Should You Make Your Main Character Customisable?

Writing a story on Episode is hard work. There are so many choices you have to make! One of these choices is how much control you give the readers over your main character (MC). Do you want the reader to be able to change as much as possible? Or do you have a clear idea of what your MC is supposed to look and act like? Since the start of INK, customisation (CC) has been a big part of Episode, and something that many readers demand on a regular basis. It makes sense to me! After all, who doesn’t want to see themselves doing cool stuff? I certainly do! But there’s something much more important: a good story. You need to ask yourself first and foremost if CC will suit the story you’re telling. Would it make your story better or will it take something away?

This is why I split the main characters (MCs) into two categories: reader characters and original characters. Granted, most stories don’t really fit this pattern, but still! It is a useful way of looking at your work and assessing if you should use CC options. Hopefully, this will help people who want to write stories in the future.

So what are they? Well, it’s fairly straightforward. Reader characters are characters that are designed to resemble and act like the reader. On the other hand, authors create original characters to fulfil their own personal vision. How does this distinction help? Well, that’s what I’m here for! By the end of this article, you should have a good understanding of MCs and how to adapt them for the story you’re telling.

The Reader Character

This is not to be confused with the audience surrogate, which is a plot device I’ll talk about at another point. As I mentioned before, the reader character is a stand-in for the person reading your story. They are supposed to act and look like your readers, so you’ll probably let them choose their name and look. For this character, you need to make sure you give the readers as many personality choices as possible.

reader character looking like reader
Photo by Tasha Kamrowski from Pexels

Reader characters are really common on Episode. Most people will beg for CC, even when it wouldn’t work in the story. I don’t blame them. Episode markets itself as an app where you can choose your story and make the MC look like you. It’s no wonder that CC is in such demand! But if you’re going to use CC options, it is good to use them properly. It is tempting to just throw CC into all of your stories to up your reads, but that’s not the solution! When you’re using CC, you need to keep in mind that it changes the tone of your story.

When is it useful?

These stories can be ones where the readers want to be in the MC’s position. If the world is interesting and you’d rather deal with the MC’s problems than your own? Perfect! Stories like that are great for escaping your problems and throwing yourself into a new world. This is especially true when the reader can relate to the MC’s situation. The reader character works extremely well for romance stories. That’s because most romance readers like to imagine themselves in the MC’s position. Being able to use CC on them to look like you makes that 100x easier.

Reader characters are also much easier to relate to. You can empathise with a character more when they look and act like you. Plus, situations that resemble real life (to some extent) help people to imagine themselves in the action more. So, a teenage fantasy story might use a reader character if it was set in a school or was about friends.

Of course, there are a bunch of other stories that work well. If you’ve wished you could be in some special position before, it’s likely that your readers would appreciate CC! I know most people have imagined being a princess or a celebrity. You can’t pretend you’ve never considered falling in love with a vampire, rockstar or bad boy. These all work very well with CC.

What to keep in mind?

The point of this character is to be as much like the reader as possible. That is important. Why? Well, because if they look like the reader but don’t act like them, that can get really frustrating. Why would I want to give the MC my name and face if they do things I don’t agree with? They’re supposed to be me, so I should get to choose how I behave! This means it is essential that you give your reader as many choices as possible.

Some people might complain about choices that don’t affect the story, but this is where they shine. If you let your readers decide how the MC acts, it makes them feel a lot more involved in the story. The MC tends to represent them a lot better and the reading experience feels a lot more personal. For example, when you introduce the bad boy, allow us to choose whether we hit on him straight away or make a sarcastic comment. This is an easy way to personalise the reading experience and make your audience feel in control of their character. The best part is: the story doesn’t need to change at all! If you have loads of these personal choices littered in a chapter, you’ll allow your readers to represent themselves, even if the choices don’t change much.

What are the pros?

