Storytelling

How to Create Powerful Character Combos

Whether you’re creating a pair of buddy cops for your latest novel or crafting a a whole team with your roleplaying group, getting the right character chemistry can turn a lackluster story into a great one. While there are many ways to create solid combos, most of the famous character sets of the fictional world follow this simple, three-step formula.

First, Give Them Superficial Similarities

Ponies, girls, and friends. Ponies, girls, and friends.

This forms the basis of the group’s identity. The right things in common will make the group distinct from other people or organizations, and therefore memorable to the audience. Some similarities you can use are:

  • Demographic: The most obvious way to give the group superficial similarities is to make them the same age, race, gender, species, or all of the above. You can also make them all rich or poor; famous, infamous, or outcast.
  • Activity: The characters could all be real-world quidditch players, or congregants at the Church of Lesser Evil. They could all be collectors of gravestones on asteroid colonies, or participants in the kingdom’s greatest bake sale.
  • Affiliation: Each member might be a former secret agent, or employees at the Poncho Corporation. They could be witnesses to the last will and testament of a powerful tycoon that died, or beneficiaries of that will.

Again, the things they have in common should be superficial, not closely related to their personality or behavior. Instead of a group of devoted nihilists, consider making them members of a nihilist club. That way they’re still connected by the club, but they don’t all have to be genuinely devoted.

While creating a group identity is important, there’s another good reason to make them similar: it will make the differences between them stand out.

Second, Give Them Meaningful Differences

One is cool and logical, the other is passionate and impulsive. One is cool and logical, the other is passionate and impulsive.

In literary terms, a contrasting character is called a foil. This person is generally a side character that makes the traits of the protagonist stand out by showing the audience an alternative. However, character contrasts aren’t limited to two individuals. You can contrast an entire group against each other, and you should. It’s impossible for a single character in a an entire group to be distinct and memorable without having traits that are lacking in the other members.

Make sure these different traits are meaningful. They should affect the characters’ actions and have an impact on the story. Some good areas of difference are:

  • Conflict resolution: Perhaps one character itches for a fight, another always wants to flee, and a third takes every opportunity to negotiate. A fourth could be preoccupied with avoiding any situation where a conflict could conceivably occur in any dimension.
  • Disposition: One character could be confident, while another is shy. One could be cold and humorless, while another cracks jokes. One character could be conniving and suspicious, another honest and trusting.
  • Skills: Make one team member a mechanical genius, while another can’t put a plug in an outlet, but can charm the pants off of anybody. Make one person a doctor, and another good at sending people to doctors.

Avoid making your group members one dimensional. Add complexity by giving each character several defining traits that don’t go hand in hand. Make your shy character the one that fights instead of the one that runs away.

If you’re creating characters for your roleplaying group, you should also make sure your characters’ traits fit the style of their players. In the moment, a player that likes to negotiate with enemies will do so, even if their character was supposed to be trigger-happy. Then the person actually playing the team’s negotiator might not know what to do with their character.

Contrasting the characters is the most important part of this three-step method. Not only will they each stand out when they’re together, but it will also give the story a huge entertainment boost. Every time they have to work together, they’ll butt heads. That will give your story a healthy dose of conflict even when there aren’t enemies around.

But you’ll also need to keep your characters from going separate ways.

Third, Create a Unifying Influence

They don't kill each other as a personal favor to Xavier. They don’t kill each other as a personal favor to Xavier.

Now you have all these characters that operate very differently but somehow have to work together. It’s time to think about how that will happen. When they have a disagreement, how is it resolved? Here are some ideas:

  • Choose a glue character. If you have a character that is more central than the rest, hold off on foiling that character. Instead, give the character a balance between the polarized traits of the others. The other characters can have a strong relationship with this person, empowering the glue character to resolve disagreements. In a written work, this will probably be a blank protagonist. In roleplaying, this character should be the party leader.
  • Establish an absolute authority. Your team could be part of a military organization with a strict hierarchy, or minions for a villain that doesn’t accept resignations or tolerate failure. All members of the team must answer to this authority, and none should consider defiance an option. Then the authority figure can step in and provide direction when necessary.
  • Use a voting system. When your characters disagree, they can vote on what to do, but you’ll have to be careful or the group will still fracture. Make sure there’s a good balance in the group as a whole, so that any character can expect to lose some votes and win others. You don’t want a character that’s always voting against the rest of the group. It will also help if the characters have an especially strong bond. If they are all siblings, or the last members of a dying resistance, they’ll look past most disagreements.

Whatever your unifying force is, every character must respect it, or else it will be another point of contention. If you’re roleplaying, the players also need to respect how conflicts are handled. Discuss your guidelines for PVP conflicts with them.

 

Next time you find yourself enjoying the interaction between two or more allies in a story, take a closer look at the characters and the relationship they have. What are their similarities? What are their differences? What brought them together, and what keeps them fighting side by side?

You don’t need to use this formula to create your combo. But it’s easy, it’s fast, and as Hollywood has proven, it creates great results.

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Comments

  1. Jack Marshall

    Good points to consider, both from a writing or gaming perspective!

  2. Emma B

    Wow! Great! I wrote a novel about a team of teens and I saw how this just fit perfectly with my book. Because they all have things in common, like their powers. They all have differences, one is tough and hard to reach, another girly and shallower than the rest, one calm and cool, the other excitable and all over the place. And they have the glue character: Dan keeps them focused and together. While Tara is the leader. This is great advice! Really helps!

  3. Lorey

    Hi! I linked back to your awesome article over at my blog, xolorey.blogspot.com

  4. Brie

    I admire this post. It was thoughtful and I found it very interesting, especially discerning the “glue” character and avoiding contrast for them, as they hold the balance. I have to keep this in mind for a fantasy prison book I’m writing.Thanks!

  5. Bess Marvin

    I’m still not clear on the term “foils.” I learned that foils are different than the concept of contrasting characters. Contrasting characters are like your example of Kirk and Spock – they exist to highlight each other’s differences, but they will never become each other. To me foils are parallels; they are two similar characters who make different choices in life and end up in opposite outcomes. A lit class example was Hamlet and Fortinbras Jr.; both princes with murdered dads, but making vastly different choices. A better example of foils is probably Faith and Buffy. Both are Slayers who have accepted their role of fighting evil, but Buffy honors the law and holds onto her friends, family, and community while Faith goes it alone in life and answers to no one. In episodes like “The Wish” we see that Buffy could easily become like Faith if she didn’t have her friends to keep her grounded.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Encyclopedia Britannica has this definition.

      “Foil: in literature, a character who is presented as a contrast to a second character so as to point to or show to advantage some aspect of the second character.”

      They go on to use Watson and Sherlock as an example. Your examples all work too, it seems to be mostly a character used to emphasis the traits of another character.

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