Saturday, February 18, 2012

Authorship, Blame, and Neutrality

The role of an author or artist in fiction is to design and develop worlds. They set up settings, characters, and events into a hopefully compelling and dramatic narrative so that the audience may become emotionally and vicariously connected to those things and thus have an emotional response. This is the ostensible goal of fiction: to create a false world, or to tell a lie, that is convincing enough that the audience will become immersed in it. When I talk about "believability", I'm trying to point out tools and techniques that will help smooth the edges over and hide the facade of fiction behind a veneer of plausibility. My goal in discussing these things is to provide you, my readers, with an understanding of the way that sensory information, logical sequencing of events, and justifiable character traits can help the audience to forget the falsehood of what they're seeing and to see it instead as a cohesive story or narrative.

Yet despite this, the role of a creator is to orchestrate and manipulate, and while it creates more tension to make a story that can immerse the audience in its own internal consistency, the fact of the matter is that fiction is a lie, and thus a creator can say whatever they want to and it will be equally "true". A lie is not bound by the things that make reality consistent and cohesive, because no matter how plausible or implausible it is, it will always be fake. The author, artist, writer, creator, director - whoever's in charge - is totally in control of what happens in the world he or she has created, and they are not beholden to any rules about what can or cannot happen.

The problem with this arises when the audience stops feeling like they're being presented with a "real" world, and starts feeling like they're being presented with The Author's Lie. When the influence of a creator spills over into the world they've created, it calls attention to the fact that there is a creator - that this isn't real, but simply a complex series of falsehoods. Obviously the audience knows it's not real from the start, but the point of immersion in a game, movie, show, or whatever is to temporarily make the audience's brain forget. They want to see what comes next and what happens, and if they think they can predict it based on the author's values, the immersion is lessened and so is the emotional connection it brings.

This is an issue I've talked about in the past in a fairly limited sense: the issue of power and strength as an author-derived statistic, rather than something believable in-universe. But, in addition to that issue, there are several other issues that arise from the visible presence of an author.

Authorial Agendas
One of the most common issues that arises when an author realizes the power they wield over their universe is the idea of "righting wrongs": to make things in their world that reflect what they want, or what they think the world should be like. This may be intentional, or it may be unintentional. Intentional examples come when an author goes out of their way to change things to their liking - to "right the wrongs" of reality by depicting an escapist utopia where things are exactly as the author wishes them to be. Unintentional examples come from the by-necessity slanted perception of an individual reflected upon a fictional world as an attempt to be "realistic".

For example, in the World of Gor series (whipcrack), men are established as being dominant and powerful, and women are submissive and eager to be made into sex slaves. This is almost certainly an example of an intentional agenda, as the alternate-world nature of Gor suggests that it is an escapist fantasy for the author (in the guise of the protagonist, world-jumping professor Tarl Cabot). Gor is a world crafted for the author, where everything works the way he wants it to. In an unintentional agenda, Gor would simply be a reflection of how the author thinks the world already works: "women enjoy being beaten in real life, right? so I made a book where the female characters enjoy being beaten". They're both offensive to most people, obviously, but it's important to distinguish between them because one is a direct appeal to the author's own viewpoint, and the other is founded in ignorance.

That's not to say that people with truly good intentions cannot also suffer from authorial influence. It's easy to single out people who use authorial power to promote sexism, racism, and other forms of hate-speech or discrimination, but positive viewpoints that rely too heavily on authorial power also suffer. Even if it's a sentiment that you or I agree with, if the story feels forced or unnatural, it doesn't really help establish the moral or its applicability to reality. The phenomenon of Positive Discrimination is essentially a reflection of this concept. If an author is trying to make a statement like "women can fight just as well as men" and doesn't back that up in-universe with things like training, hard work, and the threat of failure, it's going to feel artificial (because it is). If the idea being conveyed is "women can do anything that men can", and the hard work aspect isn't conveyed, it's not going to be a convincing argument - it's just going to be escapism, a feel-good experience for people who already believe that women are equal to men that does nothing to actually convey the value or realism of that sentiment.

An authorial agenda is the literary equivalent of a cheat code. The immersive value of a narrative derives from its consistency and its tension. In the Lord of the Rings, we empathize with Frodo because the arduous journey of getting the One Ring to Mordor is a long and unpleasant, yet necessary, task. That empathy is taken away if we are made to ask "wait, why didn't they just ask the eagles to carry them?", because now it's stopped being a legitimately hard situation and started being a faux-difficult farce. Any task can be hard if you make it hard, it's not tense unless someone or something else is making it difficult. When you "make the world work" for your viewpoint or your favorite character - when things just click for no reason other than "I'm the author and what I say goes" - you're destroying the tension of the situation in exchange for a largely self-congratulatory sequence of fictional events.

Authorial Blame
In addition to being disconcertingly unimmersive, authorial agenda also opens the doors to invitations of blame. The fact that the author controls everything in the work brings up the question of "why did they do this" or "why didn't they do that". Because it no longer feels natural, if the audience doesn't like something that happened, they have someone to either appeal to or blame. It's a lot like Theism in ways I'm not comfortable discussing, so don't get all smug about it or anything.

See, we established that the tension of fiction comes from its forced consistency. If a threat feels real, and not "a thing the author put in to fake tension", then it's going to work better because the audience accepts it as part of the in-universe set of events. They'll accept a character's death or misfortune as a tragic part of the narrative, and grieve for the character "in-universe". If the death feels fake, then the reaction will still be negative, but it's going to be negative in a meta-sense. For example, when R.A. Salvatore killed off Chewbacca in one of his Star Wars novels, the response was less "oh no, Chewbacca's dead, how tragic", and more "what the hell, why did Salvatore kill off Chewbacca?" Their reaction distanced them and de-immersed them from the narrative they were taking part in. If a female character feels real, and not "a thing the author put in because she's sexy", then the audience is going to accept her as part of the universe as well. They might not like her as a person, but here's the dividing point: whether the audience focuses on the author or on the setting.

There's a term in Professional Wrestling called "Go-Away Heat" that I think helps explain this difference. "Heat", in wrestling terms, is how much a crowd boos a villainous wrestler ("pop" is the cheering equivalent for heroic wrestlers). Normally, this is an accepted concept, because wrestlers who get (or seek) heat are playing as villain characters. A wrestler who plays a slimy, greedy, untrustworthy character is hoping to get booed, because that's the fans responding to their character. The more boos he or she gets, the more attention they're paying to the character. In some cases, you'll get people who boo heroes and cheer villains, but generally those people are still connecting with the characters - they're just making different value judgments than what's presented to them by the wrestling narrative.

