Creating Complex Characters: A ‘Mass Effect 2’ Case Study
As a writer, there are some shows and books I find myself going back to again and again just so I can remind myself what exciting, well-crafted characters look like. Some of my favorites are HBO’s Westworld and Game of Thrones, but then there’s Mass Effect 2, BioWare’s big-time sci-fi role-playing game. I’ve been joking for years that I should write up an in-depth analysis of Mass Effect 2’s characters, and I think it’s finally time. There’s a lot writers can learn from Commander Shepard’s interstellar Scooby Gang, but this article is going to be a deep dive into what makes a complex character and what good chemistry looks like.
What I notice about complex, well-crafted characters is that you usually have a visceral reaction to them: you might think Mordin Solus, the Salarian doctor in Mass Effect 2, is a coldly logical, untrustworthy egghead who would smother a baby if it meant advancing ‘the greater good’, or you might see him as an eccentric but lovable mad scientist who just happens be an amateur opera singer/former spy.
Meanwhile, I look at Jacob Taylor, another one of your crew members in ME2, and start to yawn. He’s obedient, loyal, generous, calm, reasonable, and moral, but though he’s a well-defined character, he’s not a complex one. You might say “Well, shit, then I guess everyone’s gotta be a morally ambiguous, edgy, internally tortured angst-mobile to be ‘complex.’”
Well, yes and no.
Miranda Lawson, your sort-of second in command, shares Jacob’s professionalism, calm demeanor, and pragmatism, but she’s also got some deep-seated arrogance and a Type A personality—she’s not easy-going, she’s driven, and she doesn’t respect those around her who don’t match her pace. She’s also an officer in the Cerberus organization, which is a radical pro-human group that’s up to some shady stuff. A lot of people hate Miranda with a passion, and I’ll bet that’s why the creators engineered her big argument with Jack.
Jack is an incredibly hostile, anarchic punk lady who doesn’t wear a shirt and takes every opportunity to make petty, mean comments. She’s also an uber-powerful telekinetic that can rip people apart with her mind. She’s wheeling around an oversized hatred for authority, and she makes it clear she only cares about herself. She is an edgy, internally tortured angst-mobile, and a lot of people hate her, too.
All the things I’ve described so far are ‘surface traits,’ the immediate things you notice about a character. They describe a character’s behavior, how they present themselves to others, and the surface-level descriptors other people might use to describe them.
Both Jack and Miranda end up displaying these surface traits in a big argument around the midpoint of the game, and it’s a great demonstration of how complex characters work and play off one another. However, it’s important to realize that these surface traits are not the sum of their characters, they’re expressions of those characters. But before we go deeper, let’s get some context for this argument.
SETTING THE STAGE
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the argument happens after you complete a special mission with Jack to help her get some closure on her traumatic past, which involves finding the abandoned science facility where she was experimented on as a kid. The facility was run by Cerberus, which is now funding your mission to save the galaxy, and its goal was to create the ultimate biotic, a type of telekinetic that uses mass effect fields instead of psychic energy. Jack was supposed to be the culmination of the project, but escaped when she became powerful enough. She’s been on the run ever since.
Most of the mission is spent on a walking tour of the dilapidated facility, listening to Jack recount her terrible treatment at the hands of Cerberus, but the climax happens when you meet an old test subject named Aresh who’s trying to resurrect the facility and continue its work. After deciding the fate of Aresh, Jack blows up the facility with a huge bomb and ostensibly closes the book on her past.
After the mission, Miranda and Jack end up getting into a fight: Jack wants Miranda to admit that Cerberus (which employs Miranda) was in the wrong, while Miranda claims that Jack’s erratic behavior and hatred of Cerberus is endangering your mission. You have to decide who to side with.
Here’s the clip of the argument:
Jack definitely has some real grievances against Cerberus, but Miranda has a point: Jack’s been carrying around this hatred of Cerberus for years, and has said multiple times that her desire for revenge outweighs her loyalty to your mission. The fact that she’s threatening Miranda (who had no hand in Jack’s human experimentation program) shows how much she’ll risk just to lash out at Cerberus—or anyone connected to them.
It’s a pretty compelling scene, but if you peel back the surface layer, this argument isn’t just about justice or pragmatism—it’s about two characters with chemistry. To understand where that chemistry comes from, you have to look at what makes these characters who they are.
A NOTE ON CHEMISTRY
People love to talk about the great “chemistry” between characters, but like “mise-en-scene” in film, the term has been used and abused so much that it’s started to lose all meaning. At its most basic level, I see ‘chemistry’ as an interesting dynamic between two characters that’s instantly graspable. However, it’s the multiple layers that create chemistry, not one single thing.