I’ll be honest with you: CC sells. There are many readers on Episode who look for CC stories. In fact, some readers will read bad stories if they have CC options in them. It’s in demand and it will get you reads very quickly. If you want to get readers fast, CC is for you! There’s a reason why most featured stories use it! Plus, you won’t get any of those frustrating “will there be CC” fanmails that make you want to pull your hair out. Most people will be happy that they get to choose how the MC looks.

A story with a reader character takes a lot more coding to get right, but I’d recommend it to new writers. After all, you’ll most likely want to get some readers first. I can’t promise that you’ll get popularity, but I can say that it will be much easier for you to get the reads you want. You’re more likely to rank high and get noticed, which is a plus for anyone trying out the app for the first time. From there, your next story could always cut down on the CC if you want to! You’ll already have a loyal reader or two by then.

Once you’ve done all that CC coding, a reader character can be pretty low-maintenance. More honesty for you: people expect a lot more from a non-CC story. Why? Because if they can’t make MC look like them, there needs to be some amazing storyline to keep them hooked. With CC, the idea of being to place themselves in the MC’s shoes can be enough to keep them reading.

Plus, don’t worry about coding. @dara.amarie.ep on Instagram has you covered!

What are the cons?

Of course, you were expecting there to be negatives to CC characters. It sounds way too good to be true! If CC draws an audience in, to begin with, why even bother using original characters? Why, Shannii, would you go to so much effort to tell us that we need to consider both options? Well, CC isn’t all perfect. It comes with a lot of expectations and flaws: things you won’t have to deal with if you choose to stick to your own vision.

Diversity

Let’s get the most controversial one out of the way first: CC does not count as diversity. That’s right. You heard me! If you’re trying to be diverse, you’re in the wrong place. Well, of course, a CC story can be diverse, but adding the option to play as a POC character doesn’t count. If you’re looking for a diverse story, I hope you apply that to your supporting cast, too! I can’t force you to do that, of course, but CC is not a cheat for diversity.

Of course, there are other ways around this. In my story The Good Witch, I use limited CC because the MC, Sara, is supposed to be from the Land of Summer, where most people are brown-skinned. You’re stuck with a minority MC if you read my story, whether you like it or not! But one character isn’t enough to claim your story has diversity. Nope! It’s about the whole cast, not just the main character. While it is always going to be great to see an MC of a different race, class or sexuality than the usual stories, one person isn’t enough to pat yourself on the back.

And that’s if you even add limited CC in the first place! I have read way too many stories claiming to be diverse because they have full CC. That just doesn’t cut it, honey. If you’re trying to hit the diverse mark, you’re gonna have to find another way to do it! And I wish you good luck with that!

Characterisation

Now that we’ve covered the point that makes some people angry, let’s move on to something I’m sure you can all agree with. One of the biggest problems with reader characters is making them consistent. You spend all of this time giving your reader lots of choices to make them feel in control of their MC. Then, you find yourself stuck. How are you supposed to make this mess of choices into one believable character? It’s gonna be tricky to make it seem like all of the reactions have come from the same person. It’s gonna be even trickier to tie all of this back in so that the normal dialogue sounds natural no matter what you pick. This is a great skill that you’re going to have to develop over time, I’m afraid!

This really shows when you start messing with the big plot points: when you need the MC to do a certain thing in the story to keep the action going. Let’s take the beginning of The Queen of Freaks as an example. I want to give my readers the option to make Evanna (the MC) as sassy or shy as they’d like. I give them control over how she talks to other people. Great! But wait. Now I need Evanna to escape the palace to keep the plot moving. That’s pretty easy to do when she’s sassy and independent! That’s not the only choice I gave people, though. How do I make shy Evanna decide to disobey her father? It seems pretty out of character to me!

Well, the solution for me is often to just add more choices. Let the reader decide why she’s leaving the palace! Then it’s their fault if she acts really random. But that involves even more choices. Fun!

Plot

Ok, this is where it gets super hard. So you can’t blag diversity with CC, and it’s almost impossible to make your main character consistent. How the hell are you supposed to make a story from that? Your MC is in no state to carry the plot! They can barely carry their own personality, for Pete’s sake! It looks like you’re going to have to rely on someone, or something, else to make the story worth reading. That’s where the other characters come in. You need to have a very strong story idea, supporting cast and writing style to pull off the reader character well. Someone needs to do something to keep the story moving!

