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Character Value Systems

Charles Forman edited this page Aug 29, 2017 · 1 revision

Character Value Systems

What and why?

When you are watching a story unfold, you are always thinking to yourself:

What is this character doing?
Why are they doing it?

The answer is: because of their values. They are reacting their values being in conflict, and they are reacting that way because they place great importance in that value.

A character's value system is the motivation for the entirety of their behavior.

If we don't know why a character is doing something, we are held in suspense, and very interested in finding out why. After some time, if it becomes apparent that the why is not clear, or never will be, we will think that the moment is false. We are unable to connect with the character, and unable to care about them. All stories are contrived, but now it feels contrived. It's not that we don't agree with the what and why of the character, it's that it makes no real sense, and we do not believe it.

Furthermore, if the character is demonstrating and reacting to values that the character doesn't place great importance in, the story will be as uninteresting as the characters will be indifferent as to the outcome.

Dramatic Conflict

A story without conflict isn't really a story. It's just a statement that some stuff happened. Strong dramatic conflict is extremely important character values in conflict.


Character vs. Self

Internal conflict comes in the form of a dilemma. The character is forced to choose between two highly important values - and those values come at the cost of each other. The character will have demonstrated that both values are extremely important, so when the choice is presented, it is very difficult, and as the viewer, you ask yourself what you would do in the situation, and judge the character based on the action.

Additionally, the choice may be in the form of the lesser of two evils. The character has an extremely negative relationship to certain negative values. If the character is forced to choose between the two, it will be very difficult.

Note: Negative values can be the inverse of positive values. However, the character may not weight them similarly on the inverse.


Character vs. Character
Character vs. Society
Character vs. Nature
Character vs. Some system..

External conflict is where the character's value is in great conflict of the external character's value. There is a battle of the wills. The character's value is being offended by the other's value and is forced to act.

This is easy to understand in Character vs. Character. When vs. society, the general group of people on average hold specific values in high regard and may be in direct conflict with the character. In the case of nature, supernatural, technology, or any other system, even though the system is not a person with will, the system will have value preferences.

For example a character may highly value love, compassion, and justice. But in a capitalist system, a system in which prefers money, growth, efficiency, there are many situations where these values can be directly at odds. There is no single person behind the system (except the illuminati), but the conflict is real and dramatic.

When faced with conflict:

When conflict offends a character's values, the value is out of balance, and the character wants balance. Immediately they want something. However in most cases, getting what they want is impeded by some obstacle, ideally based on the opposing character/system's value.

Character may:

  • Avoid
  • Defend
  • Fight
  • Reason
  • Compromise
  • Change

Finding a resolution

  • Finding common ground
  • Presenting a flaw in logic
  • Respecting another's values but not nec agreeing
  • Finding a solution to a problem where both parties are satisfied
  • Finding a solution to a problem that creates more imbalance


  • Immediate reaction
  • Acceptance
  • Learning
  • Value reassessment / Value swapping

Defining Important Values and Ranking Them

What does a character value? What do they believe in? What is very important to them? What is something even more important that the character don't even realize?

Defining the specific values that make a character interesting is hard enough in the first place. To not overlook other values is even more difficult. But to quantify the value is near impossible. However, there are some tricks to rank values!

Even Over Exercise

Wonder Unit story artist, Nick Sung, recommended we use "Even Over" Statements applied to our characters. In the exercise, we make a statement that a character values something, EVEN OVER, another very important value. Let's say a character really values Love and separately values Friendship. Our character values Friendship even over Love. So if ultimately forced to choose between the two, the character would choose friendship, forsaking love - and it would be a really hard choice.

Coming up with these values is really difficult, because it's very possible you haven't articulated or even fully thought of the many values your character has yet.

It's also very easy to come up with weak even overs. For example, the character may value integrity even over money. The problem is, the character doesn't value money very highly. Given a choice, the decision would be easy to make for the character. So even though it is true, it isn't very strong.

The Even Over exercise is a brainstorming technique for defining and refining important values of a character, and providing order the two values.

Pairwise Comparison

Fortunately, there is an easy method to order and quantify qualitative properties! Humans have a really difficult time quantifying things, but they can compare two different things almost immediately.