In Mass Effect 2, putting Jack and Miranda Lawson on the same crew creates tension: Miranda is coldly practical and eminently mission-focused, while Jack is chaotic and openly rebellious. Tension is good, but to really give these two characters chemistry, you have to look at why they do what they do.
To accomplish this, we’re going to take a look at a) the characters’ worldviews or personal philosophies and b) the internal contradictions at the heart of their characters. It’s the interplay between these elements that creates a compelling dynamic that goes beyond surface-level tension.
JACK AND MIRANDA’S WORLDVIEWS
If you speak to Miranda over the course of the game, you learn that she was genetically designed by her father to be a ‘perfect’ heir and kept isolated during her childhood so she could be carefully conditioned and trained. Miranda eventually escaped her father by running away and joining up with Cerberus, but still feels bitter about her origins. At one point, she questions whether her success really belongs to her, or to her father’s designs. Either way, Miranda still believes she’s objectively ‘better’ than most of the people around her, whether it’s physically, mentally, or otherwise. For her, it’s a scientific fact—you can’t argue with genetics, or the objective advantages her training gave to her.
Meanwhile, talking to Jack reveals that her misanthropic attitude and boiling undercurrent of rage comes from a childhood of abuse and an adulthood filled with betrayal, exploitation, and desperation among the galaxy’s drug addicts and criminals. For Jack, mistrusting others and serving her own interests is the only way she knows how to survive, and anyone who butts heads with her is likely to get a piece of the rage she keeps inside. The more you dig into her dialogue tree, however, the more you find that every time she’s trusted or opened up to someone, it’s ended up hurting her.
So, drawing on my previous descriptions and the descriptions above, you get a bit more depth to these characters: Miranda’s cold, driven, and arrogant surface traits are a result of her belief that her genetics make her better than everyone else. Jack’s hostility and rebellious attitude are defense mechanisms to keep her from being hurt or exploited again.
In fact, you can sum up both these characters’ worldviews in their own words:
Miranda: “I settle for nothing but the best.”
Translation: “I am the most valuable person here, and I deserve to be treated accordingly.”
Jack: “I figure, every time someone dies and it’s not me, my chances of survival go up.”
Translation: “Everyone is out to get me, so I better hurt them before they hurt me.”
One of the big things Alice LaPlante nails in her book Method and Madness (which, incidentally, was the textbook we used in my creative writing courses) is that complex characters are built on contradictions. Miranda defines herself by her superiority to others (her ‘worldview’), but the genetics that grant her that edge are also what remind her that she is not her own person—she is inescapably her ‘father’s daughter.’
Jack’s surface traits and worldview are based around control and cynicism, respectively: she flexes her powerful telekinetic powers to show that no one can tell her what to do, and she constantly asserts that everyone is out for their own gain. However, all of that power serves as a reassurance that she’ll never revert to the victimhood of her childhood, and her cynicism is meant to protect her from being hurt again. At heart, Jack’s aggressive attitude comes from fear.
You can see hints of these hidden dimensions through quotes, too:
Miranda: “What idiotic bunch of hormones thought that now would be a great time for love?”
Translation: “I view myself as a scientific object, because I was designed as one.”
Alternative Translation: “My façade of perfection is slipping, and a scientific view of myself offers a means to maintain control.”
Jack: “You know… you know what it’s like to think you’re alone… and then find out you’re not?”
Translation: “I’ve always viewed myself as being alone, because trusting others leads to
Alternative Translation: “I’m relieved there’s someone I can trust, but to trust means throwing
out everything that defines my life.”
Notice how there can be multiple readings of the same piece of dialogue, depending on how deep you want to go. This sheds some light on an important part of crafting characters, as well as demonstrates how well-written dialogue can work: everything should have more than one layer.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
So we’ve looked at Miranda and Jack from multiple levels now: we’ve looked at their surface traits, their external worldviews, and the contradictions within their personalities that give them complexity. Put very simply, Miranda’s personality is based around perfection, and Jack’s is based on victimhood, neither of which are healthy things. So let’s take a look at that argument. Here’s the video again:
With everything we know now, both characters’ actions and words take on a different dimension: at this point, Jack is close to escaping the grip of her past, but she still wants closure from Cerberus to make it real. Miranda is a Cerberus officer and her personality has rubbed Jack wrong from the start, so making her admit Cerberus was involved in something as morally repugnant as torturing kids would mean permanently staining Miranda’s façade of perfection and getting the closest thing to an official apology.
Even though Jack says she’s gotten over her past, she’s still thinking in her old terms: victimhood and revenge. Meanwhile, Miranda has become a symbol of everything that she’s spent her life hating: slick, clean-cut authority types who pretend to be better than the trust of us, but are really just better at getting away with their crimes.
