On Writing Characters For Your Game

You've done it. Your game design document is looking better now that you've read my first entry about writing for video games. The gameplay is looking sharp and it's about time to figure out this whole character thing people have been raving about.

Great! So I'll just drop in a gruff protagonist and...

No, hold up. No, no, no. Don't you do that.

But you said...

If you're going to show up here, it's not going to be to receive a blessing to do your best. I'm going to set you up with the necessary tools to make great characters. Look, it's no secret that video game characters haven't exactly reached the pinnacle of human dramatic achievement. And even our average characters have below average development. Think about the games you knew as a kid. Then, things you've played in the past three years.

There's been improvement, but have there been more than a handful of greatly written characters?

So what would I be doing wrong?

Nothing 'wrong'. It's frustratingly easy to fall into creating characters that are flat. It isn't as easy as filling in a checklist, dumping preset opinions onto a blank slate and hoping to get a great fictional icon in the end. Without proper planning, your fictional hero or villain will end up being created as one of the following three:

  1. A character ripped straight from another medium
  2. A trope-heavy character
  3. A character who doesn't change

In all three examples, the character fits a static mold forever trapped in either generic personality traits, boring monotony, or the shell of an existing fictional icon. Where does your character go from there? If all he/she does is remain the same person throughout the game, what is the point of the story?

So...my character has to grow up?

Right. The whole purpose of stories is to push an idea through to the recipient of the art. With characters and their arcs, your job as a writer is to create a character who learns a lesson you want the player to understand and believe in. In order to accomplish this, you must create characters that have depth.

Gotcha. But is there a checklist I can use for my characters?

*sigh* Yes, there fortunately is one. Although I said ticking off boxes is bad, there is something that'll sound like that which I use for my characters. The following system - Character Trees - comes from a fella known as Film Crit Hulk, a Hollywood screenwriter who laid out the groundwork for stories in his book, Screenwriting 101. Rather than a boring old checklist, this is a fleshed-out tool for developing a realistic, fictional person.

Note: I have added my own flavor to Hulk's template as a way to further help define characters. Those questions will be in italics. In most cases, I have found these questions give me some leg room when developing plot, as they create character histories for referencing.


Developing Your Character Tree

Developing your character to be a three-dimensional charmer instead of a two-dimensional wood board is as easy as answering the questions below.

Feet

  • What does your character look like?
  • Where does your character live?
  • What is their family history?
  • What is their social class?
  • What is their occupation?
  • Where have they gone on vacation?
  • Where are some of their favorite places?

GROIN

  • Who/what does your character desire?
  • What is their sexuality? Are they open about it?
  • What causes them to react on reflex? How do they act reflexively?
  • Who have they loved?
  • What demons/vices have they created for themselves?

HEART

  • Who/what does the person need? (Unlike the GROIN, they do not know this is what "completes" them)
  • What change do they need to undergo to complete their arc?
  • What lesson(s) do they have yet to learn?
  • How do they react to others?
  • What will absolutely never change about them?
    • What belief/love/trait do they hold onto from the beginning to end?

Note: Film Crit Hulk emphasizes how a character's GROIN and HEART conflict to create the personal arc. The character WANTS something that isn't good for them or is misguided and the NEED is what truly solves their inner conflict. When the HEART questions become answered by the events in the story, your character changes.

THROAT

  • How does your character sound? Include their accent & their volume.
  • How do they present themselves to others?
  • How do others see this presentation? What do they think of your character?
  • Does your character ramble, speak at a decent pace, or shy away from long conversation?
  • Who changes the way they speak/present themselves?
    • Does a parent's presence make them quiet?
    • Does a lover cause them to stammer?

LEFT CHEEK

The left cheek is described in Screenwriting 101 as the problem-solving aspect of the character. Their "practical" mind.

  • What is your character's intelligence?
  • How do they solve problems?
  • What is their level of education?

RIGHT CHEEK

The right cheek is a contrast to the left. It is the character's artistic side and their beliefs.

  • How does their artistic capacity manifest itself?
  • What is the character's morality?
  • What is their spirituality?
  • What is the character's belief in current affairs?
    • This matters more if political or social events matter in the story.
  • How has the character's beliefs changed in the past? Should they change?
  • Does any choice by the GROIN haunt his/her conscience?

CROWN

Now that the other sections are completed, you should be able to answer the ultimate question: Who is this character? What I like to do for the CROWN is write two to three paragraphs summarizing the character using the sections we've filled out above. This will give you a psych profile of sorts for this person and help you to understand what you want your story to do with/to them.


It may seem strenuous to do this for every person you create, but you don't have to answer all of them and you certainly don't have to provide complex answers. Side characters won't need that much detail and you may find similar answers between your heroes or villains that will speed up the process. 

For now, practice with these six sections and start building towards a stronger writing career.

If you want to learn more, look out for my next topic, Interview For A Character Position, to get further inside your character's head. See you next time!

- Johnny Toxin