Pairwise Comparison involves showing two values at random, and asking you, the creator/author to pick which one your character values greater. As you make more comparisons, the ranking of the values will be very clear.

How it works

  1. Collect a list of all possible character values. This list can be as broad or specific as you'd like. In our case, we've included a list of common human values, Maslow's hierarchy, human interests, and specific ones to our story.
  2. Every step, present 2 random values and ask the author/creator which value is more important to the character. For example, it might ask you: Which is more valuable: Competition OR Friendship? In most cases, the answer should be easy!
  3. Choose the value. Don't spend too much time thinking about it. Behind the scenes, some information is being recorded, similar to batting average. Every presentation of a value is an at bat. Every selection is a hit.
  4. Repeat to train the system. You should train enough for every item to be displayed at least 5 times. (Total values * 5) (Example: 400 * 5 = 2,000 times) This might seem like a lot, but it's not much. At about 4-5 seconds for each should take about (2000 * 4.5 / 60 / 60) = 2.5 hours, not that much time, considering the benefits.

The Result

  1. Calculate the batting AVG for every item (hits/at bat). For example, if a value was presented 7 times, and it was picked 4 times, it's value rank is 0.571.
  2. If you calculate value rank for every item, and order by rank, you will have a list of the most important values to your character descending to the least important.

What's interesting about this?

  • The top 10 values of the character should be a really great definition of who the character is. These values should be demonstrated in the characters decisions and actions.
  • If you put the character in a situation that challenges one of those values, the reaction to that will be real and interesting.
  • If you take the top ranked values and make the character choose between two of the top values, at the cost of each other, it will a great source of internal conflict - a great dilemma
  • The values will have transitive relationships to each other, however, no one's value system is perfect. Some comparisons when compared with others might seem absurd or paradoxical. This presents the character with a paradox that allows a real opportunity to internally reevaluate their value system - to change, to learn.
  • Intransitive values can be discovered easily by comparing preferred values over others with higher rank value. The bigger the dissonance, the more paradoxical, the more opportunity to change.

Interaction with other characters

  • If you take the top values of two diff characters, you can pick any top value of each character and put them together. As long as they are different, there will be great conflict. Even if the values aren't even very related, one or both character's very high values are being offended. They will be forced to defend their position, or change. Either way, there will be conflict, and something learned.
  • If you take a the highest ranked common value, you have the best way for the characters to see eye to eye. If you take lesser ranked common values, you can ramp up eachothers understanding. The characters do not have perfect information of each other. There is an imbalance of information. When they understand each other on newly discovered common ground, they can respect their differences, accept them, and even be willing to change.
  • If you take one character's high ranking value that is highly paradoxical to the other character, there may be an interesting opportunity for the character in conflict to find internal resolution simply through interacting with the antagonist. This is very satisfying.

Incorrect Assumptions

  • It is incorrect to assume that a very low ranked item means the character has a negative relationship to that value. It may be true, but it is much more likely that the value is simply uninteresting to the character. The character is likely indifferent to low ranked items. Low ranked items may also have very high intransitive disosonance, which because they are indifferent in the first place, won't mean much.
  • The top ranked value may be uninteresting. If your character values happiness over all other things, cool. That would make your character common with most people. Everyone wants to be happy. Challenging someone's happiness certainly provides real life drama, it doesnt make for an interesting story. If the first few top ranked values are too basic, throw them out.
  • Top ranked values may be so similar that they should not be used in opposition for internal conflict.

Ranking the negative

  • You have to rank the importance of the negative
  • Choosing between two evils is a powerful internal conflict
  • Another character may/should have negative qualities that conflict with your character - especially when the negative quality is the inverse of a highly valued property
  • common ground is high value and high inverse value


  • Pick only the important values
  • Add more specific values, scenarios Start from scratch after working the story. Maybe you've changed the character.

Every beat in a story should be the demonstration, conflict, defense, reordering of something that character highly values.

How can you use this?

define top values

come up with some great conflicts for beats

Present random conflict

Can supporting character carry opposing values? Can you brainstorm a situation given a random value set? (Internally / Externally)

What is the big reversal?

When a character places a new or lowly ranked value above all other values. If internally, it's a reordering, If externally, it's an adoption of the other character's value.

What is at stake

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