Miranda, meanwhile, sees Jack not only as damaged goods, but as a living embodiment of everything she hates: Jack can’t control her emotions, flaunts her base desires, displays no tact or cleverness, and seems to embrace her imperfections as something to shove in people’s faces. Miranda even goes as far as calling Jack “a mistake,” implying that, in contrast to herself, Jack was a scientific project that failed to live up to its expectations.
In Miranda’s mind, even treating Jack as an equal probably seems like an affront, but admitting that Cerberus was at fault would mean Miranda would have to disparage the organization that gave her independence from her father. Even worse, apologizing to Jack would mean sympathizing with her opposite, even for a moment.
When it comes down to it, the facts of the argument don’t really matter—the argument is just the manifestation of two characters’ personalities clashing. To take it a step even further, it’s two characters’ self-images trying to maintain themselves: Jack is still holding onto the role of a vengeful victim, and Miranda is trying to maintain her role as an exemplar of perfection.
SO NOW WHAT DO YOU DO?
So, now you’re an expert on Miranda Lawson and Jack from Mass Effect 2. Where do you go from here? How do you design characters as complex as they are? It comes down to the three dimensions I outlined: surface traits, external worldview, and internal contradictions.
At the heart of every interesting, complex character is a contradiction (or several of them). It’s the imbalance that creates desires, weaknesses, and conflict. It also creates something to unearth or discover over the course of a story. Michael Corleone from The Godfather is complex due to the contradiction between the gentle, loving side of himself that he shows to his loved ones and the ruthless side of himself that can execute rival mafia bosses and view it as ‘business’.
The next layer is a character’s external worldview, which is usually a product of their inner contradictions. If the contradiction is the unconscious part of a person, then the worldview is the conscious part. It’s how characters try to make sense of themselves and their relationship to the world, usually by telling themselves stories or taking on roles. In the case of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, his worldview revolves around people’s perceptions of him as a dwarf: he’s always an outsider, a fool, and an embarrassment in the eyes of those around him, and his actions are built around subverting and fulfilling those expectations as it suits him.
Finally, there’s the surface traits. These are the product of the character’s worldview, but also secretly the manifestation of their inner contradictions. Batman is a pretty straightforward example of this: he fights crime dressed as a bat to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, but his vigilantism is the product of his trauma as a kid. His deep-seated contradiction is that as much good as he does to help other people, the person he’s really trying to help is himself.
If you want to boil some of the ideas into guidelines, here you go:
- Characters are constantly telling themselves internal stories about themselves, other people, and the world. These narratives shape the way they see reality. Figure out what internal stories define your characters.
One of Jack’s internal narratives is that everyone has a selfish ulterior motive for what they do. This shapes the way she sees people, even those who genuinely want to help her. Internal narratives help motivate characters, but they can also warp their perceptions and personalities. In Jack’s case, her deep-seated mistrust of others makes her lonely, which reinforces the feeling that she’s an outsider and maybe not worthy of affection in the first place. Understandably, this can create a vicious spiral in a character’s mind.
- When a character sees another character, they’re often seeing that character in relation to themselves. Figure out how characters compare themselves to one another, and how they relate to one another’s internal stories.
For example, Miranda perceives Jack as her opposite instead of her own person with her own story and experience. Miranda’s hatred for Jack comes from facing the embodiment of what she does not want to be, and this image is powerful enough to drive her side of the argument. Additionally, Miranda’s loyalty to Cerberus shapes who she is because Cerberus was the catalyst for her new, independent identity. In reality, it’s not Cerberus that Miranda is defending, it’s her self.
When you write characters, think of the comparisons they will draw between themselves and others, negative and positive, as well as how they fit into each other’s internal narratives.
- “There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you.”
This is a Philp K. Dick quote that I think reveals the nature of complex characters: every character has something they don’t want to face, because doing so would mean losing their sense of identity. For Miranda, it’s admitting that she’s not special or superior (saying the words “I’m not special” could fulfill the first part of Dick’s saying). For Jack, opening up to someone and making herself vulnerable is both the key to her destruction and salvation (the words “I trust you” or “I love you” might work for the second part of Dick’s saying).
My writing professor once said that a good way to think about crafting plots is to first identify your main character’s weakness, then apply pressure to that weakness over the course of the story until the character breaks, because it’s once they’ve “broken open” that they reveal something essential about themselves and the human condition.
That’s it for now. If you haven’t played Mass Effect 2, I recommend grabbing a cheap copy on Steam (or at least watching a walkthrough on YouTube). If you decide to romance Garrus, please write me an email explaining why.