"Go-Away Heat" is legitimate booing: they're not booing because they hate the character, they're booing because they hate the wrestler. Booing a heel wrestler means he's doing his job right; booing a wrestler that you legitimately dislike means "stop letting this person wrestle, kick him out of the industry please". John Cena has been a long-time victim of this because of his relatively dull persona and, perhaps more importantly, how obviously he's been supported by the WWE's writing team. His victories feel forced and unnatural, and while he's popular with a large segment of the fanbase, the way he's played up and presented by the WWE has earned him a lot of antipathy as well. The point is that the fans are taken out of the story because the problems they have with Cena are largely based on his presentation: he feels fake, he feels unnatural, he feels spoonfed to the audience. They're no longer capable of addressing his issues in-universe, and so they break from their "immersion", such as it is, to complain about how he's represented in reality.

When people talk about hating characters like Ivy from Soul Calibur or Samus in Metroid: Other M, it's never really about the character and it's almost always about the designer. The character is not held responsible for their personality or their attire because "they" didn't choose it, the creator did. It's impossible to actually respond to them as "people" because they're not presented as such. A well-written, well-rounded character can have views and perspectives that you might not enjoy, but you can still consider them "their own person" and decide you disagree with them. A poorly-written character does not allow for that, because there's no point "disagreeing with them" - they're not real enough to even pretend that's acceptable.

For example, when Starfire in DC Comics starts talking about how great nudity is and how prudish humans are, there's two things that you can do. The first is to agree/disagree with the character's perspective, thus making them feel more real and rounded to you as a reader. The second is to go "what a blatant, transparent justification by the writers and artists to have a character who spends all of her time naked", and thus become disconnected from the narrative. You don't think of her as a real character because she's too fake to let you get immersed enough to do that. She's just a marionette, justifying objectification in the guise of female empowerment (as written by male comic book staff who want to see some big ol' titties).

Similarly, Sejuani from League of Legends (who you may remember from that other article I wrote) has been vaguely justified by the idea that "she wears a bikini in the cold as a sign of her toughness!" This plays off the idea that style and utility can be traded off, and the former becomes more meaningful by the sacrifice of the latter. Yet it's also easily possible to construe that particular line of reasoning as a shallow excuse whipped up after the character was already designed in order to justify the concept of "we wanted her to have tits". People who would be offended by the idea of a female character being designed only for titillation aren't going to be pacified by the in-universe reasoning if it's not convincing; they're just going to go "what an awful justification" and continue to hate it. Because it is, it's an awful justification.

I've made a Venn Diagram that I think helps to illustrate the visual design process in terms of in-universe and meta reasoning.

On the left you'll see the red circle, illustrating "why characters do things". On the right you'll see the blue circle, indicating "why designers do things". In the middle you'll find the common ground that they share, where the reasoning of the character and designer will probably be the same. When a member of the audience disagrees on the execution of something about the character (i.e. in the red circle), then it reflects on the character themselves. When a member of the audience objects to a perceived issue in the design process (i.e. in the blue circle), then it reflects on the designers.

A character can be a "bad person", or "stupid", or "abrasive", and still be well-rounded as a character. After all, it's not like those traits don't exist in real life. The key is just making it so that it's a reflection of their character (red circle), and not a reflection of the artist (blue circle). If it's just part of their personality, you might not like them, but you'll address them as a person (that you don't like). If it feels like they're there to be representative of a particular sex or ethnicity, you'll probably be offended if you're part of the targeted group. Whether it's male or female, black or white or Asian or Hispanic, straight or gay, if you feel like a character is a bad person because of what they are and not who they are, then you're not going to think of it in terms of "the character", you're going to think of it in terms of the author's personal vendetta.

The problem with Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M wasn't that she was a passive character who constantly relies on men to do things for her and collapses emotionally at several points, it's the fact that Yoshio Sakamoto was making his presence felt. It was the fact that we were supposed to apparently think "yes, this is how a normal woman behaves, this is what women do". Samus as a character wasn't the issue, Samus as "what Sakamoto thinks women are like, or should be like" was. This was worsened by the fact that Samus' previous incarnation hadn't had the same personality, so it felt even more artificial and forced. To quote Sakamoto himself from a Joystiq interview:

"And one of the specific goals here is to convey the charm of Samus as a character and to bring forth several perspectives on what kind of personality she has and how she reacts to situations."

Did you see that word, "charm"? That's how we know that Sakamoto is doing this. That's how we know he designed this passive, weak-willed, feeble character as "someone you should like", and why our dislike for the character turns into dislike for him, dislike for the game, and justifiable accusations of sexism and bad writing. It's because she's not an "independent character", presented neutrally, but rather an author-project character, presented in a manner that we're obviously supposed to think is great. He's trying to make our judgment for us, when most people are going to respond negatively to the sorts of things he thinks are "charming". We react badly because it's being forced upon us.

In contrast, let's talk about Valkyria Chronicles for a bit, if only so I can drudge up the most game-defining picture that's ever been produced:
Only the dead have seen the end of kawaii
Valkyria Chronicles basically had two groups of playable characters: "main characters" and "everyone else". The main characters were terrible because they were forced upon the player, both in the form of cutscenes and near-mandatory inclusion into battles. You could not get away from the main characters if you played Valkyria Chronicles, and the way that events unfolded in the game showed that the game had a pretty obvious agenda too, because every character ends up admitting that the main character is awesome and right 100% of the time.

However, the "everyone else" category got fairly little characterization. There was no sense of authorial influence on them because that would be too much time spent paying attention to side characters. Instead, they're presented as they are: cheerful or dour, hard-working or lazy, smart or stupid, accepting or racist. The player is allowed to make judgments about them based on their characters and not what the game seems to want them to think. There's no "oh, we all realized that you're right!" moment for those characters. There's no sense of the universe coming together to show how awesome and correct they are about everything. Maybe there's the sense that you should like one character or another, but it's never shoved in your face or anything. You can get attached to one character and dislike another, and reflect that in-universe by favoring the former and ignoring the latter.

