Q: I've been thinking about character development a lot recently and was curious about your thoughts on the subject. How do you go about setting up your character? how do you infuse them with particular traits and ideals?
A: Oh, wow. I could talk all day and not fully answer this question. So today I'll talk about initial character setup, and follow up in the future with a discussion of character evolution.
I have two different approaches to character creation, depending on what stage of the creation process I'm at. With gamewriting, you're often asked to flesh out a mission or story that was started by somebody else. For example, on Guild Wars 2, the designers would often create events and then hand them off to the writers. So you'd be given something like this:
Three Pact soldiers are holding a waypoint against waves of Risen troops. If they fail, the waypoint is overrun by enemies and the soldiers return to starting base. If they succeed, they secure the waypoint and players can progress along the road to the next event series.
So you have a basic plot for how this event will play out. You also have a lot of larger concerns to consider: What's the mood of the map? What's appropriate behavior for this stage of the story? How much room for individuality is there? And of course, you have game considerations, too: What race should the soldiers be? What professions? What gender? Does it matter? What can I gain or lose with each of these choices? How much information do I have to relay? What will make it more interesting? Most of all, how can I make players care?
This is the point where I start building individual stories into the event. For example, maybe one of the soldiers is on her first mission. She's trying hard to be brave in front of her comrades, but she's not quite sure what she's doing and is terrified of letting them down. Maybe her comrades know this. Maybe one of them is trying to give her advice without being obvious about it. Maybe another soldier is sick to death of fighting and wants to go home. Maybe all three are on their last legs. I try to think of as many possibilities for these soldiers as I can. I consider all the combinations of these roles and how they will play out during the mission. Then I check them all with an eye for cliches and tropes. How many times have I seen this particular dynamic before? Is the green soldier just another "Kansas"-type? Does the relationship between them all feel tired, overdone? Is there any way to twist the tropes to make them fresh? Most important of all, does using a cliche here help in any way? Sometimes if an event is extremely complex or filled with unique lore elements, known character types can help ground the player. They provide a familiar framework into which the novel ideas and lore fit. An example of this is GW2's sylvari race. Their alien appearance and unusual story are rooted in Arthurian legends. The familiar and unfamiliar intertwined.
Once I know what my characters are, I work on who they are. The newbie soldier, for example, could express herself in a variety of ways. Some people show fear through fidgeting. Some are vocal. Some are paralyzed. What would she say? How would the others react? The conversation starts to form in my mind.
Once I have the basic character interactions down, I check them for two key points: information and entertainment. Am I conveying all the information the player needs to complete this mission and progress in the game? Am I conveying it in an interesting way? If I've done my job well, players care about what's at stake for the individual characters and want to help them win. Success!
However, this process is different if you're writing on a higher narrative level. When I am at an early stage of writing and still structuring the narrative. I write up a quick bio for essential characters. It contains basic information about their background, motivations, strengths and weaknesses, and how those traits might affect the story I'm trying to tell. For example, here are two NPC sketches for Murdered: Soul Suspect.
Themes: Rebirth and Redemption
Story Needs: Characters with some kind of vested interest in Ronan's death. They pursue the case through physical evidence and traditional methods as a foil to Ronan's supernatural research methods. One of them has interactions with Ronan that act as exposition for puzzles and solutions. One provides a source of conflict/obstacles to the investigation.
Detective assigned to Ronan's case. Early forties. Fit. A giant of a man, towering over everybody, impactful presence. NOT a gentle giant. He’s used to people judging him for his brawn, not his brains, and uses that to his advantage. Smart, but not book smart. Amicably divorced, but he still thinks romantically about his ex-wife. He’s been (work) partners with Rachel for two years.
Tom’s recently begun to question the work he’s doing. He joined the force to make a difference, but doesn’t feel like he does. He has strong ideals; there’s a way he thinks the world should be, but he’s seen enough to know that it’s not actually that way. He’s losing faith: “The bad guys are winning.” His doubts have affected his job performance; he’s been passed over for promotions. He often sticks Rachel with the drudgery of the investigation while he hares off after leads. The “leads” usually involve liquor, but Tom doesn’t have a drinking problem. Not yet. But Rachel is getting fed up.
With Ronan’s death, Tom finds his passion again. The investigation becomes his lifeline—his redemption—and he starts caring too much. His need to make things right with this investigation leads him into some ethical gray areas. He’s essentially a good guy, but he’s the kind of guy willing to do wrong if it’s for the right reasons. This makes him fight with Rachel.
His persistence with the case helps provide Ronan with vital clues when things would otherwise stall. By the end of the game, Tom must come to terms with his own inner darkness and moral ambiguity. He is “reborn,” becomes a whole man. He is able to make peace with his choices—personally and professionally. He’s able to get over his ex-wife and to accept more responsibility at work.
Personality beats: Dogged. Idealistic. Conflicted. Passionate.
Detective assigned to Ronan's case. Thirties. Average height, but seems tiny next to Tom. Ponytail. Two kids. Husband teaches high-school. His mom babysits the kids while they work, which causes great stress and guilt for Rachel. She’s bright, with a good sense of humor. Rachel became a cop because she loves solving puzzles, loves the details of the investigation. She can’t imagine any other career.
Rachel is objectively interested in Ronan’s case because of the challenge, but has no personal stake in it. She argues with Tom about his passion for the case and tries to talk him down from what she sees as an unhealthy and unproductive obsession. She ends up obstructing Tom’s investigation, and they have a falling out. She acts out of concern for him, though, and eventually that same concern brings her around to his point of view. She must choose whether or not to reveal some key evidence. Her decision to trust her partner and his instincts is a critical point in the storyline. The investigation would never reach its conclusion without her decision.
By the end of the game, she’s become more personally involved with the case—something she has always been afraid to do before. She’s always kept the victims at arm’s length and focused on the nuts and bolts of the investigation. Eventually, Rachel must confront the emotions she has suppressed about the cases she has handled and about her choices in life. She is able to let go of her guilt in both areas. Her willingness to give more of herself makes her a better cop. Her openness helps bring her family together, too, so they can start healing.
Personality beats: Guarded. Pragmatic. Efficient. Compassionate.
These rough outlines were never refined and never made it into the game, but you can see how they worked with the narrative themes and how they would affect (and be affected by) certain plot points. A character sketch like this is a jumping-off place. Many more traits will be added or changed as the story (or feedback) dictates.
One final note: I think it's fun to throw in unexpected details about the character, but they should be relevant. I know a designer who wrote up pointlessly elaborate bios for all his NPCS. Here's one: "Born in Shanghai to a prostitute mother. Inveterate gambler. Hates dogs. Speaks 7 languages." The NPC's role? Only one line: "Bad idea." None of that backstory is put to use. It's a waste.
The most important thing to remember when creating characters is that they need to be purposeful. They must serve the narrative in some way. Maybe they drive the plot forward; maybe they entertain during a low-point in the action. Maybe they help the game world feel more alive or provide background lore. Your characters drive your story.
Next time I'll talk about how to develop characters and what to do when they start conflicting with your narrative.