February Character Studies - Nathan Drake

After looking at Lara Croft last week, it kinda makes sense to look at Nathan Drake this week. The two games and their main protagonists are, on a surface level at least, pretty similar. Not that I'm going to compare the two. I want to, but I won't. I wanted to look at Nate because he definitely becomes a more engaging character as the games go on. I think he'll make a great character study for anyone looking to develop characters across a series of interconnected stories.

I'm basing everything on the three main games, so I won't be including the Vita game or any of the other various spin offs.

Also, spoilers. It's really impossible to talk about Nate without getting into specifics, so I will be spoiling Uncharted 3 here. It's my favourite in the series, and it's the one that really changed how I looked at his character. 

What can Nathan Drake teach a writer about creating a character whose development will carry over an entire series? That a little foreshadowing and a lot of development can go a looooong way to making a meh character a really good one.

Thanks, GameTrailers, for the perfect gif to sum up Nate in a single image.

I was not keen on Nate to begin with. At first glance, he's little more than your stock action hero type. However, there is a hint of something deeper to his character in the first game. They tweaked him a little in the second game, and by the end of the third game, I think he's a really engaging character. Why? Turns out the guy we think we know isn't who he says he is at all. He's kind of an unreliable narrator, but I'm not going to get into that too much today. However, the revelation that he's got a lot going on below the surface makes him far more interesting. I can't wait to see how all that hard earned maturity pans out in the fourth game.


When we first meet Nate in the original game, he's cocky, self-assured, smart, athletic, accident prone and pretty much the same as any other generic male action hero... But there is a bit more to him than that. He's quite the intellectual. He can read Latin and sixteenth century Spanish, and speaks a handful of other languages. He knows a lot about the places he visits and the cultures that built them, indicating he studies a lot. He's also an artist. No one ever really comments on his journal, but there's a lot of Nate in them in a brilliant use of show, don't tell. Here's a few screenshots (source):

I know a visual medium can make very easy use of show, don't tell, but it's not impossible to do the same in a novel. You don't have to have a character use a journal to spell out their innermost secrets. You can use it to reveal a different aspect of their personality - their intelligence, sense of humour, and even their sentimentality.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Nate's a great example of how a light dash of foreshadowing goes a long, long way. There's actually a little something I completely missed right at the beginning of the original game that we don't get an answer to until midway through the third game. After Nate and Elena find Sir Francis Drake's coffin at the bottom of the sea and bring it back to their boat, Elena points out that Sir Francis Drake never had any children, so how can he be Nate's ancestor? Nate deflects the accusation pretty easily, and the game moves on. It kinda crops up again later when he tells Elena that the ring he wears around his neck was something he inherited from Sir Francis Drake, but we don't learn more about how he came by it until the third game. Sully raises the same issue about Sir Francis Drake with a fifteen-year-old Nate, right after Nate's successfully stolen his "ancestor's" ring from a museum in Cartagena. If you want to develop a character slowly over a series of books, looking at how tiny details of Nate's past are peppered across the games is a great way to see how foreshadowing offers your reader tantalising hints.Especially if you're not going to really delve into their past until later in the series.

And speaking of tantalising hints, I'll get back to the issue of Nate's past in a while. For now, let's finish off the basics.

Nate's not a total lost cause in the first game. He clearly likes and respects Elena's ability to take care of herself. She is genuinely better at it than he is. She's every bit as smart as him, and her determination to get a good story forces Nate to carry on when he'd rather give up. There's a moment when he wants to quit and give up his quest to find el Dorado. Granted, this is probably due to being shot at and thinking his best friend, Sully, is dead, but still. He tries to pretend he wants to give up to protect her. When Elena tells him not to use her as an excuse, he admits he wants to quit because he doesn't think what they're doing is worth dying for. It's interesting because that's not what your average heroic character does. They don't give up when things get tough. Lara's the perfect example of that. However, when things aren't going well, Nate's pretty eager to give up. He does it in the first and second games. It's a very human response; he's been through hell (especially in the second game), he's hit his limits, and as far as he's concerned, there's nothing left in these treasure hunts for him. Nate's a bit shallow. He's in it for the money. And if the going gets too hard, well, he can move onto the next job. Therefore it's a good thing Elena tends to be there to shout him into doing the right thing. He just needs the right encouragement.