People can have differences of opinion on which characters they like and don't like. Maybe you liked one and your friend didn't, while your friend thinks another is awesome but you can't stand them. But the thing is, it's your opinion. The game isn't coming out and going "you need to like this person, if you don't like this person you can stand over here with all the haters who are proven wrong and are also dumb and ugly" with these side characters, it's just presenting them as people. That's the value of a neutral point of view: if you disagree with something a character says, then it develops them as a person. If you disagree with something the author says, it's going to reflect poorly on the work as a whole, and even if you agree with a forced sentiment it's still going to feel fake.

The end result, or at least what I'd like you to take from this article, is the idea that if you want something to be believable and immersive and to connect with the audience, you have to be able to present it without making the audience realize there's an authorial voice. That's obviously not going to happen 100% of the time, because people have different perceptions about "reality" and what constitutes an "agenda," so even if you make a totally realistic world with justified characters that fit the setting, you're still going to have people who think it has an agenda purely on a different interpretation of what "reality" is. But in general, the most believable option for world-building and story-telling is to set things in-universe as they are, rather than as you want them to be. The difference is not in the content, necessarily, but the presentation of the material as its own air-tight story rather than a convoluted lie you're telling to the audience.

On a subconscious psychological level, people have different beliefs about how the world works and how things are. Things like political affiliation, social standards, and moral values aren't some petty traits plastered on top of someone's "real" personality, they're a highly ingrained part of the human psyche connected to basic reactions. The gist of this is that when you present material, as an author or as an artist, your audience is going to be diverse enough that they'll react to it in different ways. If you present it with a slant or an obvious bias, it's going to be about you - about your views, your biases, and whether or not you are a good person. If you present it neutrally, the discussion will be about different interpretations of the material itself, which keeps the audience interested in that material. This is the foundation of believability - to make a story or setting that stands on its own and lets the audience take part in its world without dragging them out to slam a "lesson" in their face.

Friday, February 10, 2012

"Roleplaying The Old Republic": A Rebuttal

So, all right, we're all gamers around here, right? And we're all probably at least slightly familiar with Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, right? He's known for being critical of games, and that criticism is why people think well of him as a reviewer: because he's willing to think about the things that work and that don't work in a given game, and how to improve the model. While I feel personally that he's had a few instances where he'd let his standards slip so he could say he liked a given game, or where he applied double-standards to justify why he didn't like another, I could still say I enjoyed reading his work. Even if I didn't agree with him, I was essentially willing to trust the fact that he was thinking these issues over and looking at them reasonably.

Then he wrote this. "This" being an article about how much better it is to write backstory for your character in an MMO than to play a pen-and-paper RPG. I don't know if this is a joke, or a hoax, or a prank. I don't know if Yahtzee wrote this and then sat back, satisfied at a guaranteed negative response from angry gamers. But frankly, it's in line with the persona he's established, whether or not that persona reflects his actual viewpoint (I'm pretty sure it does).

Block 1: It is impossible to give a shit about someone else's pen and paper roleplaying character 

The first point of Yahtzee's dissection of traditional gaming versus video gaming is reliant on the fact that you (the reader) cannot stand anyone who likes traditional games. To quote the article: "presumably you'd give a shit if you were playing in the same campaign, are the individual in question's psychologist, or are keen enough on fucking them that you're willing to absorb whatever twaddle comes out of their mouth". Apparently, "no-one outside of the above small and very exclusive list gives a shit".

This is a pretty impressive generalization. It's more impressive considering that we're reading his column about video games in order for him to tell us about things he finds uninteresting. In fact, I would say that a column about video games is the glass house of "being boring". But there are reasons that he feels these characters are boring, at least, so it's not like he's pulling this out of nowhere:

Block 2: When what you're describing is limited only by what the human mind can conjure and put into sputteringly eager words, then nothing you say has any weight

Yahtzee, you know pen and paper games have rules, right? You've listed a bunch of examples of how you should just "make something up better", yet the whole point of the exercise is that you're working with situations where you're restricted by your character's abilities and available options. Unless you're talking about freeform RPGs, but freeform RPGs don't even really require a pen and paper unless you want to take notes on details. The stories created by rules and restrictions are called Emergent Stories, and they rely upon the fact that games do, in fact, have systems in place to determine what does and doesn't happen.

"Oh, your dark elf ranger successfully pierced all seven eyeballs of Yushg, guardian of Emperor Buaristein's Tomb, did he? How interesting. Hey, did you know that Horace the pig has stolen the silver buckles from the cuban heeled boots of the anti-life equation? I just made that up in my head. Do you see how this works?"

Yeah, okay, Yahtzee, except one of those was based on working within the limitations of a scenario and the influence of random chance, and the other is you just making something up. The whole point of an "RPG" as a role-playing exercise is that you can get outcomes other than what's expected, and you can find things to do within the scenario that rely on improvisation and problem-solving skills. The system and the rules are there in order to provide structure and tension to the narrative, and while, yes, it may all come down to random numbers and not actual skill, that's true of computer RPGs too.

This isn't a minor quibble, or some little tidbit that I'm taking undue offense to. This is the foundation of his article. His article is based around the fact that pen-and-paper games have "no limitations" while video games do. Pen-and-paper games as a medium do not have the same limitations as individual video games, but that's what the DM is for. A scenario or adventure is the equivalent of an individual game. His argument that you can technically do anything because it's all in your imagination is like saying that you can do anything in videogames because, I mean, technically you could just learn how to model and code and stuff and you could do whatever you want. Or you could use cheats and console commands, because using those things is the equivalent of a DM "making rocks fall": something that breaks the game because you're not supposed to be doing it.

What's funniest to me about this is that, when Roger Ebert made a bunch of sweeping generalizations about video games, lots of gamers - including Yahtzee himself - came out of the woodwork to establish the fact that Ebert's criticisms of games as a medium were based on an outdated, half-understood concept that he'd never done the research to actually fix. The problem with Ebert's argument was that it was dismissive of all these games based on evidence that hadn't been true for the past 20 years or so, and it was frustratingly obvious that he just hadn't put any time or effort into learning about his subject before he decided that it was trash. It was something we'd expect from a half-baked poster on a forum, but not from someone who was largely respected and well-thought-of by the community. The obvious lack of effort put into the dismissal was worse than the dismissal itself, not because of what it implied for gaming but because of how ridiculous the reviewer came off as being.

"I could say that his area of expertise is cinema and therefore his opinion on videogames is about as relevant as that of your grumpy aunt Hildy." The fact that Roger Ebert voiced his opinions about something that he clearly knows nothing about is why people took offense and/or mocked him. There is a lesson to be learned from this, but I cannot think of what it is.

