February Character Studies - Lara Croft

Character studies are an excellent way to learn how to write convincing characters. This month, I'll be looking at some of my favourite videogame characters. The interactive quality of videogames allows you to go take the characters on the journey, much the same as you do when you write a book. Plus the visual nature of gaming is a great way to see how 'show, don't tell' can work effectively when you're bringing your readers into that character's world.

I'm starting with Lara Croft. While she was, and is, a compelling character, her reboots (yes, plural, there have been two) gave her new depth. Like our old friend James Bond, Lara had to be reclaimed from stale tropes and given new life. I'll therefore be separating the three main game incarnations of Lara into Original, Legend and Survivor. I find it quite interesting how they change up small details and yet keep the essence of Lara the same. Her development makes for a good writing exercise. There. Now you have a great reason to play all the Tomb Raider games. You're welcome!

And don't worry, there won't be any spoilers for Rise of the Tomb Raider. I haven't played it yet. I'll have to right an addendum once I have. There will be spoilers for the other games.

In 1996, we were introduced to Lara Croft, an adventurer unlike any other... Probably because she was such a rarity in gaming – a self-sufficient female lead. Lara was smart, capable, witty, independent and strong.

At least, that's how I saw her.

I recall very well how Lara was seen in the wider social context back in the 1990s. I'm not going to expand upon that too much here, but articles like Tomb Raider and the Riot-Grrl Feminism of the 90s or Lara Croft is Dead, Long Live Lara Croft are well worth reading. She's always been a feminist icon to me, but I understand now how Lara's body was used to promote Tomb Raider to a very particular set of gamers. However, I was a ten-year-old in 1996 and all I saw was awesomeness. I wanted to be her. I imagine most her female fans did. Unfortunately, the people making the game didn't seem to want Lara to be me. I highly doubt the company behind Tomb Raider were thinking of female players when they made Lara or created marketing campaigns. Although, to be fair to Toby Gard, Lara Croft's original designer, I don't think he wanted her to be seen in such a sexualised manner. Alas, over the course of the original series, Lara's design became increasingly sexualised, to the point that her 1996 model (see the first video below) was practically demure compared to her appearance in The Last Revelation. Is it a coincidence that the sexier she got, the worse the games became? Sorry, Core Design. You can't hide terrible game mechanics behind your titillating lead character. It took nearly twenty years and two reboots to reclaim Lara from the poster girl sexism of the 90s and early 2000s. I do believe this is reflected in her character development.

So, let's get started! 

Original Lara was fascinated with travel and far-flung locations. Innocent childhood curiosity matured into an inescapable need for adventure when Lara survived a plane crash in the Himalayas at the age of 21. She sought out one thrilling journey after the next, exploring long lost cultures and even putting a stop to Big Foot. She could handle herself, and she looked awesome while she did it. Oh, and she published articles based on her expeditions. She was perfect to ten-year-old me. Lara was the first time I saw a female character embody every heroic trope usually associated with men. Instant hero worship.


Original Lara's parents disowned her because of who she became. She was supposed to uphold upper class British traditions and marry well. Instead, she decided to live a life of adventure. The original games never really explored the impact of this on Lara, so there's not much you can say about it in terms of character development. Interestingly both of the reboots do explore Lara's family life, albeit from very different angles.

Unlike her later incarnations, the original Lara is rarely given plot points that show her being scared or vulnerable. It's not a bad thing - like I said, she's a female character given characteristics usually reserved for male action stars. But it doesn't give her a lot of depth. Beyond sighing when you heal her or screaming when she falls too far, both of which are gameplay rather than plot elements, you don't see much in the way of vulnerability. She is occasionally beaten by her enemies, but she always triumphs in the end - even after her apparent death at the end of the fourth game. We do meet her mentor (they have a pretty epic falling out), but we don't see her interact with others much. We just see how capable, strong and determined she is. There's no real exploration of why she's this way. She just is.

And, let me be clear, I was, and still am, totally fine with this. When it comes to 90s Lara, I'm still in my ten-year-old self's hero worship mode. However, as a writer, I can see the potential for so much more.

