Less a rant and more musings about the pitfalls of storytelling without a goal for your characters, something I see a lot from amateur artists online.
I like toyhou.se. I find it a really appealing way to round up information about all your characters and organize them in a way I don't think I've seen any other site do. Used correctly, you can collect all the lore about a world, plus everything about its characters, in one central location, plus art and stories they're involved in. It's an incredibly useful thing, really.
toyhou.se's popularity among the DeviantART crowd has seen it abused and misused as, essentially, another art gallery with some shiny character bits thrown in. This is the same crowd that props up "adoptables", designs (and usually not very good ones at that) aimlessly created and then traded, or in some cases sold, without any personality whatsoever to go with them. At least, not ones I'm expected to care about.
A search for "adoptable" on DeviantART comes up with 3.5 million results. These things must be the easiest thing in the world to make, I swear.
A solid personality's not really their point, though, is it? An adoptable's appeal mostly comes down to the act of collecting itself, I think. You get an entire gallery of these things, and it looks vaguely impressive, if you're easily impressed. Of course, given that they're all coming from different people, usually they don't go together or can be used for anything, that initial impressiveness goes away pretty quickly. Yeah, I don't see the appeal either, come to think of it; in fact, I find them fucking disgusting.
See it my way: every character I make is an extension of myself. I build them a lot like people. Now, that's only part of it, and I'll come back to the process later, but a big reason I value my characters is because they feel like extensions of me. Sebastian is me. Colton is me. Different parts of me, but me. I express things I feel through them. They're not directly sonas, but any good character should reflect the person who made them at least a little.
When you pour as much as I do into a character, the idea of a character that someone can just make and then get rid of becomes...utterly inhuman. These little bits of you start cropping up in them. Seb's temper and obsessive compulsion, his stiffness—comes from me. Colton's music, his fidgetiness, the way he's looking for compassion—comes from me. It's a sign that you care, a sign missing from every last adoptable out there. The idea of going through these motions with your characters, building their arcs, their futures, their idiosyncracies, and then getting rid of them is something I can't understand. But again—that's not the point of an adoptable. They're just hollow designs to take up space and occasionally take PayPal money with them. Nasty.
This all exposes a certain tendency I see a lot from amateur artists, even those outside adoptables, and that's the tendency to create characters design-first. You see, a character, and really anything else, has to be needed in order to function properly. Often, this means needed by a narrative, or needed by another character in a narrative. If you start with a need and then fill it, most of a character's functionality and personality are done for you.
I like to think of storytelling mostly like a logic puzzle. If you start with a specific idea, and I mean specific, not some over-the-top saving a fantasy world bullshit, but a specific interaction or character goal, you can focus everything on telling that story the best you can with as little deadweight as possible. This has the added bonus of letting you really get into the trenches and details with a character; if they're needed, you can tweak them to work as naturally as possible to get them to do what makes sense.
Note that I didn't say "what you want them to do". That's because in a story, what you want is irrelevant. You might want a specific character to do a specific thing or go through a specific event, but if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. You can't force something, period. Your narrative will suffer for it, 100% of the time. You can hide behind style, or you can say tastes differ, but if you force something, we'll both know it. It's like drunk driving, or listening to twenty one pilots.
Every character in the Pennyverse is built into the world for a specific reason, and this is why they all work so well with one another. They get introduced for a reason, either to help another character or develop and grow into their own. To give some examples:
- Going back to Sebastian: he's a loud, panicky little fucker. Very neurotic, very uptight. Getting him to a better place personally is his end goal. To get him there, you introduce a character like Catherine, who challenges him at first, but then becomes someone safe to confide in, outside the chaos of Kevin and Penny.
- I've told Colton's origin story before, but in short, I needed a character for the final chapter of DarkPenny that I could hurt while still giving the trio their happy ending. Colton losing out and being alone at the end from his own fuckup gives him that gut punch he needs to be endearing, and coming to Apricot Bay, making peace with Penny, and falling in love with Madeleine is how he heals from it.
- Another lad of mine, Riley, was born because I wanted a more comfortable, older weirdo to contrast the others. He helps out Colton some at the start, but he's mostly there to run the art gallery. (Note that I said "comfortable"; comfortable characters like Riley and Catherine don't need arcs. Their purpose is in helping a more disturbed character and thus being part of their arc.)
- And Riley's other half, Giulio (who doesn't have a public toyhou.se page, but he's that chunky seal bastard you see below), is an example of a character built to be part of a duo. He's more satirical and very over the top and dramatic, a direct contrast to Riley's docility; Caby wrote him as a play on the kinds of pretentious cocksuckers you see in the modern art world, an example of a purpose outside of the narrative.
Notice a pattern? Every character in the bulleted list has a very good reason for being what they are. They might not matter to each other necessarily, though some do, and not all of them need to have big, long-winded emotional arcs; a character like Diesel (ah, another one without a page) is pretty explicitly comic relief, but that's still a purpose.
Above all, characters need a reason to exist. Even if you're not building them into a narrative (still strongly recommended), make their appearance tell a story. Seb's dressed for comfort, Riley's all green like his plants, and Colton was homeless and sleeping in trash for even most of his arc. Their mannerisms should mean something. The way Penny climbs on stuff, Arthur's anxious tail wrapping, that weird thing Caby does with her ears when I pat her head—it all has a point. Follow suit and cast out what doesn't belong.
(As a brief aside, building characters purpose-first dramatically speeds up how quick you can come up with one; most of Giulio was written within a couple hours one night by Caby while I was working on Riley. That's where having a good working partner also helps, uwu.)
toyhou.se will forever be littered with characters people have no use for and will never delete, despite them desperately needing it. Given how good the site is, that's a shame, but hopefully I can get to somebody about straightening theirs out.