Block 3: Because in a video game the role playing is a directed experience within a fixed world that large numbers of other people can also access, and which cannot be modified by the DM getting bored and declaring that rocks fall from the ceiling and kill all the goblins you've used up half an hour trying to kill
I'm starting to believe that Yahtzee learned about RPGs entirely through webcomics.

Yahtzee's argument about video games is that they're interesting in role-playing terms because you can compare and contrast your experience with other people: "I relish talking to other people playing the games at the same time, learning how their character's turning out and what quests they've been doing that I skipped". I'll accept that. It's true that the fact that a video game is a shared product, rather than an adventure experienced by a single group and then probably never run again, is going to give it a social connection that many pen-and-paper games don't have.

On the other hand, you're really stretching if you think that quests in a computer RPG are going to be really that different. Perhaps if you're talking about Planescape: Torment and it's the age before Gamefaqs you can get some legitimately hard-to-find dialogue options, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Mass Effect's different paths can be fairly easily predicted (in one of them you are nice to people, in another one you punch them, the same things happen either way). But anyways, in general, it's feasible that the rules and structure of a computer RPG could give them a sort of social bonus not experienced in pen-and-paper RPGs, but that stems largely from the fact that pen-and-paper adventures are not mass produced.

However, this was not always the case. Back in the days of AD&D, there were a bunch of official modules (and even later editions have well-known modules like 3e's "Sunless Citadel"), and those were shared experiences, because players would get together and talk about what they'd found and how they reacted, and DMs would get together and talk about what their players did. The rules established by the module sets the consistency that the players' interactions rely upon. They have tools, they have targets, they have potential responses. The DM's job is to make those things fit together in a logical pattern based on the information given to him, not just to "make things up".

Block 4: As I mentioned in my discussion of Dragon Age 2, I do like to try to get into a character, filling in backstory the game doesn't give in my own head. 

"In my own head" sounds a lot like imagination to me. However, let's give Yahtzee the benefit of the doubt. He's an experienced gamer, and he knows what he's dealing with, so I'm confident he can make good use of the game's limitations in order to craft a character who fits the scenario and has logical, developed interactions with different factions and viewpoints.

"For some reason, the one I kept coming back to was a rather ugly metallic pipe running horizontally along the middle of the face and feeding up the nostrils, like one of those oxygen tubes they might put on you in the hospital. At first I thought it seemed ungainly, but then I realized, if anyone saw this bloke, the first question to leap to their heads would be "What's with the face tube thing?" It was a feature. A talking point. Backstory. So I ran with it."

sorry, what

"During the game I played Light Side but took every conversation option in which I grumblingly demanded hasty payment. My history had left me with a strong moral compass and hatred of pirates, but with the constant need for medication and the money to pay for it, I was also coldly realistic in my approach to working for hire."

Okay, so, I didn't post the entire backstory he wrote up, but he based it on the fact that his character (a) looked young and (b) had a pipe in his face. And part of that backstory was that he is sick (not part of the game rules) and requires medication (not part of the game rules) and has to earn more credits to afford his medication (not part of the game rules) because otherwise he'll die (not in game).

His article is about how pen and paper stories are awful because there's no restrictions on them (which wasn't true to begin with) and now he's telling us about his character's backstory that has nothing to do with the game, nothing to do with the system, and everything to do with the character appearance he chose. The only "game" part of this whole thing is that he makes choices in quests that involve getting paid faster. Even though the rewards he receives from quests have nothing to do with his backstory, since that's in his head and not part of the game. Meanwhile, if this was, say, GURPS, all the elements of his backstory would be part of the game system (in the form of perks and flaws). It would be part of an established, logical ruleset, rather than something he'd simply made up.

Block 5: See, to get into role playing games you have to know how to role play.

That's true, Yahtzee. You do. That's why "writing backstories" like you just did is a pretty standard part of making characters for a pen and paper role-playing game. It's also a part of the game that can be the most problematic, because it's one of the few parts where "the rules" don't apply, which means that players can orchestrate events without the guiding hands of probability and chance to make their story more feasible or more likely. "Writing backstory" is something that exists outside of the game rules. It is something that exists only in your head.

So here's what you're doing, Yahtzee, and there's nothing wrong with it per se. You're using your imagination to fill gaps between established content. You're given certain information about your character's actions that are solidly established by the game system: you've done x quest, you have responses y and z. You're using the backstory you made up (in your head) to determine which choices you make, and you're creating internal dialogue for your character (in your head) to connect those choices to the character's backstory. That's fine. A lot of people do that. It's something that can make a somewhat content-devoid game more interesting and more lively. You use your imagination to fill in where the game cannot take you. Games, at least at present, cannot provide realistically varied and reactive conversations about every possible topic. Nobody in-game is going to ask you about your face-tube, because that's a non-factor. To make up for it, you had to use your imagination (in your head) to make it part of the game experience.

What I just described is the entire basis of pen-and-paper RPGs. It's the combination of "hard" and "soft" content: hard content like rules, dice, and stats versus soft content like characterization, interaction, and roleplaying. The hard content is used to provide a shape for the soft content; it establishes limitations on what you can and can't do based on the reality of the scenario. You certainly can't "do anything", because you don't need to drop $60 on a 300-page book to tell you to "do anything". You're working within the scenario provided for you by the referee, GM, or DM, which is exactly the same as working within the confines of a scenario provided by a video game developer except that it's more adaptive. Hell, most of the developers you admire, like Chris Avellone and J.E. Sawyer, still use pen-and-paper to set the standard for adaptive scenarios with open-ended responses.

Block 6: It's a short step from the above to writing fan fiction, and that never ends well for anyone.
i can't believe you got paid to write this

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Project: Representation

Hey guys, this isn't so much an update as an a request for input. I've been kind of bothered by a certain niggling issue and I wanted to see what you guys thought about it. You see, when dealing with issues of depicting sex and gender, I've had a pretty solid baseline in the past: don't make it a big deal. Utility is going to be the same regardless of sex, gender, race, orientation, etc, and that should be more important than a need to stereotype and objectify. However, I think it's also possible that simply ignoring those traits is not always going to be the best route for equal representation. Simply pretending that an attribute doesn't exist doesn't necessarily empower the people who possess that attribute, and two people depicted in the same manner are not necessarily going to truly be "equal".