Lara rarely reacts to the awful things that happen around her with anything less than a snappy one-liner... which sounds cool but there was plenty of room for growth of a character who's already an action star in her own right. The only suggestion we get there may be a softer side to this Lara is her theme tune from Tomb Raider II.

I really love that piece of music. It's soft and mellow, a side to Lara we don't really get to see. Not in this incarnation.

Which brings us to the first Tomb Raider reboot. This is a great way for any writer to see how a character can be the same person even if you change her core motivations for her lifestyle. Legend takes Lara's backstory and tweaks it. A lot. Instead of crashing alone in the Himalayas in her twenties, she crashes there as a child with her mother. When searching for firewood, they stumble upon a bizarre altar with a strange sword sticking out of it. Lara touches it, unwittingly activating a portal to another world. Her mother saves her, only to disappear, leaving Lara alone.

Her mother's disappearance drives everything Lara does in this continuity. Regardless of how you feel about the games of this first reboot (Legend, Anniversary and Underworld), Lara definitely has more depth. She also has way more angst. Not only does she lose her mother, her father disappears when she's seventeen. He is presumed dead, and Lara's quest to find out what happened to her mother is also driven by her need to finish what her father began.

Anniversary is a remake of the 1996 original, and one scene always springs to mind when I think about how they redeveloped Lara's character. In the 1996 version, she reads the diary of a monk which takes her to St Francis' Folly. In Anniversary, it is her father's diary and his quest to discover what happened to his wife that leads Lara there. Both versions have her face off against fellow tomb raider, Pierre, but the conflict between them takes on a slightly different meaning when Lara's need to find her mother for the sake of herself and her lost father is why she's there. She's no longer merely racing Pierre to find the artifact, she has to beat him because it'll bring her one step closer to her mother. She's driven to these extremes out of childhood trauma and a sense of obligation to her father. However, she hasn't lost that adventurous spirit that made her so special in her original incarnation.

The Legend era Lara also has friends, and her relationships with them give her character new nuances. It also grounds her in reality in a way her original self lacked. Legend Lara comes from somewhere. In the original timeline, the only way to know anything about Lara's past until the fourth game was to read the first game's manual. In Legend, her past informs her present, and the people in her life are a part of that, too. Her butler is far more than comic relief (oh, come on, we all locked the old guy in the freezer in Tomb Raider II), and has clearly known her since she was very young. Lara also lives (or at least works with) two others. Zip provides technical support (he does exist in the original timeline, but he's far better utilised in Legend) and Alister provides extra research for the places Lara goes and the cultures she finds. Lara respects their skills and cares about them. Her interactions with them shows the witty, intelligent and caring aspects of her personality. We see how she can protect her friends, and the aftermath of when she fails. That failure reveals a colder side to her personality, one her friend Zip clearly struggles to deal with.

We also meet Lara's former friend Amanda in the Legend timeline. Lara thought Amanda had drowned in a ruin. Bitter and twisted after being abandoned, Amanda seeks her revenge. They are pitted against each other, and we see the regret and guilt Lara feels for leaving her friend behind. Not that it's enough to keep her from defending herself when Amanda attacks. This Lara isn't perfect, and both her obsession and her mistakes bring about serious consequences for herself and the people she cares about.

Tragedy follows Legend Lara in a way her original version never encountered. She drives herself to insane extremes, despite terrible losses and awful danger, because of the disappearance of her mother. The game never tells us explicitly that Lara blames herself for what happened to her mother, but it's all shown in her actions and her obsession.

At the end of Underworld, Lara finds what remains of her mother. The weight of it all literally drives Lara to her knees. The game never tells us exactly what happened to Amelia Croft, but what we do see is nothing good. The poor woman was trapped and alone in a freezing temple with no way out, surrounded by awful monsters. It's a huge reality to confront after a lifetime of not knowing. It takes all of Lara's strength to finally end the quest that began in her childhood. With the monsters defeated, Lara walks away from her mother's final resting place.