Unless you want to get into complex branching, acing a reader character story will mean either having a very short story or a very reactionary character… or both. If you can’t rely on your MC to act because their actions depend on the reader, it is down to the other characters and plot points to drive the story and make it interesting. The real issue is that this creates a character who doesn’t really do much in their own story. They seem weak. All of the action happens to them. They don’t do anything worthwhile. Don’t we have enough female characters like this on the app? It’s not a great image!

If your MC is inconsistent, they can’t act; they only react. So you need to make other people in the story interesting. The best way to change that is to make the choices make sense for the character you’ve made. But until you feel comfortable doing that, you’re gonna have to depend on other people to drive the plot.

Reader Retention

There’s nothing wrong with making your character CC. It will draw in lots of readers, which is why it attracts new writers so much. And while I said that people want to read CC stories more often, this doesn’t let you off the hook completely. You see, attracting the audience in the first place is only half of the struggle. Keeping them around is the other half, and it involves creating a story worthy of being read. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how useful CC can be for helping you establish yourself on Episode, but you can’t rely on it to make you popular.

The only thing that I can promise will keep the readers is making something that people want to read. That means being original, fun and good. CC isn’t going to make you a good writer! That’s all on you. So, if you’re only writing a reader character story to attract people and start making money on the app, you’re going about this the wrong way. If so, I can’t help you. Good for you, and I hope you find what you want. Just don’t come running back to me if it doesn’t work out for you. If you want to become a better Episode writer, stick around and I’ll see what I can do!

The Verdict

I still stand by my advice: CC is perfect for a new writer. CC is what most readers are looking for, so it opens you up to a much bigger audience than a non-CC story would. However, this needs to be paired with good writing, loads of choices and an original script to keep your reader retention score up. Reader retention is vital for competitions and lets the team know whether people like your story or not.

Reader characters are an important part of the Episode experience. They give people a lot of satisfaction because it’s the best way to escape your real life and pretend to be in a whole different world. Do yourself a favour and add a story or two to the growing library of great CC stories! Please do it well, though. Don’t just add CC wherever it suits you. Make it make sense.

The Original Character

As they can be as unique as you need them to be, the original character is a perfect way to write your most interesting story. Your non-CC character is your brain child. If they’re going to have to be interesting on their own, because they don’t have the promise of CC to keep people hooked. Your MC should therefore think and act for themselves and their character development should be clear. This is your chance to show your writing prowess! Flex your literary muscles and create something awesome.

Photo by Tayla Walsh from Pexels

When is it useful?

These MCs are perfect for any reader who wants to replace their usual novels with something a little more visual. In this day and age, books are going out of fashion, sadly. As awful as this might be, we have a chance, as Episode writers, to replace books with visual stories. The original character plays a huge role in that, since they’re the most like conventional MCs in books.

For the writers out there, I’d say that original characters shine when you use them in contests. To win, you need to make something different to stand out from the crowd. That means making stories that don’t follow the boring old tropes we’ve seen hundreds of times before: the bad boy, the evil queen, the damsel in distress. These are tropes that are really easy to fall into when you don’t have developed characters. When you don’t use CC on your MC, you’re going to have to depend on good characterisation to keep people hooked, and good characterisation means giving yourself the chance to turn the tropes into something fun.

If you want to make a story that doesn’t depend on the old tropes, breaking away from CC gives you the freedom you need to bend them into something new.

What are the pros?

The good thing about this is that readers will expect less choices. They’re right too! There’s less need for personality-based choices, so you can spend more of your time and energy on getting your story up to scratch. Your MC is your character, so they can act however you want. This means that there’s less room for inconsistencies and more room to explore them as the centre of the plot.