For example, several sources (like this Cracked article and this Shortpacked comic) have taken a stance against "False Equivalence", the idea that despite both sexes being similarly clad and  being depicted attractively, both are designed for a "male perspective": the women are there to be desired, and the men are there to be emulated. While I've generally been of the opinion that if men and women are wearing the same things (i.e. "both serious" or "both ridiculous") that it's generally okay, the issue they're talking about is also a problem of the depiction of their physiques, personalities, and so on. Women are designed to be attractive to men, and men are designed to be impressive to men. When you get games like Angelique Trois that are designed entirely by women, it's easy to note a difference in the way that both sexes are portrayed.

Similarly, in terms of depicting personality, there's an issue of whether or not certain traits properly "represent" a certain group of people, be it a sex, a racial minority, a sexual orientation, etc. It's easy to say (as I have done in the past) that such traits should simply be ignored, since they end up seeming like a forced stereotype - yet it may also be true that people who are actually in those groups may feel that there is some trait or attribute that they feel is central to their identity as part of that group. Simply ignoring those attributes could be considered akin to saying "all characters, regardless of sex or race, should act like white men", which naturally could have its own problems if "white men" is considered a stereotype of its own and not just a name for "doing things sensibly".

Again, though, attempting to apply such things can backfire; the movie Red Tails was designed to be empowering to a black audience, and it apparently does this by making its WW2-era black characters talk like somewhat stereotyped "modern blacks". The idea that there are speech patterns, behavior patterns, or personality types that are "connected" to a minority status might be just as offensive as the idea that everyone should act like a white male. I've heard different opinions about all of these things, and that's why I'm trying to get everyone's opinions about this.

So here's the project that I'm trying to embark upon. What I need from you readers is to answer a few questions based on whatever minority groups you identify with (if any). I'm looking to try to sort of isolate the traits that would make for better, more believable characters without simply ignoring issues of race and sex. If your answer is "just make them efficient/utilitarian, their minority status has nothing to do with it", then that's fine. If you're a straight white male, that's fine too, because I think it's a false idea that comic-book standards are attractive to all white people or all men and it would be good to get some input on whether or not you actually find comic standards appealing.

[At the top of your reply please note any relevant statuses in brackets]

1. What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? If men in comics are designed to be empowering for men (i.e. men read comics because they want to be like the strong, powerful men depicted in them), how would you do the same for women/minorities in terms of physical appearance? What aspects of attractiveness would be part of a character that you would want to be, as opposed to a character that is there to be objectified? I'm talking about things like facial features, physique, aesthetic/fashion sense, bearing, and so on. How would you make a good-looking character that makes you feel more empowered, rather than a good-looking character who is there to be ogled?

2. What attributes would define "good character" in a manner that you'd want to emulate? This is the "personality" version of the last question. What traits would you look for in a character who you'd use for escapist purposes? Would there be any aspects of the character that would be connected to a minority status, or would that be irrelevant/unimportant in comparison to their other traits? By "traits" I mean not only aspects of one's personality, but also speech patterns, attitudes, and values.

3. What attributes would define "attractiveness" in a manner that you'd want to pursue? I'm leaving the subject of this question vague because, of course, there are going to be androsexual and gynosexual readers answering this question. In essence, if women in comics are designed to be attractive to stereotypical men, how would you design a character who is attractive to you? This is both in terms of physical attributes and personality traits. I leave this open for descriptions of female characters because I've heard lesbians say that the way women are presented in comics is not appealing to them, and as such having them describe what would be appealing is also part of this project.

4. Would you say that intent/presentation is more or less important than actual traits? I believe that a large part of the problem with sexist or racist depictions of characters is not what they are, but why they are. There's nothing "sexist" about a large-breasted woman, but if you know she's there purely for titillation it's going to end up feeling fake and offensive. With that said, is it enough to get around that by changing the traits themselves, or is the assumption of sexism/racism going to hinder the depiction of minority characters no matter what?

5. Is identifying or labeling a minority character worth doing in terms of design? There have been lots of attempts to empower minorities by making a dedicated product around them. The idea of creating a "strong female/black/gay character" has been thrown around a lot without much real success. However, it's not like good minority characters don't exist; they're just not designed in such a way. Do you think it's worthwhile to try to make minority identity a major part of a character's design, or is that a secondary concern? Is it better to create "a strong minority character", or a "strong character" who happens to be a minority?

6. List examples of characters who you think positively represent your identified group.

When you've answered these questions in such a manner that you're satisfied with your response, just post it in the comments on this article so everyone can read it and compare/contrast with their own responses. Link this article around, too, because the more people who respond, the clearer a picture we'll have. If you have any questions about the questions, don't hesitate to ask for clarification. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Five-Character Analysis

Character design isn't easy. Or, rather, parts of it aren't easy. Parts of it are ("make character do thing that makes sense", as a short-term issue, isn't exactly a brainbuster). But I think it's unfair for me to spend all these articles talking about concepts that don't work without examining a few that I legitimately like one on level or another - and by "like", I mean that I think they're interesting and provide useful lessons about the whole process. So, without further ado, here are five characters that I feel can provide useful lessons to writers and artists.

Kaori Sanada (Last Blade 2)
Last Blade 2 takes place during the turbulent end of Japan's Tokugawa shogunate, where the Pro-Imperial and Pro-Shogunate forces clashed to take control of the country. Kaori Sanada is a female swordsman impersonating her brother, Kojiroh Sanada, in his role as a captain of the pro-Shogunate "Shinsengumi" squad. Within the story, she doesn't have a particularly huge role - she and her fellow Shinsengumi member Washizuka are tracking down a violent (now undead) criminal and attempting to bring him to justice.

What I like about Kaori as a character is that, basically by necessity, she's a male design. When I say "male design", I mean that they just gave her what someone would actually wear, instead of racking their brains to solve the problem of "how do they know she's female??" It's still possible to tell she's female by her voice, her face, and perhaps her hairstyle, but it's not a huge deal overall. The somewhat gender-neutral aesthetics of the samurai make this even easier - I mean, this is what her brother looks like. Her job was basically half-done for her.

Personality-wise, Kaori doesn't get a whole lot of development - and yet, that's probably for the best. Her job is that of a captain in the Shinsengumi, to replace her lost brother. She handles this efficiently and maturely, and that is actually the best we can hope from a character. She does her job. She doesn't bring her sex or her gender into it. Nobody else does either, although the fact that she's disguised could possibly mean that it would be a big deal. That's the long-and-short of it: she's a samurai, she dresses like a samurai, and she does her job capably. What more is there? What more can you ask? The bottom line for Kaori is that her aspects of "being a warrior" far outweigh the importance of her "being a woman" in terms of what she wears and how she acts, and that's the lesson that should be applied to pretty much everything.

