A note on creating characters

I’m currently reading The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker.  On the whole it’s a very good book and although it has a few small things I didn’t like, the good parts far outweigh the few minor poor parts.

I’m in a section on Character Building and the authors mention that Tony Jordan, who has a number of excellent TV credits, concentrates on three things about the characters he creates.  The first is to think of something they would always do; the second, something they would never do; and the third is a paradox in their behaviour, attitudes or situation.

I’ve never been a real fan of creating long lists of characteristics, likes and dislikes, tastes and backstory, so this struck me as a great starting point for character development.  The paradox aspect, or characters with contradictions, is particularly important because this gives characters depth.

One thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with television, is how difficult it is to develop character contradictions – and therefore character depth – for games.  So many characters do little more than react to the action taking place in the environments and on the few occasions where the main character is given such depth the other characters are likely to fall down.

The issue we face, of course, is how we give the best character and story experience to the player without disrupting the flow of the gameplay.  There are times that we have to realise we cannot give the depth of The Killing in a high action title or fun platformer, but that shouldn’t stop us from putting in the best characters we can, even if we don’t get the opportunity to show off every aspect of those characters.  As creators we should always know far more about our characters than the audience because we never know when we might get the opportunity to reveal their true depth.

So create the rich characters with contradictions because you may get the chance for them to shine in your games in unexpected ways.  Sometimes those ways may be subtle and may only be picked up by a small percentage of players, but if the richness is there you can take pride in a job well done.

2 thoughts on “A note on creating characters

  1. Robert Walter says:

    “The issue we face, of course, is how we give the best character and story experience to the player without disrupting the flow of the gameplay.”

    Indeed, that’s the crux. And I really wonder if we can learn or even adapt much from non-interactive media to achieve that. Shouldn’t we rather focus more on how we can actively use gameplay mechanics and game logic to involve the player into the story.

    E.g., in Dark Souls, you play a nameless character that never speaks, no background given, you’re just there. Still, the story of the game is hidden in the things that is told to you by NPCs, by mysterious item descriptions, by in-game messages placed by other players, which only start to make more sense while you progress in the game, explore the world, choose distinct paths, re-visit locations you cleared before, join or abandon covenants which grant you specific powers, etc. pp. I never felt a relation to my character like, to John McClaine when watching Die Hard or Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but the character was more like a hull for me so that I can experience the adventure by myself.
    Whenever I play games like MGS or Uncharted, I feel more like an observer, and even if a game features different paths or ways to play it, like Mass Effect or DeusEx: Human Revolution, the Story the players experience is more or less the same, and it is presented to me by the game, instead of me exploring it by exploring the world.

    Which leads us to the best part: The story in DS unfolds individually by your play and choices. I never played a game where I was more enthusiastic to tell my friends what I experienced, what kind of monsters I battled, my strategies to win, the ambushes I encountered, and so on. So, in the end, Dark Souls let me, the player, become a storyteller, which was pretty cool.

    In contrast, I was shocked about the latest Zelda game, where basically someone always tell you “go there, press A” or “go there, swing your sword”. No exploration, no real interactive adventure … Very disappointing.

  2. Steve_Ince says:

    Robert, I think we can learn an awful lot from other media in relation to characters. Film, TV, books, etc. all do characters so well that we must learn those excellent qualities and methods. However, with games we have the additional aspect of working out how best to use that knowledge in a game context – what the gameplay/game style allows us to include or demands that we leave out.
    Games are so vastly different from each other, let alone other media, as your examples showed, so there is no single best approach to portraying game characters. Our knowledge of how to create characters is still applicable and desirable and there should be no right and wrong in the use of characters, providing it is done well in whatever style is chosen. for you this is Dark Souls, for others it will be Zelda, regardless of how much you dislike it. 🙂
    In one sense, building characters is like bricklaying. If the wall is well built it will stand on its own without falling down, regardless of how much we see of it or how it is dressed up in stucco cladding or hidden behind plaster-board and wallpaper.

Comments are closed.