Sadly, we never got to see Lara coming to terms with discovering what happened to her mother and moving on with her life. Although Legend Lara's adventures continue in Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, she's becomes more like her original self as she resumes a more generic action heroine role. She's also more like her original incarnations physical self, too. Yeah, a big problem with this first reboot is it really didn't do anything to limit Lara being seen as a sex symbol. The entirety of the Japan level in Legend and the, ah, wetsuit in Underword are proof enough. I mean, who needs a bra, right? Those things just hold themselves up. Sadly, while Legend Lara has deeper characterisation, her designers frequently objectify her. I choose to see Lara being so comfortable with herself, she'll wear whatever she damn well pleases. I know this isn't the mindset she was designed with.

Further character development can be found in the amazing 2013 reboot. If you want to read more about the technical and writing development of Lara herself, I recommend reading this interview with the game's writer, Rhianna Pratchett.

Like her original 90s incarnation, this Lara is twenty-one when she finds herself thrown into a survival situation. Shipwrecked on the long lost island of Yamatai, Lara must not only survive wild weather, but also a terrifying and murderous cult.

The Survivor era Lara might seem more vulnerable compared to her previous selves, and she's frequently scared and lost, but she's every bit as capable. You can believe she'll become that capable, self-assured person we've known for so long because she's so determined and so intelligent. Survivor Lara's strong and athletic and she uses whatever she can get her hands on to help her survive. Her fierce independence means the men on the island trying to slaughter her don't stand a chance. And every step of the way we see what keeps her going. She tells herself "I can do this." At first it's a way of psyching herself up for something. Later, she doesn't have to say it aloud because she knows she can and will do what she must.

Lara has friends she loves and fights for. Her bonds with others really serve to humanise her. She has Roth, her mentor, who taught her everything she knows, and her best friend, Sam, who believes in her even when Lara doubts herself. Even with the horror she encounters and the awful things she has to do to survive, Lara never shuts herself off completely from the other people in her life. As with Legend Lara, I feel like Survivor Lara had a life before the game's storyline because of her connection to others. However, unlike her Legend counterpart, it doesn't feel like this Lara's life was one dominated by anguish. Take her friendship with Sam. It isn't based on what Sam can offer Lara in the way of technical or academic support but genuine love and respect.

And yes, how much they love each other is definitely open to interpretation.

One thing all three incarnations of Lara have in common is ruthlessness. Lara puts everything aside and does what must be done in order to survive. What does it take to drive someone to be so merciless? Original Lara doesn't even blink or hesitate to mow down her enemies. We do see Legend Lara have a brief freak out after her first kill in Anniversary, but then she just kills everyone who gets in her way. She even threatens to "put down" her friend Zip when he raises a gun at her. That's pretty harsh! Survivor Lara goes from apologising to the deer she had to kill and eat to survive and weeping in horror over her first kill, to BELLOWING the Best. Line. EVER. Ohmigosh I love that bit so much. Lara will have her revenge, and now we know what it takes to drive her to such murderous extremes. It's part of what makes her so compelling. She goes through hell, but she just keeps fighting. We might see Lara's vulnerability, but she's more than capable of protecting herself and making incredibly hard choices. There's no wonder this Lara is referred to as the Survivor. 

The 2013 game shows us how the physical and mental toll of survival forges Lara into the character we've always known. At the end of the game, Lara's belief in herself is unshakable. She's ready to take on her father's legacy and solve the mysteries of the world. She's lost her naivete, but she's discovered her own deepest strengths. Remember how I said ten-year-old me wanted to be Lara? Survivor Lara is a Lara I can be. She's a real inspiration to me.

Lara Croft has always been a strong female character, but over the years that strength has taken on a lot of new dimensions. And, yes, I believe a huge part of that development relied upon the writers and designers accepting Lara had to be more than a sex object. Survivor Lara is the feminist icon we wanted her to be back in 1996. Lara feels like a real person, and it makes us that much more invested in her story. From a writer's perspective, Lara Croft's development over the past twenty years is a great example of how you can take an interesting, albeit flat character and make her something truly special. Could be useful for anyone updating or modernising a classic.

Next week, I'll be using Nathan Drake of the Uncharted series to show how you can develop a character across a series. I'll also be doing my damnedest to not spend the whole essay comparing him to Lara...


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