In fact, you know what, let's get some others out of the way here too. Hilde (Soul Calibur). Emma & Emmy Honeywell (The Last Remnant). The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3). Meliadoul Tengille (Final Fantasy Tactics). The recurring pattern with all these characters is that they're serious, mature, and dedicated soldiers who just happen to possess vaginas and breasts and all that. The fact that they want to be respected for doing their jobs (and doing them well) is more important than their sex. They dress, speak, and act in ways accordant to their position, not the audience's ideas about their gender. They do their job, and they take the steps necessary to ensure that it is done. They're respectable because their behavior makes them worth respecting. They're not unnecessarily or aggressively masculine, either, they're just doing things that make sense for their profession.

Note too, though, that it is not their "warrior status" that makes them respectable. Killing things is not the means by which to make a good character, but rather it is the representation of their personal beliefs and values. They are good characters because they are committed to a task and see it through respectably. It's about the manifestation of their beliefs in terms of them being "taken seriously", rather than being treated differently because they're women. The core problem with the representation of women is that they're not treated like "people", they're treated like some sort of separate entity not answerable to rules of logic or common sense. When you get around that, suddenly you realize it makes sense for women who are going into combat to wear something reasonable that would actually protect them.

Hibiki Takane (Last Blade 2)
Hibiki Takane is a 17-year-old girl on a quest to kill the man who murdered her father, a famous blacksmith. Using one of her father's swords with a fast-draw sword style, Hibiki is drawn into actual combat for the first time in her life in her pursuit of vengeance. She is, in essence, a normal civilian girl with somewhat ritualistic or ceremonial training who is now being forced to fight for her life in actual combat situations. Oh, and her outfit's pretty nice because it's just a regular kimono with some handguards that's still visually striking.

In one important way, Hibiki represents the "odd man out" in Last Blade 2: she's the only non-veteran, and thus the only character not used to combat. This doesn't diminish her fighting skills, but rather how she handles the pain and death of her opponents. If her opponent is knocked out (i.e. finished with a kick or weak strike) she will walk away, then force herself not to turn back and help her opponent. If she actually kills her opponent (i.e. finished with a strong attack or combo attack), she will freak the hell out, as one might expect from someone who has just killed another human being.

However, if the player keeps killing enemies, eventually she sort of gets used to it, putting her on the same level as the other characters. While referred to as "psychopathic" by the community (not in a particularly demeaning way, but whatever), it really just means she's sort of used to it just like everyone else in the game is. The fact that she starts out normal, i.e. not used to committing murder, is why the transformation seems strange. You see that? That's GROUNDING. The "normal" attitude is used to contrast with the "veteran" attitude, and without the former the latter would be meaningless.

The boasts and brags of fighting game characters are generally a non-element; they're not really "worldbuilding", they're just things they say. Hibiki, on the other hand, realizes that she's killing people, and like most normal people it's abhorrent and disgusting. The transition from a civilian to a warrior, a transition that any soldier with a kill to his name has had to go through, is an important part of her character development. Heck, it's even a choice thing too, since Hibiki can also go through the game without killing anyone. It even changes her ending if she gets "used" to killing, since she decides to hone her skills instead of simply going home and living a peaceful life. It's a perfect expression of the dichotomy of murder, Last Blade 2 is the best game ever, let's move on.

Kei Kurono (Gantz)
"Gantz" is a series about the recently dead (i.e. people killed in accidents) being flash-cloned by an unknown entity and forced to play in a bizarre alien-extermination game. Players are allowed to live their lives for most of the time, but once per week they're teleported into a fight against hostile and enigmatic beings. Surviving holds the promise of freedom and normalcy, yet the games are highly lethal and its players often squander their second chance at life through arrogance, inattention, or outright unfair scenarios.

Kei Kurono is the series' protagonist. At the start of the series, he's a shallow, self-centered teenager. He dies helping an old drunk off the railroad tracks (at the behest of his much nobler friend, Kato Masaru), and his reaction to the game is initially one of confusion, as one might expect. Yet within the confines of the game he finds himself enjoying the combat and the spectacle, and the fact that he does well means that the other players come to idolize and praise him. His desire for attention and the thrill of battle are his primary motivating factors, making him reckless, cocksure, and arrogant. The fact that the "game" consists of combat against strange and powerful foes means that he has a chance to shine in a way that he couldn't do in regular life.

However, over the course of the series, he develops emotionally in response to hardships and discoveries about life. The highly lethal nature of the game, and the loss of friends, at first causes him to fall into a deep, hopeless depression. However, it eventually moves him to take on a more active role as a leader, rather than simply being "the best at killing". He organizes the survivors to train and coordinate during their "regular lives" so that there's a higher chance of them getting through the game. While everyone else seemed to treat it as just an unpleasant interruption to their lives, Kurono actually takes a stand and tries to do something to keep people alive. He makes use of the established facts about the setting (how the alien technology works, how to adapt to new information, how to include new "players") in order to get the best results with the fewest people hurt.

The second half of Kurono's change as a character is the relationship he develops with Tae Kojima. At the start of the series Kurono is a pretty stereotypical teenager. In fact, in his very first appearance he's ogling a large-breasted model in a magazine. That's seriously how the character is introduced. He chases after a large-busted girl in a hilariously grounded way (i.e. it's super awkward and she's completely uninterested because he's an asshole), and while eventually his reputation as a great fighter gets him more respect, he's still callous and shallow.

His relationship with Kojima begins as a dare - she's an incredibly plain-looking classmate of his, and he asks her out basically as a joke between himself and his friends. However, as he spends time with her and realizes that he legitimately enjoys her company, he begins to thaw as a character. Their relationship develops in a wholly grounded manner; while there are a few important shared events, most of their relationship is divided by simple day-to-day stuff like walking home together or going on dates. They're shown as being two people who genuinely love and care for each other in a healthy, positive way. The thing is, though, that in the series it's one relationship among many, each different in their own way. It's not like a "this is what you should be doing, this is the only right way" scenario, it's just a simple interpersonal connection that works for them.

