If you’ve been involved in the creation or analysis of any form of fictional media, you’ve no doubt heard the term ‘Character Priorities’. At its core, it is a simple term. It is what your characters value and how they order them. You can do so much with this concept and yet all too often creators fall into the trap of forgetting about them. Imagine a few hypothetical scenarios with me.
Suppose a story revolves around rescuing one person, a father, a child, or a politician. The heroes want to save them by any means necessary. Do the villains want that? Here you have a choice to make. If the villains want to keep this person imprisoned, the story will become a duel between the two factions each vying for their will. The other option is you can have the villain also want to save the individual. This opens up a far more intriguing story. You are filled with questions, such as why the two are opposed when they want the same thing. Why not work together? You then ask the deeper question of what do these parties want with the person they’ve liberated? If they both want the individual saved, who is imprisoning the prisoner? With a simple change of the character’s goal, you change the entire story.
This is discussing the character’s main goal, their highest priority. It changes the story substantially if it is in any way altered. We all know the hero and the villain must be striving towards something but we can make it more complex than that. How desperately do they want their main goal?
Imagine with me a story where two competing factions try to rescue one person, but neither of them wants to. Perhaps they’re doing it reluctantly or for a different motive than the person’s freedom. Maybe the hero and villain are rivals, competing for the joy of being superior and not the prisoner’s freedom. Then their pride would keep them from achieving their goal. Or perhaps one side has other ways of achieving their ends. Maybe the prisoner is a scientist and the villains pursue him lazily because they already have so many scientists to fulfil their schemes. Or what if the hero decides to postpone his quest for this individual’s freedom in order to do something else, like visit his dying mother, go to chase his personal ambition, or because he is disillusioned or misinformed about something. Here, the story’s main goal is the same but how the characters prioritize it informs us of their character and the goal’s value in their eyes.
The main goal often stays the most important thing in well told stories, but three dimensional characters have many smaller goals. It is in organizing these that we see who the characters actually are. Rather than show a hypothetical example, I intend to show a real one from a story that actually exists.
RWBY is a complicated show with high points and low points, but I personally believe volume six and seven to be near perfect stories. Admittedly not a popular opinion, but it’s my opinion so there. First off, you need some background information about the world and characters to understand my example. Full spoilers past this point, so if you were planning on watching the phenomenal show, get to it and then come back.
The characters you need to know are as follows: There’s Qrow. He’s a grizzled warrior who travels with the main characters and has the superpower of causing bad luck wherever he goes. This forces him into a life of isolation and loneliness, drinking to escape his despair. Tyrian Callows is one of the show’s main villains, a psychotic murderer who speaks in a Shakespearean refinement. He delights in death and suffering above all else. Clover is another hero, one working for a different leader than Qrow. His semblance, his superpower, is to create good luck wherever he goes. Finally, there is the main antagonist Salem, an ancient witch who manipulates people into working for her.
That’s a sufficient explanation. Now onto the example.
To date, Qrow and Tyrian have clashed twice throughout the show, once in volume four and once in volume seven. In volume four, the fight ends with Qrow cutting off one of Tyrian’s limbs and Tyrian poisoning Qrow. Tyrian flees and the rest of the heroes help Qrow. They’re out in the middle of nowhere, so Qrow’s chance of death is high. Eventually, they get him to a city and he makes a complete recovery. Meanwhile, Tyrian returns to Salem. Having failed to kill Qrow, he fears retribution. Instead, Salem tells him she’s disappointed and walks away. This sends Tyrian into a frantic rage and he beats a nearby monster to death.
Cut to volume seven. Tyrian makes his return with a robotic prosthetic of course. That’s simply what happens in a fantasy world. What’s more interesting is Qrow’s arc. Introduced in volume 7 is the special ops leader Clover. As previously mentioned, Clover is the good luck to Qrow’s bad. He creates good luck automatically all around him, winning fights and bets he shouldn’t. Around his new friend and soldier, Qrow can finally let down his guard. His bad luck no longer weighs down everyone around him.
I won’t skim over the events of the season, but at the finale Tyrian is in the custody of Qrow and Clover. Then the main characters decide to clash with the head of the military Clover works for. Since our heroes like Qrow are freelancers, they have a differing opinion on how things should be done. The heroes and the military fight as our duo moves Tyrian to prison. While this is happening, Clover gets the order to arrest all the freelancing heroes. Him and Qrow argue over it and begin to battle. Seizing the moment, Tyrian uses the opportunity to break free.