You’re not going to be stuck thinking about the hundreds of different ways in which your audience might respond to a situation. You’re not going to have to pack as many of these responses into the story as possible. Instead, you’ll be able to focus much more on making your character the one who pushes the plot forward and acts. A CC character’s actions rely on the audience’s choices, so it is hard to make these fit into a story without complex directing. An original character doesn’t have to deal with this. You can stand up and say that they act the way they do because they are them. You don’t have to worry about people telling you they didn’t feel represented in the choices.

If you’re someone who struggles to make your MC strong, trying an original character in your new story could be the solution. It wouldn’t be out of character for my head-strong Evanna to escape the palace because she’s my character and I decide how she acts. I don’t have to worry about readers who made her shy because they wouldn’t get that choice. That means I can rely on my MC’s personality to drive what happens in the plot, instead of having to turn to other characters. She’s proactive because I don’t have to worry about inconsistencies. Less reader choice means more character development.

What are the cons?

Say goodbye to a lot of reads! Many readers only pick stories with CC, so a non-CC MC is not going to do as well as its CC counterpart. Unless you win a competition, you will be forced to choose between a developed original character and a CC one that sells. That’s a hard choice to make, and I don’t blame you if it turns you off non-CC completely! You’ll avoid long coding, but at the expense of lots of readers. Is it worth it? That’s up to you! It’s not an easy one, and I’m not going to tell you which is right. It all depends on why you’re writing.

You won’t get to market your story as CC, so you’re going to have to work extra hard to make something good. Word of mouth will to be your best friend. You need to find those people who look for amazing stories and rely on them to promote you like mad. A lot of people aren’t going to read a non-CC story unless they’re sure it’s good! That’s not a fault with them, so getting bitter won’t help you. You need to choose your audience. People who see Episode as a game will want to use CC more. People who see it as a reading platform will be your key audience. Then, of course, you can get some of the people in between on board if your story is good and promoted well.

And then there are all of the fanmails. The wretched fanmails! When your story starts doing well, it feels amazing! That is until you see this for the first time:

“Please let me customise MC!!!”

“Can we customise LI?!?!”

“GIVE ME CC!!!!!!!!!!”

Gulp. You have to be pretty strong to take that. Good luck!

The Verdict

Use this if you’re writing about a sensitive subject. I cannot stress this enough! An original character in a story about something really sensitive is much more likely to be done well. You don’t want to risk romanticising something like an abusive relationship! Allowing your reader to place themselves in the action may seem like a great way to help them to empathise with the issue, but that’s not how it usually comes out. What often ends up happening is you accidentally make the situation seem fun and romantic. Giving them reaction choices runs the risk of letting them choose to accept the abuse. If you want to write about a hard subject, you need to be 100% in control of how your MC acts.

Other than that, I’d say that the original character gives you a lot more freedom to explore good character development and make your MC proactive. If you’re someone who cares about strong female characters like I do, proactive MCs are essential to your writing process. Doing an original character well is a blessing!

Other Options?

There are, of course, some other options for creating your characters. I know you’ve been thinking this from the start. No, I’m not trying to say that any developed character that offers CC options is wrong, nor am I saying all non-CC characters are more developed. This is just a great way to start! However, if you do want to include both CC and character development, I suggest using a chosen name instead of letting the reader decide. If you’re like me and you have a creative vision but also want to avoid the fanmail abuse, try adding gem choice CC options. There are many ways around this to create some distance between the MC and the reader.

I will discuss the middle grounds in a later post, though, so there’s nothing to worry about! At the moment, these are the two extremes. Once you’ve done these well, then I suggest broadening your horizons. For now, sticking to this guide is a great way to improve your story.

So Which is Better?

That’s really for you to decide. Ask yourself the following questions to see which character would suit:

  • Why are you writing the story?
  • Do you have a clear vision of what they look like?
  • Are they reactionary or proactive?
  • What makes them unique?

There’s no answer to which is better, but I think starting with a reader character will get you the reads. Once you have a loyal readership, you can try an original character because they’re more likely to read your story if they like what you already have.

Just do yourself a favour and think about why you’re giving CC or avoiding it. If you don’t have a reason, it might be time to think of one.

Happy writing!

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