The reason I like Kurono as a character is that he represents an actual dynamic concept. He is exposed to various stimuli and scenarios, and rather than having them reflect off of a static personality, he adapts to them and changes as a person. This is emphasized excellently when a later chapter sees Kurono lose his memory of the events that had transpired since his "death", meaning that we get to watch him turn back into the character that he was in the beginning. No character development has ever been so clear as when we watch the selfless, heroic Kurono turn back into the self-absorbed petty Kurono as though a year of in-universe character development had never even taken place. The fact that I could pinpoint where each aspect of his character's change had come from, or at least the type of events that had facilitated it, is why I've put Kurono on this list.

Marta Louise Velasquez (Traffic Department 2192)
When discussing the representation of female characters, it's easy to get caught up in positive attributes. The unfair depiction of women is generally considered to be related to things like whether or not the character is taken seriously, whether or not the character has personal integrity and self-esteem, whether or not the character can define herself without having to use a male character as a crutch, and so on. The presence of these traits is generally considered to be good for the character, in terms of making them more likable and charismatic. Depicting negative traits in a female character can lead to accusations of bigotry and misogyny, and some companies (not all, but some) will generally avoid depicting female characters negatively in an effort to avoid accusations of generalizing - to say "all women are like this", and not "this one woman is flawed".

However, I think if we're discussing fairness, it's also worth noting that certain behaviors are also more commonly associated with male characters than female characters, and thus when they do show up in female characters, they're given more leeway. It's okay for a female character to be rude or abrasive because they're making up for years of oppression, where it was perfectly okay for a man to do that. The entire "bitch reappropriation" movement is about equalizing the idea of female and male "negative traits", or rather allowing women to have negative traits that are considered natural for a man. Ignoring the question of whether or not people should behave like that, it's important to acknowledge that some women do behave like that, and those women aren't really depicted well in fiction. There doesn't need to be a lot of those characters, necessarily, but it shouldn't be treated like something that doesn't exist, either.

With that said, Marta Louise Velasquez goes above and beyond the standards of "aggressive" and "ambitious" and rockets right up to the top of "awful human being". Lt. Velasquez is the protagonist of Traffic Department 2192, a top-down vehicle shooter game made by IBM in 1994 (a Let's Play is available for those who'd like to witness her character firsthand). The titular Traffic Department is locked in a violent struggle with the powerful street gang known as the Vultures, and Velasquez is their best (and most volatile) pilot. Velasquez is Maverick from Top Gun cranked up to eleven, a character so abrasive and hateful that every single other character in the game seems like the good guy when they talk to her no matter how awful they are. Almost every line out of her mouth is an insult of the worst variety, and while in some cases they're deserved, a good 98% of the time it's basically her just totally destroying someone verbally for daring to make contact with her. And she gets away with it because she's the best damn pilot we've got.

The thing about Velasquez is that she's almost a parody - not quite intentionally, but not wholly unintentionally either - of the "strong female character" of the 90s. As in, the kind of edgy antihero comic-book "strong female characters" defined by intense overcompensation for years of passively-depicted characters, who ends up being just as silly because it's still not actually a good character concept. She's take-charge and independent and confident, but more importantly she's abrasive in a way that would be still be totally awful if it was a man (and I can back that up, because her father was the same way). Yet she also counters the positive discrimination of a "better than everyone" strong female character . Velasquez is the best at piloting, but she's also a horrible human being, and is judged by both of those attributes.

Here's why I put Velasquez on this list: because sometimes you just have characters who are awful people in-universe, and who are treated as awful people in-universe. Women, being people, are going to be among that number. Velasquez is a person. Period. She's an angry, hateful person that nobody likes and everybody is basically forced to respect, and that's it: she's a person. She is allowed to be flawed in a way that has nothing to do with an authorial preconception about her sex or gender's disposition. She is a person who is an asshole. That's the end of the story. She is a character whose sex is certainly referenced quite often, but her behavior is so aggressive and spiteful and universally loathed that it turns into something gender-neutral. Men and women both hate her, and both will throw offensive epithets at her, not because they hate women, but because they hate her. When they call her a bitch, it's not because she's a woman standing up for herself in a man's world and showing some pride in herself when the patriarchy wants to keep her docile, it's because she's a bitch.

He's just as surprised as you.
Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)
ahahaha the look on your face

Okay, no, seriously, hear me out about this. Squall Leonhart is the protagonist of Final Fantasy 8, a 17-year-old mercenary who has just recently graduated from his military academy / orphanage and can now proceed to a healthy life of war and death and occasional ballroom dancing. He's well-known by gamers for his cold, unemotional demeanor and his flippant attitude. Like Velasquez, Squall is an abrasive jerk, but unlike Velasquez it's because he mostly just wants to be left alone. But I think the negative reaction to Squall's character is based on the fact that nobody really "got" what his deal was (and also some poorly coded segments where you could miss out on pretty large blocks of his character development).

In the past, I've talked about child soldiers, and how the default assumption that "it's okay for kids to be in combat if it's a video game" relies on a suspension of disbelief and an intentional lack of grounding. Squall, being a Final Fantasy protagonist, falls under that category. He's a 17-year-old mercenary who basically goes to a high school where you learn how to kill things. He wears a leather jacket and is covered in belts. He wields a sword that is also a gun! How the heck is this guy so freaking miserable?? The answer lies in the fact that the game is Selectively Grounded. There's a whole bunch of stuff that's rule-of-cool, and then Squall's background is based not on Fantasy Genre standards but instead on what actually makes sense for once.

So here's a rough timeline of Squall's life. First, he was born while his dad was off rescuing his (adopted) sister. Then his mom died. Then he went to an orphanage with his adopted sister even though his dad was still alive (because he was busy ruling a nation of isolated technophiles), and that kind of sucked but he liked his sister being there. Then his sister got kidnapped again and he went from the orphanage to the military academy, whereupon he spent his entire life learning how to kill things. And that's it! That's where we pick him up, in the story. We pick him up as "an orphan who got sent off to become a mercenary after losing his only real family", and that's his entire character. Oh, and he's lost a lot of his long-term memories because of a side-effect of the magic they use at the school, so he doesn't even really know why he's upset.

The problem is that we learn this over the course of the game, while many players had formed their opinions of Squall as soon as he showed up. People didn't assume that he would have a background that was relevant to his behavior; they expected the JRPG standard of "I'm this stereotype, and that's just how I am". Squall is a character who has been through some Hard Times, and that's why he's an asshole. The unspoken issue - the thing that divided many people, I feel - is that the game doesn't think this is a good thing. That's why he gets character development and all that stuff! That's why events in the game change his personality! People missed out on a lot of it because they didn't think the clues were important, so they just overlooked them.