So, Nate's not always a stereotypical action hero. But who says the only interesting characters are the unfailingly heroic ones? If anything, characters that are unfailing perfect get pretty dull.

The other person central to Nate's life is Victory "Sully" Sullivan. To put it simply, Sully is the only father Nate's ever really had, and the relationship between them is one of the best parts of the series. It also gives Nate more depth. He worries about Sully, and for all he teases him about being old, he really doesn't like it when Sully reminds him just how big the age gap between them is. Oh, and Nate calls him "Sullivan" when he's worried about him. Aw, cute. Sully, despite being a bit of a rogue, is Nate's voice of reason. He's the one who reminds Nate that a little caution would go a long way, especially in the third game when, instead of stopping when things get dangerous, Nate only becomes more determined to succeed.

Which takes me back to something I brought up earlier - Nate's willingness to quit. Yes, Nate's occasional bouts of cowardice make a more well rounded. character, but there's more to it than that. He's willing to quit when the only outcome is money - although more often than not Elena will force him to see things through. Only when Nate is deeply and personally motivated to do something will he see it through. It's why his actions in the third game are such a contrast to the previous games. Instead of him giving up and being talked into carrying on, his friends can't wrap their heads around why he won't stop. Well, except Sully, but he's desperately trying to make Nate stop before he gets himself and everyone else involved killed. What does it take to get Nate so interested in something he won't give up? Turns out its a mystery he's wanted to solve since childhood. Remember that tantalising hint I mentioned earlier? This is what it was leading to. As we know, Nate always always always claims he's related to Sir Francis Drake and intends to reclaim his family's legacy. Actually, it's all part of his attempt to escape his reality. His name isn't even Drake. We find out that his mother committed suicide when he was very young, and his father gave him up when he was five because he couldn't cope. Nate tells Sully that he lived with nuns, and that Sully calling it a "boarding school" was a "nice word for it". The game doesn't need to tell us exactly what happened to Nate when he was a child. The suggestions are enough to leave the rest to the imagination.... or perhaps the fourth game. It's a great example of why you don't need to use massive infodumps to tell your readers everything about your main character. All you need are a few hints here and there.

Nate is shown to be vulnerable, another thing not always shown with male action heroes. I think it's essential to show that male characters don't have to be unfailing strong when their facing tough ordeals. It's something the YA market could use more of, don't you think? With Nate, it can be subtle - like him not wanting to confront what the age gap between him and Sully really means. See how he dodges the issue. We also see him confront the consequences of involving his friends in his various pursuits. Other times, those vulnerabilities aren't even vaguely subtle. The entire opening of the second game shows us how he has to escape a wrecked train atop a snowy mountain, and even the gameplay shows how much every movement hurts. The third game takes it one step further by linking it to Nate's refusal to quit. He not only survives a shipwreck, he goes on to walk through a desert for days with no water, and he still doesn't give up. He keeps picking himself up without prompting from another person. In fact, he does it while other people are telling him to stop before it's too late. That's a big change for Nate. It took us three games to reach this point. Granted, you could condense this kind of character development into a single book, but it would be interesting to spread it over a series. It can take years for a character to really change from the person introduced at the very beginning. That's one of the benefits of writing a series. Your character can age and grow in a really realistic way.

Yes, Nathan Drake can be viewed as little more than a stock action hero, but there is more to him. You don't have to look too deeply to see his character development in action - and you can do the same for your own heroic, main characters. You don't need to give us every scrap of tragic backstory. You don't need them to always do the right thing. It's okay for them to need and rely upon others. It's even okay for them to be shallow and cowardly. With a few hints sprinkled here and there and a handful of good relationships, you can create an engaging character arc for what may, at first, seem to be another stereotypical hero.

But, like Lara Croft, Nathan Drake had more than one game to develop his character through. What if a character only belongs in one story? Will there be time to develop them without interrupting the story's pacing? Guess we'll have to see next week...


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