankings. One way to quantify popularity is through price. In Animal Crossing, you can invite a villager to your village by scanning a trading card. But there are over 400 cards, and they appear randomly, with equal frequency, in packs of 3 cards, none of which you can see until you buy and open the pack. As you may imagine, people seeking a certain character resort to buying them directly on Amazon or auction sites from third party sellers who have already opened their packs. Despite having equal rarity, cards of characters that people want sell for higher.
ジュン ("Jun") is so popular the trading card for inviting him to your village costs over 42000 yen on Amazon.
Meanwhile, another villager, a hippo with the same personality as our popular friend ジュン, costs just 368 yen:
Some people are willing to pay 20x more than another character of the same personality! This isn’t just a function of supply, as both cards were produced in relatively equal quantities, for all intents and purposes. It’s demand: Jun just seems to have more fans than poor hippo David! I attribute this to the squirrel’s chic appearance, which fits its diva personality well.
Representative of Something Greater
What makes a character stand out to you is what it stands for in your mind. One example is the underdog, a character with the odds stacked against it, or one that flies under the radar. In a book, this could be a character like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. She doesn’t receive the lifelong training of the Careers, so nobody expects her to win. In a film like Toy Story, toy characters represent a certain purpose of life: Woody represents loyalty and selflessness, striving to please his owner, Andy, even when new toys like Buzz arrive. Buzz, too, is memorable in his own way, representative of a determined save-the-world mentality. As much as readers or viewers relate to a character’s personality trait or tendency, the most memorable characters also symbolize some greater value, like winning against the odds or staying true to oneself.
Characters that show up in many places have a greater chance of being memorable. This is an effect known as priming. Daniel Kahneman describes this effect in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow:
In the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked… Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words.
For characters, this means that increased exposure primes familiarity. Once you have seen a character, you can’t unsee it, and the more frequently you encounter that character, the more likely it’ll remain in memory.
I’ll admit I don’t intuitively think of a ubiquitous character as a good character, at least not one I like more. It seems like a subconscious thing — a function of Kahneman’s System 1 — than a deliberate choice of liking or identifying with a character.
But it’s undeniable that characters you encounter often are more memorable, if only from overexposure. Hello Kitty - her consistent face, colors, and shape - is ubiquitous, and that contributes to how easily people recall her image. Emoji characters from Apple’s ecosystem are starting to permeate the minds of frequent iPhone messagers.
From a marketing standpoint, one way to raise your character’s chance of success is increasing its exposure. Having said that, however, blasting a character across time and space isn’t enough to sustain the character if it doesn’t do something or mean something to people, either through story or product.
I once attended a character expo in Tokyo, where a company was handing out free cloth bags, pamphlets, caps, T-shirts, and pencils with a cartoon character on it. The character had a cute face: jack-o-lantern eyes, a goofy grin, and a superhero cape. The company was so aggressive in handing out free swag that 1 out of every 5 people seemed to be wearing or carrying something featuring the character. Billboards greeted us throughout the convention hall, and the goofy pumpkin grin even made it onto train commercials that I saw in the following weeks.
Two years later, I can’t remember the character or company’s name. I can’t remember what it does, or why it mattered, and I’m not sure that was ever clear from the start. It’s no longer featured on billboards or train commercials, so you could say it wasn’t ubiquitous across time. But if that company still had the funds to sustain its marketing, maybe the character would still be featured. The takeaway: mere exposure isn’t sufficient. Pusheen stuck around because people used it in Facebook Messenger to express their emotions and share laughs.
If a character doesn’t carry meaning, its reach will always have its limits, in space and time.
Different things matter more in different media or industries. In visual media like animated cartoons and games, appearance and art style leave a more lasting impression than relatability, while characters in story media like books and live action films do better with deep multi-dimensional personalities.
But generally speaking, this is the list I’d give if someone asked me how we’d regularize or somewhat reliably predict how well a character will do in the market. I’d weigh ubiquity and appearance more heavily for animal characters in visual media, and relatability and dimensionality for human characters in books
Who are your favorite fictional characters? Why do you think they have stuck so well in your mind? Why do they mean so much to you?