Squall's character development, like Kurono's, is facilitated by the fact that he's thrust into the role of a leader. He doesn't particularly like his subordinates or his employer, but he feels responsible for them. Rinoa, his love interest, serves to open him up emotionally by making him realize that (a) he likes his companions as friends, and (b) there's nothing wrong with that. The problem with this, and definitely one of the reasons many people missed it, is the fact that the game lets you make choices about how you respond to things, and it's entirely possible to play through the entire game making the choices you think Squall would make (being a dick) without the game really responding or noting it. The exact problem with Final Fantasy 8 is that it doesn't reflect choices in the least, and yet changes happen. Therefore, unless the player "detects" the change, they're not really in a position to facilitate it via their dialogue choices. For example, one scene has two different options:

Squall: (Man, she's really down.)
        R1 --> (Cheer her up)
        R2 --> (Let Irvine handle it)

Picking the first option leads to this:

R1: "Come on. I'm sure you can still do something."
Selphie: "... Squall...being sensitive? That's weird. You're the last person I expected to cheer me up. I must really look depressed."
Squall: (What's so weird? I care just like everybody else. It's just that there are too many thing that can't be helped. So why bother talking about everything.)
Selphie: "Uh-oh! There you go again into your own little world. And you're not gonna share anything, huh?"
Squall: "...Yeah, whatever..." (Why is she teasing me? I was just trying to help.)
Selphie: "Well, I think I'm feeling better. Don't worry about me, Squall."

And picking option 2 leads to this:

Squall: " help her. I'm out of here."
Irvine: "...Alrighty."

AND THE GAME PROCEEDS THE SAME EITHER WAY. The game acts like character development has been happening all along even if you ignore everyone and act dismissive and rude and basically maintain Squall's attitude from the beginning of the game. The game only works if you somehow know exactly which choices you should be making in concordance with Squall's current Character Development Level and whether or not he's started opening up yet. Hence, the final game looks like a messed-up mishmash where players who'd been picking rude options the entire game suddenly found Squall being friendly and falling in love with Rinoa and all the other railroad elements that the game has. The problem with the game is that it gives the player choice and then totally fails to act on it in the script.

Of course, Squall's not the only character to have actual events influencing their personality. The other main characters of the game are all also orphans, but their differing experiences post-orphanage are what changes their perspective on the world. The personae that they build up around themselves are dependent upon their upbringing. Zell is Squall's antithesis in that he's brash, loud, and confident, and this is because he actually got adopted. He attends the school while living in a nearby village with his caring and dedicated foster parents. He doesn't live in a dorm with no friends or family like Squall does. And the thing is, too, that many players thought Zell was annoying, and sort of empathized with Squall for being short-tempered with him. And you know what? Zell's not supposed to be perfect either, far from it. Characters in-universe get annoyed with him, he messes a lot of stuff up because he's impulsive and short-sighted, and in general his behavior has consequences other than Squall facepalming and shaking his head.

Other characters have similar backgrounds. Quistis focused on "being the best possible mercenary", using academic excellence to attempt to fill an obvious social void that rears its head several times throughout the game. Irvine constructs a persona of a cool, capable sniper to make up for the fact that he doesn't really like killing, and he chokes on killing an important target because he's the only member of the party who's capable of remembering who she is. Even Rinoa (often despised by fans) is fairly believable as a rich girl thrust by her own moral imperative into the role of a freedom fighter, who stands out in stark contrast to the more war-hardened mercenaries around her. I'm definitely not going to pretend any character is wholly believable, but the game makes a lot more sense if you realize that they were actually trying to connect characters' behavior to their lives instead of having them exist in a vacuum like many of the game's contemporaries did.

So in short, Final Fantasy 8 had some really good ideas, but half-assed them in multiple forms. It offered grounding without setting an expectation for it, so people expected rule-of-cool characters who wouldn't be affected by something so simple as "war is unpleasant" and "dying is bad". It offered choice without following it up, so players who kept picking antisocial options or options that insulted one character or another were unpleasantly surprised to find all those choices to be totally irrelevant. It took some solid core concepts, and botched the execution terribly.

Each of the examples I picked was for a reason. Each reason is a lesson.
1 (Kaori): A person is a person. There's no need to distinguish between "male" and "female" as stereotyped groups, because people are going to do what makes sense for their situation based on their desires and preferences. Kaori, and all the other similar characters named, are warriors first and foremost. This is reflected in their choice in clothing, their attitudes, their behaviors, and so on. They are female, yes, and perhaps this plays some role in their personal lives, but it's not as big a deal as many designers would have you believe. They do what makes sense for them, as people, and that's the end of that.
2 (Hibiki): Games deal with combat all the time. It's something so common that it's not going to be treated seriously as a part of a story. You can cleave your way through a thousand bandits and never lose your ability to snark or quip or pursue romances or ever have any sign that the people you're killing ARE ACTUALLY PEOPLE. Hibiki is a good character because she serves a grounding role; the other characters in the game are inured to killing, and she is not. She can become as they are through experience, and the shift was enough to unnerve many players - serving as an emotional response to a dynamic that most games simply ignore.
3 (Kurono): People are changed by their environments. The attitudes that they possess clash and fuse with the attitudes of those around them; they create change in others, and are changed themselves. The events of a person's life define their outlook and how they will respond to new events and new stimuli. The lesson taught by Kurono's design is that everyone can change, and everyone does change, and the audience being able to connect that change to events deepens the character's personality. Kurono also does a pretty good job of grounding his more unpleasant traits by making people respond to them somewhat realistically, instead of having comically exaggerated responses.
4 (Velasquez): Sometimes we get caught up in the need to make positive role models. Sometimes making a female or minority character be a "bad person" is unacceptable because of the idea that an audience will assume that this single character is meant to be representative of the whole race. Sometimes it's nice to have a character so vile and hateful that they're just universally despised, and the audience can sit back and go "oh, it's not because she's a woman, or because he's black, or because that person is intergender. It's because They're A Bad Person, just like anyone else who's a Bad Person."
5 (Squall): All the above steps work a lot better if you're consistent about it with the whole package. If you're developing a character in a linear path, the illusion of choice will only make things worse. If you're relying on a grounded, implied backstory to explain a character's behavior (regardless of whether you condone it yourself), it's going to work better if the entire setting is grounded, instead of just one element. It's totally possible to have a good idea for a character based on realistically modeled issues and screw it all up because you're too busy trying to have fun with everything else in the game's design.