Here comes the moment I wanted to talk about and used all this explanation to explore. Qrow wants his freedom and to keep saving the world in his way. Clover wants to preserve his friendship with Qrow and to follow orders. Tyrian wants to settle the score with Qrow and to sow discord. Qrow also wants to settle the score with Tyrian. However, when the time comes Qrow makes an unexpected choice that informs us of who he is.
Qrow chooses to work with Tyrian to defeat Clover. His logic is that he beat Tyrian one on one before so he can do it again. He doubts his chances against Clover. Tyrian feels the same, except he knows Qrow will beat him. Still, he plays the long game and the two foes start beating Clover senseless.
See how they order their goals and how we know them better for it?
At the end of the fight, Clover nearly wins but Qrow punches him into the dirt. They talk about their priorities, each believing their own way is right and lamenting the others’ differences. Then Tyrian kills Clover.
This isn’t what Qrow wanted. He watches in horror as his friend and ticket to a normal life dies before him. Qrow screams as Tyrian runs away. ‘I’ll kill you!’ he screams. ‘You mean like you just killed Clover?’ says Tyrian. Tyrian runs away as Qrow futility tries to staunch the bleeding.
What can we glean from this? A few things stuck out to me. Clover and Qrow’s difference of opinion leads them to fight. Qrow values his way of protecting people over Clover’s utilitarian following orders with no questions asked. Neither is wrong but the two characters prioritize them differently and that leads them into conflict. We realize Qrow keeps distant to protect people and he’ll continue to protect them from afar even if that means he can’t be comfortable. We learn where Clover puts his trust and just how much he values the military over their friendship.
Finally and most importantly is Tyrian. His goal was to serve Salem by carrying out her plan, but his second goal was to get even with Qrow. His definition of getting even is what got me wanting to talk about this. Many would simply imagine getting even to be cutting off one of Qrow’s limbs. Some lesser villains may settle for death. But Tyrian’s grudge was never about losing his limb, it was about the humiliation of going back to Salem with nothing but failure. This gives us insight to Tyrian’s broken mind. He exalts Salem so much her disapproval is enough to send him into a murderous rage, yet he is ever the clever little sneak (to quote Xigbar). Instead of killing or maiming Qrow, he sizes up the situation and acts. He sees quickly that Clover is his friend and his way to a normal life. He manipulates the situation so that their disagreement turns violent and steers their thoughts so that Qrow sides with him, afraid of losing to Clover. Then he kills Clover and pinned it on Qrow, filling him with guilt. Now Qrow is left alone, hopeless, and remorseful. In his eyes he can never be normal and he’s responsible for killing his only friend.
Tyrian’s priorities are so insane he equates the pain of the disappointment of his master to him as equal to losing a friend and being stuck with a dead end life of misery for another. In his mind, these are equal. This clear demonstration of his priorities shows us just how much Salem ruins her followers. It shows us his mental state and allows us to predict every future move he makes. It shines a spotlight onto Qrow’s misfortune and his sorrow and Clover’s loyalty and commitment. All of this is built up and hammered home with two actions: Tyrian choosing to kill Clover instead of Qrow and then abandoning Qrow instead of killing him.
Skillful storytelling, yeah? The main thing we can learn is how characters’ priorities can affect our view of them and other characters. Actions reveal priorities. In a single stroke, the writers of RWBY show us depths of four characters in a single stab.
The trap we storytellers often fall into is making all our characters’ priorities our priorities. For example, if we think death is the ultimate punishment, we fall into the mistake of having every single character in our stories operate on that logic. Stories are best when they’re nuanced and everyone believes different things and priorities their beliefs unequally. We need to clearly organize our characters values and beliefs so that they feel like real people distinct from one another. Otherwise, our stories will feel flat.
My recommendation? Make lists. Lists do wonders. Make an organized list of what our characters love most, what they fear most, what they believe, what they want, what they consider just and how much they differ from one another. When it’s all listed out, you can see how similar or distinct they all are. Variety is king in characters. When you put in the effort to make characters who believe and prioritize differently than you, you can craft deeper stories that are more exciting, meaningful, and memorable than stories where every single person acts and thinks just like you.